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Large Gift to Help Wiesenthal Center Build Israel Facility

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Los Angeles businessman has donated $40 million for a peace and tolerance institute being built by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem.

The Winnick Institute Jerusalem, named for telecommunications entrepreneur Gary Winnick, is projected to cost $120 million and will be designed for a three-acre hillside site by Los Angeles architect Frank O. Gehry.

The international conference center and museum was initiated by Rabbi Marvin Hier, Wiesenthal Center founder, as an extension of the center’s mission to promote human dignity and understanding.

“Israel is the world center,” Hier said, “the spiritual cradle for three monotheistic religions. It’s the right place and this is the right time.”

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Winnick is founder and chairman of Global Crossing Ltd. and founder, chairman and chief executive officer of the Pacific Capital Group. He has served on the board of the Wiesenthal Center since 1980. When Hier first approached him, Winnick said, it was for a project about one-third of the scale that is now planned. Hier also asked for about one-third of what Winnick has now agreed to donate over the next five years. Although the Winnick Family Foundation, which will be the source of the funding, gives to many educational and arts institutions, this is its largest gift by far to date.

“It’s my coming-out party,” said Winnick, 52, who was listed last September in Forbes magazine as being worth $3.2 billion and who has been called the wealthiest man in Los Angeles.

Unlike the Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles, the Winnick Institute will not concentrate on the Holocaust, but instead intends “to promote civility and respect among Jews and between people of all faiths and creeds.”

“In the 20th century, the biggest issue was the external threat,” Hier said. “There were wars, there was the Holocaust. But most historians and philosophers think that in the 21st century, the most important question will be: ‘Can we live with each other?’ The Winnick Institute Jerusalem will focus on the great internal question.”

Hier stressed, however, that the center is not intended just for Jewish issues. “The museum will not seek to impose any political, theological or ideological point of view, except that of promoting mutual respect.”

“It will be the kind of place the pope would visit if he came to Jerusalem,” Gehry said in a telephone interview from New York. The 71-year-old architect, who is Jewish but has never before worked in Israel, said that the project is “loaded with emotional feeling” and that in visiting the site on a Jerusalem hillside, “I remembered my haftorah from my bar mitzvah,” the Hebrew Bible passage recited at the age of 13.

The center is planned to cover about 130,000 square feet of land under the jurisdiction of Israel’s National Land Authority and the Jerusalem Municipality. After a public hearing on the institute’s final plans, which must take place within the next two years, the Wiesenthal Center will lease the land on a long-term basis at terms favorable to a nonprofit organization, Hier said. Those terms will not be negotiated until after the design is accepted.

Expected to be completed in 2004, the institute will include a museum equipped with high-tech interactive programming, as well as a theater for lectures and films and a large hall intended for meetings with world leaders as well as scholars .

Of the hall, Gehry said, it needs to be intimate and expansive at the same time. “It’s got to be something special. I told the rabbi that, ironically, my only experience in space like that is primarily in mosques, where the open space creates a kind of equality to everybody in the room.”

Although he emphasized that the design process is only at the beginning stages, Gehry said that in one initial plan he created a hexagonal shape by connecting the points of a Jewish star, then layered three such shapes into a form that looked similar to the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim symbol of Jerusalem.

Best known for his Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain and his design for the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which is under construction in downtown Los Angeles, Gehry was the first and only name suggested for the center by Winnick.

“I said if we’re going to do it, let’s go get a renowned architect,” Winnick said.

Winnick’s commitment to the project that will bear his name is a culmination of a vision combining education and philanthropic interests he has long pursued.

“I’m a modern-day contemporary Jew. But more than that I’m a person who has been given more than my fair share of good fortune. And I recognize it, as opposed to saying I want more.

“Funny thing is,” he said with a laugh, “I feel so much better about making a larger commitment than a smaller commitment, because I know it’s going to be more lasting. It’s going to have much more impact.

“This is a nonsecular new institution. It’s for the Arab, it’s for the Jew, it’s for the Christian. It’s for anyone who lives in oppression, anyone who lives in prejudice.”

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* REAL ESTATE PARTNERSHIP: Investor Gary Winnick forms partnership to facilitate change in real estate industry. c2


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