The sudden death of Mark Mendelson, one of the most successful fundraisers in Canada for Israel-based institutions, has shocked the Jewish community.
Mendelson was 73 when he died in Montreal on Nov. 14, but still fulfilling as enthusiastically and effectively as ever his role as CEO of Ben-Gurion University Canada (formerly the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University).
He held that position for the past 12 years and was previously executive director of the Jewish National Fund for Eastern Canada for 17 years.
Mendelson was a larger than life figure—physically and in personality—who lit up a room. Recognizable for his signature navy blazer and moustache, he was ebullient and convivial, loved good food and wine, art and entertaining. His skill at cooking is mentioned by all who knew him. Foremost, Mendelson was a family man, taking tremendous pride in his children.
He put this energy and creativity to work for BGU Canada, expanding its presence across the country and increasing the amount of money raised. He reported to supporters recently that the organization had had a record financial year—and this despite the limitations of a pandemic.
Although he came to it relatively late, Mendelson earned a reputation as a consummate Jewish community professional and a stellar ambassador for Israel.
After a BA in psychology from McGill University, Mendelson received a MSW at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He then made aliyah and served in the Israel Defense Forces as a paratrooper.
He worked as a psychologist in the air force, where he was promoted to major, and was a spokesperson for the IDF.
After his military service, Mendelson went into the delicatessen business and, back in Montreal, ran a popular bagel bakery on Queen Mary Road.
He then found his true calling serving the Jewish community, first with JNF for which he organized memorable galas and brought in teens through annual Tu b’Shevat telethons.
Making BGU, Israel’s youngest university in the developing Negev Desert, better known in Canada turned into a true mission for Mendelson, and his zeal for the cause only burned brighter over the years.
In a recent message he wrote, “I firmly believe that we at BGU Canada represent Israel’s finest and most dynamic university, Israel’s Nation Building University, and I truly am convinced of the almost ‘holiness’ of our mission: to help raise funds to support the cutting-edge research being conducted at BGU, as well as to provide scholarship money for the thousands of students who need it…
“As Israel’s fastest-growing university with over 20,000 students presently enrolled, I know that it’s just a matter of time until Nobel Prize winners will hail from BGU.”
Last year, the Azrieli Foundation donated $15.6 million to the National Autism Research Centre of Israel, which brings together scientists from BGU and Soroka University Medical Centre.
In his September videotaped message, Mendelson spoke of looking forward to another banner year.
Said BGU Canada national president Jack Altman: “Mark and I worked closely together and I witnessed firsthand the miracle he achieved by building BGU into the most successful Israeli-based nonprofit in Canada through his leadership and hard work. Mark always went out of his way to look after everyone. He just knew how to make everyone feel good. A genuine mensch, there are not enough superlatives to describe Mark.”
BGU Montreal president Peggi Cohen Rabinovitch commented: “Mark was someone whose sun rose and set on his adored and adoring family. Mark made a family, too, out of everyone who entered his Ben-Gurion orbit, leading the way with panache and pride. The impressive things he accomplished, always looking for another challenge to take things a step higher, exhorting us all to bigger things, Mark was an inspirational figure who lived a full and mentschlekh life.”
Similarly, Wendy Spatzner remembers: “His true love for the Jewish people, its causes and its land, was apparent to all who knew him. His ability to bring people on board for all his causes was a result of his enthusiasm and sincere devotion to better our world. While I was the president of JNF Montreal he was my friend, mentor, and supporter.”
Mendelson is survived by his wife Edna; daughter Omer and son Noam, and grandson Aaron.