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How Jewish women have shaped our nation

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The facade of the old Mount Sinai hospital in Toronto. JAMIE BRADBURN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In 1913, when anti-Semitism in Canada and around the world was rife and unabashed, and Jewish doctors were banned from practising in established hospitals, a group, including four Jewish women, set out to fund a hospital in the city of Toronto.

They were determined to provide Jewish patients with a place to go in times of need, while also giving unemployed Jewish doctors a place to practise. By 1923, Slova Greenberg, Dorothy Dworkin, Ida Siegel, E.F. Singer and Simon Fines, had raised enough money to purchase a building and establish a maternity and convalescent hospital on Toronto’s  Yorkville Avenue. Today, we know it as Mount Sinai Hospital. The vast contributions that Mount Sinai has made to both medical science and community care are immeasurable. It is worth remembering that this legacy would not be possible without the pioneering spirit of the women who founded it.

Indeed, the happy history of the success of Canada’s vibrant Jewish community is, in so many ways, the story of strong women.

READ: THE CJN’S SPECIAL COVERAGE OF CANADA’S SESQUICENTENNIAL

While Jewish-Canadian history is not without its dark chapters, Canadian Jews have persevered through adversity, overcome challenges and played a major role in shaping our great nation. For Canada’s Jewish women, that story has been the same.

Soon after Canada’s founding, Jewish women assumed roles of leadership in organizations dedicated to women’s engagement, such as Haddasah-Wizo, founded by Ottawa resident Lillian Freiman, as well as Na’amat and the National Council of Jewish Women. In fact, the women’s division of United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto was formalized way back in 1937. These organizations provided opportunities for women to raise money, socialize and make an impact on the community and beyond.

In the century that followed, it became common to find women in leadership positions within the community. In 1983, Dodo Heppner was elected as the first woman to lead Montreal’s CJA. Four years later, Montreal resident Dorothy Reitman became the first woman to lead a national Jewish organization, with her election as president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. In 1973, Rose Wolfe became the first woman president of the Toronto Jewish Congress, the predecessor organization to the Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto. In 1991, she was appointed chancellor of the University of Toronto.

Judy Feld Carr

Today, we see Jewish women in leadership roles in every sphere of national life, including the fields of medicine, art, law, academia, politics and human rights.

Among the more notable examples is Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella, who was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1946 to two Holocaust survivors. At 29, Justice Abella was the youngest person in Canada to ever become a judge and was also the first Jewish woman appointed to the bench. In 2004, she became the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada. Among her many human rights accomplishments, Justice Abella drafted a study on access to legal services by disabled persons and served as commissioner of the Royal Commission on Equality in Employment, which helped change the way Canadians think about employment equity between men and women.

Recently, Justice Abella was named global jurist of the year by a Chicago law school. While her accomplishments are most certainly her own, she continues to shape Canadian society as a proud member of the Jewish community. She is a woman who is deeply rooted in tradition and she recognizes the impact that her Jewish heritage has played on her life and her understanding of justice.

In her recent commencement speech at Brandeis University, Abella explained:

“My life started in a country where there had been no democracy, no rights, no justice and all because we were Jewish. No one with this history does not feel lucky to be alive and free. No one with this history takes anything for granted. And no one with this history does not feel that we have a particular duty to wear our identities with pride and to promise our children that we will do everything humanly possible to keep the world safer for them than it was for their grandparents.”

Dorthy Dworkin

Judy Feld Carr is another example of an inspirational Canadian Jewish woman who has made an indelible impact on the community. Through her commitment and passion for human rights and her determination to help in the deadly situation faced by Syrian Jews between 1975 and 2000, Feld Carr helped thousands of Jewish people leave Syria. She has worked tirelessly, often in dangerous situations, to ensure the safety of people who were being persecuted for being Jewish.

I hope it is not immodest to add mention of the role that my late mother, Barbara Frum, played as a feminist pioneer in Canadian broadcast journalism. It was Barbara who normalized the idea of an intelligent woman – and a Jewish one at that! –appearing on television on a nightly basis.

In politics, Jewish women have held office in Canada since 1974, when Simma Holt was elected as the member of Parliament for Vancouver-Kingsway, a riding with a small Jewish population.  Many Jewish women have served, and still do serve, as members of Parliament, members of provincial legislatures, provincial and federal cabinet ministers, lieutenant governors and, indeed, senators.

A few months ago, I had the privilege of sponsoring Senate Bill S-232, an Act Respecting Canadian Jewish Heritage Month, which will formalize into law an annual celebration of the contributions of Canada’s Jewish community. The bill received unanimous consent in the Senate and will now pass to the House of Commons for approval. This bill has proved especially salient at a time when we are witnessing a rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Canada. But Canadian Jewish Heritage Month, once its formally established, will also serve as an important tool to educate our fellow citizens about the myriad of ways in which Canadian Jews have helped to make Canada the great nation it is today.  Telling the stories of the remarkable women in our community will be an essential part of this initiative.

So, on Canada’s 150th birthday, to our Jewish foremothers, let us say: thank you. You are remembered and appreciated.


Linda Frum is a Conservative senator from Ontario.