Joseph Lebovic transformed Toronto as a real estate developer and philanthropist

Joseph Lebovic at the opening of the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Campus in York Region

Joseph Lebovic, a Holocaust survivor who, with his brother, Wolf, made transformative changes to Toronto as visionary real estate developers and philanthropists, died on May 1. He was 91.

Born in Czechoslovakia, Lebovic and his family moved to Hungary before the start of the Second World War when the boys were in their teens. In 1944, the Nazis invaded and the brothers fled Budapest’s Jewish ghetto. They survived, according to one account, using bribes and concealed identities.

After the war, Joseph studied economics and theology at London University before immigrating to Canada in 1949 with his father and Wolf, where they established a lumber business in Sudbury, Ont.

With their father, the hard-working and ambitious siblings went on to establish Lebovic Enterprises, a building and development company that would go on to win many design and architectural awards. Joseph served three terms as president of the Urban Development Institute, twice in Ontario and once nationally.

In 2000, Joseph gave the lead gift to UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Jewish Community Campus. Where others may have seen only empty fields, the Lebovics saw an opportunity to improve life for the Jewish community north of Steeles Avenue. Located in York Region, the campus is home to a network of health, fitness and social service agencies.

“Anyone who knew Joe knew what a mercurial force he was,” said Ted Sokolsky, president and CEO of UJA Federation from 2004 to 2014, who worked with the Lebovics on UJA’s Tomorrow Campaign and its creation of the eponymous campus which opened in 2012.

“But personally, I will never forget his and Wolf’s generosity and vision in backing us when they stepped forward with a bold lead gift to create the community campus. Then it was a field. Today it’s the vibrant hub of a 60,000-strong new Jewish community.

“Very few would have ever come up with that kind of gift 21 years ago – a gift that was a game-changer for our community,” Sokolsky said.

He recalled Lebovic as “a very special individual, one of a kind. My best memories were seeing Joe relaxing on his beloved boat, La Perla, moored in Ft. Lauderdale each winter, listening to his stories while he sipped his Johnny Walker Blue.”

The Lebovic brothers, both recipients of the Order of Canada in 2019, will also be remembered by those connected to Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital where, in 2006, the duo donated $50 million, the largest gift made to a Canadian hospital at that time.

Joseph was one of Mount Sinai’s “most loyal and generous supporters, serving on our board of directors for many years, and supporting the evolution and growth of the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Health Complex,” Peter Cohen, chair of Sinai Health’s board of directors, said in a statement.

A powerful experience for Adam Minsky, president and CEO of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, was joining Lebovic on a UJA mission to Hungary.

“As we walked through the streets of Budapest, he shared stories about his childhood and how his early experiences instilled in him a deep connection to the Jewish people and an appreciation of the interconnectedness of global Jewry,” Minsky recalled. “Joe was very passionate about helping young Jewish people around the world, particularly in Israel and Hungary, but more than that, he wanted to make the Jewish community and broader Canadian society a better place for all.”

Lebovic served on numerous community boards and executive committees, including those of Scarborough Centenary Hospital, Scarborough General Hospital, Markham Stouffville Hospital, and the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care.

In the Jewish community, he served as secretary and treasurer of Ner Israel Yeshiva College for more than 20 years and was an active member of the executive board of directors of the United Jewish Appeal, State of Israel Bonds and JNF, and was on the board of governors of B’nai Brith Canada.

“Joe was a complicated tough guy with an exterior that could be difficult in business and in the community, but inside he had a warm heart, could be lots of fun and was devoted to making this a better world,” remembered Ronnie Appleby, a friend for some 40 years.

“Coming first, always for Joe, was the Jewish community in Israel, Canada and in Hungary. Then came the rest of the world.”

The two once went to Israel and Poland on an adult March of the Living trip.

“At Auschwitz he cried and told me that so many of his relatives had been murdered there,” Appleby said. “Joe was sincere in his desire to make the world the best it could be for the Jewish community and for everyone.”

Joseph Lebovic was buried in Israel.