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‘Great Canadian’ Rose Wolfe was a leader in the Jewish and wider communities

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Rose Wolfe with Larry Tanenbaum and Elizabeth Wolfe
Rose Wolfe with her daughter, Elizabeth Wolfe, and Larry Tanenbaum at the opening of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies. JACLYN SHAPIRO PHOTO

Longtime community leader Rose Wolfe, who championed a string of social causes and became the first Jewish woman to serve as chancellor of the University of Toronto, died Dec. 30. She was nearly five months past her 100th birthday.

The wife of the late Ray D. Wolfe, founding president of The Canadian Jewish News, and mother of Elizabeth Wolfe, The CJN’s current president, Rose Wolfe tallied a long list of Jewish communal involvement and philanthropy, becoming something like the community’s matriarch.

She had leadership roles in United Jewish Appeal, Mount Sinai Hospital and Canadian Jewish Congress, and served as president of the Federation of Jewish Women’s Organizations and of Jewish Family and Child Service (JF&CS).

Wolfe had a long association with the University of Toronto, starting as a student in the 1930s. She later served on its governing council in the 1970s and was chancellor for two terms, from 1991 to 1997.

In the early 1990s, she established the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair in Holocaust Studies and later served as a senior fellow at Massey College and University College. In recognition, the university awarded her an honorary degree in 1998, and a stained-glass window at Massey College was named in her honour. U of T’s alumni association later established the Rose Wolfe Distinguished Alumni Award.

In 2005, she became the first Jew named an honorary fellow at St. Michael’s College.

Former U of T president Rob Prichard once described her as “quite simply the perfect chancellor.”

Wolfe once estimated she “graduated” 60,000 students at 90 convocations and bestowed about 60 honorary degrees. “I grab each recipient by their hand and hold it in both of mine,” she said in a 1996 Toronto Star profile. “I try to make it personal.”

The University of Toronto “has lost a beloved champion, a distinguished alumna, and an incredibly warm and generous friend,” U of T president Meric Gertler said in a statement. “Through her exemplary service as chancellor, as a member of our governing council and in an amazing number of volunteer positions, Rose Wolfe has left a magnificent legacy. So many aspects of life at U of T have benefited from her leadership and dedication, from the experience of commuter students to alumni engagement, from our global academic standing to fundraising and philanthropy.

“She will be greatly missed, but so fondly remembered.”

Wolfe played a key role in bringing Jewish donors back to U of T, said her daughter, Elizabeth, and helped to dispel old ill will about its record of discriminating against Jewish students.

“The whole dynamic of Jewish donors to U of T was very much part of her role,” Elizabeth Wolfe told The CJN. “She was the one who started to build those bridges and open the doors to a lot of people who were graduates.”

Rose Wolfe, centre, with University of Toronto historians Doris Bergen, Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair in Holocaust Studies, and Michael Marrus, inaugural Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair in Holocaust Studies, at a 2015 gathering to celebrate Wolfe's 99th birthday. JACLYN SHAPIRO PHOTO
Rose Wolfe, centre, with University of Toronto historians Doris Bergen, Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair in Holocaust Studies, and Michael Marrus, inaugural Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair in Holocaust Studies, at a 2015 gathering to celebrate Wolfe’s 99th birthday. JACLYN SHAPIRO PHOTO

She called her mother “a formidable woman, smart and also intuitive. She always made people feel at ease and made them feel important. People opened up to her. She had the ability to elicit intimacy with a whole range of people. She talked to everybody.

“But she never hesitated to speak her mind and challenge conventional wisdom. She made people accountable and she always challenged them to do better.”

Wolfe was “a great Canadian committed to social justice, education, and philanthropy” and “a giant in the Jewish community,” the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) said in a statement. Her “life of commitment and dedication to tikkun olamrepairing the world – serves as a powerful source of inspiration.”

She was born Rose Senderowitz on Aug. 7, 1916, to Clara and Morris Senderowitz, Romanian immigrants who ran a small bakery in Toronto’s Kensington Market. Despite the Depression of the 1930s, her parents put Rose and her three sisters through university.

“We never knew how they did it,” she told a U of T publication on the occasion of her 100th birthday. “They had a little bakery and they sold bread for five cents a loaf. Maybe they made half a cent profit on each loaf, so you think of the number of loaves of bread you have to sell to eke out a living. They were both very industrious people. My mother sewed all our clothes. She worked in the bakery, took care of the whole house and took in two of my orphaned cousins.

