Sheldon Berney

A key turning point in the Campus project: Sheldon Berney joins up with Marjorie Blankstein and Bob Freedman to head the project

Sheldon Berney would prove to be an indispensable figure in what eventually became the Asper Campus, but until the Campus project came along he had not played any sort of prominent role in the Jewish community’s history.

I asked Bob Freedman where Sheldon Berney came from. Bob answered that Sheldon’s father, Martin, had been quite active in the Jewish community, while Sheldon had been “busy running the family business.”
“It was called Reliance Products,” Bob noted. “They made plastic products, plastic containers. Sheldon had sold the business, he was in his 50s, and he was basically retired. Even though he was not well-known in the (Jewish) community, he had good relationships with people like Izzy Asper and others.
“So – he had credibility…and he had time on his hands. So, we approached him and we tried to convince him that we would like someone like him to be involved.”

I asked Bob who were some of the other individuals who played key roles in the planning process which ultimately led to the idea of creating a campus? He mentioned Morley Blankstein, Gerald Libling, and Michael Nozick as three such individuals, but Bob added that “if you talk to people who are still around and ask them, they would all say they were involved – and that’s fine. Some were more involved than others. The first two years though – it was me and Marjorie, quite frankly.
“I think we recruited Sheldon around 1989,” Bob said. By that time a consensus had started to emerge around the concept of building a campus.

However, according to Bob, Sheldon Berney had told Marjorie and Bob when he was first approached that “I understand how things work with committees and boards, but I have no patience for that…Pointing to me, he said: ‘You can be the one to deal with the boards. I know we have to get their approval to spend money, but I don’t want to attend meetings.’ “
With Sheldon Berney on board, it was decided that now would be a good time to look at what other communities had done to revitalize themselves – beginning with Kansas City.
“They were terrific,” Bob said. “We really liked what they had done as a model for what we wanted to do. They had set up a separate corporation. We wanted to do that, too, to make sure the campus, once built, would be properly maintained without getting into the politics…let the agencies run their programs.”

I wondered whether other campuses that the planning committee visited were “on as grand a scale as what Winnipeg’s turned out to be?”
“Winnipeg was unique because we incorporated a day school,” Bob explained. “Most of the campuses were primarily nice JCC’s. Some had housing attached to them (although detached from the actual JCC’s), especially in Florida.”
When the proposal to build the campus at Waverley and Wilkes fell through, the planning committee began looking around for an alternative site. As it happened, the Manitoba government had just put out a request for proposals for what was known as the Fort Osborne Barracks site, (and which had previously been the Manitoba Agricultural College). It was being used to house various government offices – including the driver testing site for anyone taking a driver’s test).

But, prior to 1994, as Bob Freedman explained, there had been a proposal by a group headed by the late Sidney Spivak to buy the site and build condos there. “But, the market had dipped badly in 1992-93 and they couldn’t go through with the deal.”
Secondly, the Spivak group didn’t really know what to do with the historical buildings. (It was a requirement of anyone purchasing the site that the historical nature of the buildings on the site be preserved.)
Timing is everything in real estate and, as events unfolded, the campus planning committee was able to acquire the Fort Osborne Barracks site for – as Bob Freedman explained, “nothing” since, although they had to pay fair market value for the site, the province ended up giving grants equivalent to what the purchase price had been.
There were various issues involved, including soil remediation – and how to preserve the architectural integrity of what were then three main buildings on the site. The Agricultural College became home to Gray Academy, while the office building was converted into what are now offices for various Jewish organizations and agencies.

That left the old power plant which, Bob noted, hadn’t been used for years. That eventually became the Berney Theatre. As for the Rady JCC – that was built from scratch.
(Bob did tell a colourful story about how he and Sheldon Berney were able to persuade representatives from the province to allow the campus to be built without preserving the smokestacks from the original power plant – which the original criteria imposed by the province would have required. If you want to hear that story, you’ll have to watch the video version of my interview with Bob, as that story may offend some readers. You can see it at on this website in the videos section.)
Once the design for the new campus was approved – things did move remarkably quickly. Remember, the Fort Osborne Barracks site was only acquired in 1994, yet actual construction of the campus began in 1995, and it was completed in 1997.

