In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, The CJN presents 40 profiles of some of the most prominent Jewish Canadians throughout our history.
When Rose Wolfe died at 100 in December 2016, the Canadian Jewish community lost a strong leader and a woman at the helm of many social causes. She and her late husband Ray D. Wolfe made invaluable contributions to Jewish life in Canada, and the result of their work continue well into the present time.
Rose was the first Jewish woman to become chancellor of the University of Toronto, serving two terms from 1991 to 1997. She served in leadership roles in multiple organizations, including the United Jewish Appeal, Mount Sinai Hospital, Canadian Jewish Congress, Federation of Jewish Women’s Organizations and Jewish Family and Child.
Rose played a significant role at the University of Toronto, where she’d studied as a student in the 1930s. She established the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair in Holocaust studies, and she shifted emphasis from commemoration and emotion to study of the Holocaust as a global academic enterprise.
Rose served as a senior fellow at Massey College and University College. She also helped shape the university’s global reputation, said Michael Marrus, professor emeritus of history at the U of T. The university had been “smug and self-satisfied” prior to Wolfe’s leadership, Marrus said. “Wolfe broke the mold from the stiff upper-lipped leadership. She set a new standard for reaching out to the community and for doing so with warmth and excitement and making everybody feel good. She had grace and style, and those qualities made for terrific leadership.”
Rose helped bring Jewish donors back to the university and to dispel negative feelings towards the university based on its historical record of discrimination against Jewish students. In her honour, the university’s alumni association established the Rose Wolfe Distinguished Alumni Award.
Her daughter, Elizabeth, described her mother as a bridge builder and door opener. “She was formidable, smart and intuitive, and she always made people feel at ease and that they were important,” she recalled. “She had the ability to elicit intimacy with a range of people, but she never hesitated to speak her mind, challenge conventional wisdom and make people accountable. She challenged them to do better.”
In a statement, CIJA called Rose a “giant in the Jewish community,” and a “Canadian committed to social justice, education and philanthropy. Her life commitment and dedication to tikkun olam serves as a powerful inspiration.”
Rose was honoured throughout her lifetime for her community leadership. She received the Golden Jubilee Medal, the Diamond Jubilee Medal and the Order of Ontario. In 1999 she became a member of the Order of Canada.
Ask Skip Sigel about his friend and mentor, Ray Wolfe (1917-1990), and he’ll tell you Ray “was Canada’s leading Jew in the Canadian business world, recognized as such from Halifax to Vancouver.” Together with his close friends J. Irving Oelbaum, Ben Sadowski, Morris Kaufman, Dr. A.A. “Bucky” Epstein and others, Ray founded the Jewish Welfare Fund in Toronto at 150 Beverly St., which became the headquarters for both Toronto and Canadian Jewry. Ray and his friends were lifelong Zionists and travelled to Israel constantly. “Ray was on a first name basis with Israel’s prime ministers, ministers of finance and business leaders,” says Segal. “He was a also major proponent of Jewish education here in Toronto and a father to the nascent Israel Bond Organization in Canada.”
Ray founded the Canadian Jewish News and was its first president. He joined a small family produce wholesaler, and with his vision and business acumen, transformed it into The Oshawa Group Limited, a major corporation on the Canadian landscape. The company became one of the country’s largest food-drug-department store businesses and a supplier to IGA supermarkets from coast to coast.
Ray was one of the first Jews to be elected as a director of a major Canadian publicly traded corporation, Canadian Pacific Limited, whose stock was listed and traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange, the Montreal Stock Exchange, the NYSE and the London Stock Exchange. He was also the first Jew to serve as a director of any of the Canadian Banks – in his case, the Bank of Nova Scotia.
He played a major role in the Canadian Jewish community, serving as chair of both the UJA campaign and the United Jewish Welfare Fund. He was devoted to the promotion of business in Israel, particularly with the founding and development of the Supersol chain of grocery stores. Ray founded the Canada-Israel Chamber of Commerce. He also served on the boards of the Canadian Friends of Haifa University, the Canadian-Israel Institute for Industrial Research and Development and the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews. Ray was awarded the Order of Canada in 1980.