Gail Asper: The story behind the most ambitious Jewish museum

Gail Asper (File photo)

Gail Asper was the driving force behind the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. Now, she and the Asper Foundation (which was founded by her late parents, Israel and Babs Asper) are putting their money, their team and their expertise into an even more ambitious project – the creation of a new museum in Tel Aviv that will celebrate the contributions of the Jewish people in every conceivable field throughout history.

What was your motivation for creating the World’s Jewish Museum?

I was tired of only reading about Jewish contributions in emails and wanted to experience them in a world-class museum setting. I realized that such a place didn’t exist.

This was actually an idea that my dad and I talked about shortly before he passed away in 2002, but at that time, we had our hands full with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. My father was an entrepreneur, a proud Jew, a Zionist and an optimist. If he were still alive, he would want to build this museum.

While Yad Vashem and the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., are outstanding museums, which we at The Asper Foundation support wholeheartedly, they focus on Jews as victims. We can’t be defined only by the Holocaust.

The Jewish people have made major contributions to civilization throughout our long history. Wherever we have been able to live freely, we have enriched those societies in many ways and they, in turn, have enriched us. Up to 80 per cent of Jewish philanthropy in Canada, for example, goes toward the general society as a whole, through support for hospitals and universities and other institutions.

And the museums that do celebrate Jewish contributions to society are narrow in scope.

With the World’s Jewish Museum, we aim to create a world-class experience that celebrates our contributions and the impact that we have had on the world throughout the ages. Israel itself is a perfect example of Jewish ingenuity and what we offer the world.

We are hoping to create a new paradigm. We hope that this museum will inspire the next generation to embrace their Jewish identity.

How much is the World’s Jewish Museum going to cost?

We are estimating that the cost will be around $400 million.

How will you raise the rest of the money?

The Asper Foundation will be contributing $25 million and I personally have pledged $5 million. We already have over $125 million in pledges, including our own contributions.

This year will be our big push. We have a small staff in Israel and people in L.A., New York and Winnipeg. We have been in touch with potential donors from all over the world. This is an international fundraising effort.


Tell us about your due diligence.

Before we took any action, we hired international management consulting firm McKinsey and Company in Israel to do an extensive study. We wanted to know what people thought of the idea, what it would cost, where we should locate the museum and if people would come. McKinsey determined that the museum was indeed filling a void and, if done well, would draw over 850,000 visitors a year.

Why was Tel Aviv chosen instead of Jerusalem as the site for the museum?

In 2011, my mother, Moe Levy and I, along with Antoine Predock (the architect who designed the Canadian Museum for Human Rights) and Ralph Applebaum (one of the world’s preeminent designers of museum exhibits) went to Israel to look at different sites. We later followed up with the McKinsey study, which categorically confirmed that the museum should be in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem already has several world-class museums, with more on the way. Given Tel Aviv’s size, our studies showed that it could accommodate another major museum.

Tel Aviv city council voted unanimously to give us this fabulous parcel of land – 2.5 hectares – on Hayarkon Street, just a few blocks from the new port.

And Frank Gehry, one of the world’s best-known architects, is going to design the museum.

I am a huge fan of Gehry’s and I see what his cultural projects have done for communities. We got Frank Gehry on board by luck. I was attending a Hebrew University board of governors meeting. There was a lady, Patty Glaser, sitting beside me who was to receive an honorary doctorate. She saw my World’s Jewish Museum material. She is Gehry’s lawyer and said that he just had to design the museum. Moe Levy was in Los Angeles the next week to meet with him. Our museum, if we are successful, will be the first building that he has ever worked on in Israel.

Can you describe how the museum exhibits will be presented?

There will be a number of pavilions focusing on the Land of Israel, as well as the ideas, main themes and impact of the Bible: creativity (the performing arts, comedy, literature, music, design, journalism); science and inquiry; philosophy, education, politics and law; enterprise; tzedakah and tikun olam; and the survivor generation.

There will also be an area for children, incorporating interactive play, arts and crafts, hands-on science and music, and performing arts.

The museum will have six levels and also include an auditorium, classroom space, an observatory and a restaurant and bar.

When do you expect the museum to be completed?

We are aiming for 2023, coinciding with Israel’s 75th birthday.

How can readers contribute to the project?

People can go to our website,, or just call Moe or me at The Asper Foundation. No gift is too large or too small and all gifts matter.

We have a great story to tell and it’s time it was properly told.


This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.