Sylvan Adams says $100 million gift to Ben-Gurion University, his largest yet, marks pivot in giving

Canadian-Israeli businessman and philanthropist tells eJP that the university will decide how to use the donation, but with a priority on boosting the climate change-focused Sde Boker campus

Sylvan Adams, the Canadian-Israeli real estate mogul and philanthropist, donated $100 million to Ben-Gurion University in southern Israel last week, his largest single charitable contribution ever, which he told eJewishPhilanthropy will hopefully benefit the university, the region, the country and the planet.

Though the gift was largely left up to the university to decide how to allocate, Adams and BGU reached an “understanding” that a significant portion of it would go toward the university’s Sde Boker campus, the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, which houses graduate-level programs focus on desertification, environmental studies, water management and other climate sciences.

“Climate change, desertification, water management, the sustainability of our planet. This is the biggest planetary challenge that the entire world is facing today. And we’re going to solve it because this is what we [Jews] do. We’re going to solve it,” Adams told eJP. “And I’m confident that amazing solutions will come out of BGU to benefit the entire world.”

Adams said his decision to donate the $100 million to the university, which he’s been involved with as a donor for years, came as a direct result of the Oct. 7 attacks in southern Israel, in which Hamas terrorists killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, injured thousands more, destroyed entire communities and kidnapped over 240 people to Gaza, roughly half of whom remain in captivity.

Among the victims were more than 80 members of the BGU community. “Our students, staff and faculty persevered in the face of one of our country’s darkest moments. This gift comes at the perfect time for renewal,” Mitchell Oelbaum, president of the Canadian fundraising arm of BGU — Ben-Gurion University Canada — said in a statement.

“[Hamas] perpetrated the worst attack, the worst day of Jewish deaths since the Holocaust,” Adams said. “So this enormous donation, this enormous investment in the south, specifically in the education of our youth who are the future, is my answer to Oct. 7 — to tell everyone, our enemies, our friends and the whole world, that we are here to stay. And I am investing serious money to emphasize that point.”

Adams said that this donation also marks a shift in his philanthropic strategy, which in the past focused on showcasing the “beautiful” and “normal” side of Israel.

This included bringing the 2018 Giro d’Italia bicycle race to Israel and creating Tel Aviv’s Sylvan Adams National Velodrome (Adams is a major cycling buff), paying for Madonna to perform at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Israel, as well as funding the Save a Child’s Heart nonprofit, which brings children from around the world, including from Gaza, to Israel for life-saving heart surgery at the children’s hospital named for him in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon. (Adams has also made large donations to Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center, more commonly known as Ichilov Hospital, which contains the Sylvan Adams Emergency Hospital.)

“[Those projects] were trying to show a normal benevolent face of Israel. But after Oct. 7 and now the war in Gaza, there is no ‘normal.’ So I guess I’ll be having to put those projects on hold until ‘normal’ returns and we can go back to showing our sunny face,” Adams said. “But right now, we are in a period of grieving. We’re in a period of war. We have to win a war. We may have to win a second war in the north. And so I will shift my attention to projects to strengthen Israel because of my deep patriotism, my Zionism and my love for, for our countrymen and my love for all of the Jewish people.”

BGU President Daniel Chamovitz said in a statement the university is “profoundly grateful to the Sylvan Adams Family Foundation” for the donation.

“This gift will help guide the way forward for our community as we look to rebuild an even stronger Negev, together. We enter this next stage with a focus on six key areas of impact, among them: the future of the Negev and Israel; technologies for the future; climate change; sustainability and the environment; and global health,” Chamovitz said.

Adams has maintained a relationship with BGU for several years. He serves on its board of governors and funded construction of the Sylvan Adams Sports Center at the university, which opened in August. Last year, the university awarded him an honorary doctorate. 

“That was a nice project, a big project, but — from any objective perspective — much more modest than this new investment that I’ve done,” he said. 

To explain his interest in BGU, the only university in southern Israel, Adams often quotes Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who famously said, “Israel’s future lies in the Negev.”

“I’ve done big [donations] before in the NIS 100 million [$27 million] range, but never in the $100 million range,” Adams told eJP. “I wanted it to be concentrated. I wanted it to be big. And what better thing can we do than educating our youth and solving planetary problems. So I thought it was a very good candidate for accomplishing several goals at the same time.”