The original proposal for a campus, however, was far more limited in scope than the final incarnation. “The original proposal only called for a JCC,” Bob recalled. “Then we added a high school, then it was JK-12…the project grew.”
I asked Marjorie whether she and Morley specifically asked that the community centre be named for her parents?
“They asked us what we might be interested in supporting and we thought that the community centre might be something that my parents would have appreciated because my mother had been active in the community and my father had been active at the Y,” Marjorie said.
“Once we had the community centre and the school (as key components of the campus), we started looking at how everything else could fit in,” Marjorie Blankstein explained.
“We contacted Jewish Child & Family Service,” Marjorie noted. “We contacted every organization and agency to see whether they would be interested in being on the campus – like Israel Bonds, JNF. Some of them are on campus and some of them said ‘no thank you’.”
I asked whether the project grew because fundraising had exceeded expectations and there was more money available to add more facilities?
“The project grew,” Bob explained, because “during the planning process, we became convinced this would become the focal point of the community.
“By the end, we had raised $25 million,” he said.

I had to ask about Izzy Asper – and when did he step into the picture?
“Izzy believed that the campus board would be the ones making all the decisions,” Bob explained, “and he felt that one dollar equals one vote. ‘If I give $500,000, I get 500,000 votes,’” Izzy insisted. (Izzy Asper’s original contribution was going to be $500,000.)
Sheldon Berney – who was very good friends with Izzy, however, not only persuaded Izzy to up his contribution to $2 million, he also persuaded him to settle for having two representatives on the campus board (which was to be made up of nine persons).
“We were convinced that all they would be doing was making sure that the carpets were clean and that the taxes were paid,” Bob noted. “It wouldn’t be like the board of the Jewish Foundation.”
After Sheldon Berney gave his proposal to Izzy, Izzy drafted a 30-page memorandum that he faxed to his Winnipeg lawyer, Richard Leipsic, and which included provisions including that “no program could be held on the campus that was perceived to be anti-Israel.”

Yet, there was one more absolutely key consideration to take into account, Bob explained: operating costs. “How much revenue did you have to generate to make sure the building doesn’t turn into a shithole in 10 years?” (Did I note that Bob Freedman sometimes uses colourful language? Sometimes? How about every second sentence? Watch the full interview on our website and you’ll see what I mean.)
“We kept running the numbers. The key was the Y because under the deal, the Y was going to pay the bulk of the (operating) costs…the office tenants less obviously – because they were occupying less space.
“When we left the Y downtown, it was at 600 members. Most of them were people who worked downtown or near downtown and came to work out at noon, or whatever. There were also some kids coming.
“We projected that (the new Rady Jewish Community Centre) would need at least 3600 members” in order for the campus to run in the black.
“We were told: ‘Are you f…ing crazy? Are you going to go from 600 to 3600? By the way, we opened with 5,000 – and even though members at a fitness centre are very fickle, the Rady still has, give or take, 5,000.

Considering that it’s Marjorie’s parents’ names on the Jewish community centre here, I wondered whether she had played an active role in the Rady JCC ?
“I was on their board of directors for a goodly number of years, but that’s about it,” she answered.
The YMHA on Albert Street used to be a location where servicemen could relax during World War II and immediately thereafter, I said to Marjorie. And later, the YMHA also was home to many non-Jewish members. But nothing compares with the parade of different nationalities that we now see entering the Rady JCC on a daily basis. What did she think of that, I asked?
“A lot of us love to sit at Shmoozers and sit there watching the parade of people – all ages and sizes – and nationalities – different skin colours – it’s terrific,” Marjorie answered.
“Do you take a particular pride in that?” I asked.
“I do,” she answered. “It makes me feel good.”