The Jewish studies program at the University of Waterloo recently accepted a bequest from an unlikely source that will help fund an online Jewish studies course.
The late Bette Hagey, “a real stalwart of the United Church” who died in 2009, left part of her estate to Waterloo’s Jewish studies program, said Waterloo professor emeritus Paul Socken.
Socken, who founded the Jewish studies program and continues to serve as chair of the dean’s advisory committee for the program, explained Hagey’s connection to him and the program.
In 1993, Socken was approached by Brian Hendley, who was the university’s dean of arts, with an offer to start a Jewish studies program at the university.
“The reason the dean came to me was… there was a rally at the [Trinity United] church against neo-Nazis who were coming to Kitchener to raise money… It’s very possible [Hagey] was there or knew of it,” Socken said.
He added that the dean had also seen Schindler’s List, and that, coupled with the rally, inspired him to establish a Jewish studies program at Waterloo.
Socken began his fundraising efforts, but didn’t have enough funds to hire a professor for the program until 2002.
“When I had some money and started collecting interest, but didn’t yet have enough for hiring, I started a public lecture series and that set the groundwork for people to expect things of a Jewish nature on campus,” Socken said.
“Bette was always there in the audience along with my dear friend Ann [Dubé] and her husband, who were close friends with Bette. I met her subsequently in my friends’ home and we were quite friendly,” he said.
“When she passed away is when I found out that she had never married and she was an executive secretary at an insurance company. She had left her estate to her nieces and nephews, and… she left a portion of it to be divided equally between Trinity United and the Jewish studies program at Waterloo.”
He said she left the program $50,000, enough to launch an online course in Jewish studies, which will be dedicated to her memory.
“This is extraordinary, given the relentless onslaught of the United Church against Israel,” Socken said, but he added that he doubts her decision to leave this sum to the Jewish studies program was political.
“I don’t think it was a strike against the church, I just think it was a gesture of generosity and thoughtfulness,” he said.
“I think it’s important that while there may be certain people in the upper levels of organizations… that are very strongly anti-Israel… there are individuals at the ground level who feel very differently toward Jews and Israel, and this is a concrete example of that.”
Dubé, who said Hagey became a member of her extended family when they met in her “late middle age,” agreed that Hagey’s decision to leave the gift to the Jewish studies program was based on her admiration for Socken and interest in the Jewish roots of her Christian faith.
Dubé described Hagey as “a prickly, difficult, scary lady, who was, in her heart, incredibly generous,” as well as a “deep thinker, an intellectual without formal education.
“She was a formidable lady. She was known at the Trinity United Church as the lady in the hat because she always wore smart and large hats. She was imposing and scary, but underneath, she had the heart of a marshmallow.”
Dubé said she was aware of Hagey’s intention to donate part of her estate to the Jewish studies program because when Hagey fell ill, Dubé took over her care and had her power of attorney.
“I think she had two motivations. One was her very strong admiration for Paul,” Dubé said, adding that Socken and her late husband, Pierre, were the best of friends.
Dubé said Pierre was Jewish by birth, but chose to follow his wife and family into the United Church.
Still, “he was fascinated with his Jewish roots and taught a study course that involved a study of the Jewish religion and Genesis, and we often had Paul in to speak, because Paul, of course, is quite a scholar in Judaism,” Dubé said.
“Bette got to know Paul that way and Bette was quite taken with him. Paul organized a series of lectures with the Jewish studies program and Bette attended them faithfully as long as her health permitted, and she very much enjoyed them.”
She added that Hagey was also fascinated by the Jewish roots of her religious beliefs.
“I think that because she had studied the Jewish roots of her faith, she felt it was all going to the same cause.”