A life defined by “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” By Wendy Singer
Ben Weider passed away almost five years ago, but his vision remains very much alive. Born in 1923 to Jewish Polish immigrants, Ben and his brother, Joe, are best known for creating a half-billiondollar worldwide fitness and bodybuilding empire that encompasses fitness equipment, training manuals, magazines and health products. Ben oversaw the marketing end of the business, founding and growing the International Federation of BodyBuilding (IFBB) from a fringe activity into a worldwide fitness phenomenon that includes more than 173 countries.
In opening the world’s doors to bodybuilding, he also taught athletes that strength-building would improve their performance, and made fitness an accessible tool to improve the health and well-being of all citizens of the world. After 52 years of lobbying, this charismatic and persistent man achieved his dream of having the International Olympic Committee (IOC) formally recognize bodybuilding. In their memoir, ‘Brothers of Iron’, Joe addresses his brother’s accomplishment: “Ben did better than trained diplomats with degrees from the finest universities. He used his eyes and his ears and his brains and his heart, and he just knew.” While growing the IFBB, Ben, who dropped out of high school to support his family, was fighting another 40-year-long battle. He was garnering evidence to prove that Napoleon Bonaparte, a friend to the Jewish people, whose history influenced him profoundly, did not die of natural causes, but was poisoned.
Today, Ben’s theory is historically and scientifically proven, and fully accepted worldwide. Ben died at the age of 85, one week before his collection of Napoleonic artifacts (the world’s largest) was to go on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. This man of kind heart and iron will accumulated over 66 awards and honours during his lifetime, including a member of the Order of Canada in 1975, and Officer in 2006, the French Legion of Honour, as well as several honourary doctorate degrees, and was a 1984 nominee for a Nobel Peace Prize. He also served in the Canadian Army during the Second World War.
Ben donated equipment to many gyms across the globe including the YM-YWHA Ben Weider Fitness Centre of Excellence on Westbury Avenue in Montreal. His other lead gift in 1999 sits as the cornerstone of the expansion and modernization of the current facility which bears his name. Richard Pesner, Director of Financial Resource Development at the Ben Weider Jewish Community Centre, remembers Ben as a statesman and a gentleman who inspired him to be precise, concise and loyal. “The goal of Ben’s gifting was to give more people access to better equipment and the opportunity to become fit and lead healthier lives.
That’s played out right here in this building because of Ben,” shares Pesner. These sentiments echo the words of Ben Weider: “The vibrant Montreal Jewish Community Centre is very worthy of our support. It brings our motto to life through its focus on healthy bodies, sound relationships and communities.” In 1998, Ben gifted the building that houses the Ben Weider Educational Centre – Chaya Mushka Seminary, also on Westbury Avenue – allowing the school to be centralized in one location for the first time. “The Weider empire and the Seminary had similar missions. Both were built on compounded results,” says Rabbi Abraham Cohen, Director of the Centre. Ben taught groups of trainers the Weider style of training.
The Seminary trains teachers in the ideals and traditions of Torah and customs of Jewish heritage. Both share their knowledge with communities around the globe. “Ben would teach me about the history of the world, I would teach him about Jewish history. I would speak to him about the great sages of the Talmud, he would tell me about the mighty men of the world,” recalls Rabbi Cohen. Ben Weider left a legacy in the city of Montreal and around the world that has become a part of so many of our daily lives. For that, we can all be grateful.