“I remember that right in the middle of the Depression, she decided we should move, and we ended up in Forest Hill, when Forest Hill had cows in it. We never knew why she decided to move there when most Jewish families moved to Grace Street or Palmerston. It was a mystery.”

Believing her math skills weren’t good enough to become a doctor, she studied sociology, graduating in 1938, then took a one-year diploma in social work. She married Ray Wolfe in 1940.

She worked for a time with family services in Vancouver while her husband served with the Royal Canadian Air Force, after which the couple returned to Toronto where Wolfe worked at the Protestant Children’s Homes.

Around 1947, she went to work at JF&CS, helping to find homes for Jewish children who had survived the Holocaust and were living in displaced persons camps in Poland, Belgium and France.

“The war was over,” Wolfe told the Star. “But we really didn’t know the numbers or the horrors they went through. They didn’t talk.’’ She remembered the young refugees as “undersized, pale and withdrawn’’ and recalled an overwhelming response from local Jewish homes.

However, the placements often didn’t work out. “The families expected them to fit in and be grateful,’’ said Wolfe, adding that this was a time before readily available counselling.

But many of her former charges were among 700 people who came out for dinner honouring Wolfe in May 1996. The event raised $350,000 for the Kolel Centre for Jewish Learning in Thornhill. In the early 1970s, Wolfe said she “came full circle’’ when she ended up back at JF&CS, this time not as a case worker, but as agency president.

In 1978, she became the first woman to serve as president of Toronto Jewish Congress.

As U of T chancellor, Wolfe also played a key role in securing funding for a chair in Jewish studies. Her husband, the former CEO of food wholesaler Oshawa Group, had already helped establish a post-doctoral fellowship in Jewish studies before his death in 1990 at age 72. “My husband had put the seed in my head for a chair in Jewish studies,” she told U of T Magazine in 2003. “When I became chancellor I thought, now is the time.”

Wolfe tapped real estate developer Richard Shiff as lead donor. Within six months, they had raised another $1 million, creating the Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair in Jewish Studies. Prof. David Novak, an ordained rabbi, has held the chair since 1997.

Michael Marrus, professor emeritus of history at U of T and the inaugural holder of the Holocaust Studies chair Wolfe endowed, said Wolfe played a “big part” in shaping the university’s global reputation.

Until then, the university was “smug and self-satisfied.” Wolfe and Prichard, Marrus said, “set out to break open into the wider community.”

In that task, Wolfe was “absolutely perfect, because she broke the mold from the stiff upper-lipped leadership. She just set a new standard for reaching out to the community, and for doing so with warmth and excitement and making everybody feel good, but also with grace and style. Those qualities made for terrific leadership.”

As for the chair in Holocaust studies, Marrus said the goal was to shift emphasis from commemoration and emotion to a global academic enterprise. “She got it,” he said.

Donald Carr, former president of The CJN, served alongside Wolfe for decades on many communal committees. He recalled her as “incisive and clear-thinking. She knew what she wanted and prepared very carefully for every meeting.”

Bernie Farber, the last CEO of the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress, recalls meeting Wolfe when she became the lay leader of CJC Ontario region’s joint community relations committee in 1984, a time that coincided with the high-profile trials of Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel.

“I remember with much fondness spending the first Tuesday of every month with Rose in her lovely home preparing for our monthly meetings,” Farber told The CJN. “She was a teacher, mentor and in many ways, a mother insisting that I eat sandwiches that she prepared for me and always asking about my young family.”

Wolfe, he went on, was fond of calling the committee her “kitchen table, where all segments of the Jewish community could sit and have a voice.”

From her days in her parents’ bakery, she learned about money, eulogized Holy Blossom Temple Rabbi Yael Splansky at Wolfe’s funeral. “How to earn it. How to save it. How to spend it. How to raise it. And how to give it away. Rose will always be remembered for her generosity of both precious time, as well as philanthropy.”

A recipient of the Golden Jubilee Medal, the Diamond Jubilee Medal and the Order of Ontario, she was invested into the Order of Canada as a member in 1999. Her citation noted that “she is well-known throughout the Canadian Jewish community for her outstanding volunteer work. She is a defender of social justice, whose extensive and tireless involvement with many boards and committees has made her a dynamic contributor to society.”

Wolfe once conceded: “I know it’s a cliché to say, but I believe one person can make a difference.”

She is survived by her children Elizabeth and Jonathan, and four grandchildren.