TORONTO — Those who knew educator, feminist, and Jewish studies enthusiast Selma Sage say the Jewish community lost a vibrant, “feisty” woman.
Sage, 79, who died suddenly from natural causes at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto on Feb. 19, was always eager to share the wisdom she had gathered throughout her years as a lifelong student and educator.
Rebecca Oyen, Sage’s granddaughter, said she was a “dynamic” teacher.
“She didn’t know how to live without teaching,” Oyen said. “She always made it abundantly clear that education came before anything else.”
Lois Sage said her mother was a brilliant woman.
“She didn’t suffer fools gladly, I’ll tell you that. She was the brightest woman I have ever met, and she could speak on almost every subject,” Sage said.
She skipped two grades as a child and entered her first year of university at the University of Pennsylvania when she was just 16.
After obtaining her master’s degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, she specialized in teacher training and curriculum design for religious schools at the Chicago and Great Lakes Regional Office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
She went on to serve as educational director at the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute Camp in Wisconsin and the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, D.C., before she was recruited by the late Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut to join Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple as educational director.
Oyen said that for her grandmother, teaching and learning went hand in hand.
“She would listen to everyone’s perspective. Nothing was lecture, it was always discussions and seminars.”
Rabbi Lori Cohen, who leads Temple Shalom in Kitchener-Waterloo, met Sage 11 years ago when she joined Temple Sinai Congregation in Toronto as an associate rabbi.
In addition to teaching her own courses at the shul, Sage often attended the Torah classes that Rabbi Cohen led.
“She came to my Torah classes all the time. There were people who feared her presence, because she could take over and be opinionated. I loved her wit and her humour, and I always thought she added so much to the discussions,” Rabbi Cohen said.
“She was abrasive, she was witty, she was feisty,” she said.
And when it came to one of her passions, feminism, Oyen said Sage was not afraid to speak out.
“She used to live across the street from a very Orthodox synagogue, and they would invite her to come to services,” Oyen recalled.
“She did, and they made her sit upstairs. She then spoke to the rabbi and said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do this because my voice needs to be heard, too, and I should have an equal voice. I should be able to sit where everyone else sits, and I won’t be coming back.’”
Sage said her late mother also led feminist seders for Hadassah-WIZO that would include symbols of female oppression – such as girdles and aprons – in the centrepiece.
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, who served as an assistant rabbi at Holy Blossom and until recently as the director of Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, also remembers Sage, whom she met when she first moved to Toronto in 1983, as an unapologetic feminist.
“She was really fearless about putting forth women’s agendas and making sure women were represented on committees in synagogues, on the bimah, in leadership. It was a passion of hers,” Rabbi Goldstein said.
“She was a great teacher. She taught at the Kolel for many years and she was always supportive of learning, and I will remember her as a great educator and one of the foremost Jewish feminists in town.”
Having known Sage since 2001, Rabbi Cohen said she noticed a change in her following the passing of her husband of 28 years, Sam Siegelman, last May.
Sage was battling health issues and living at the Thorne Mills retirement home in Thornhill, and Rabbi Cohen said she felt Sage had given up on her passions.
“She really was so crushed after he died. It was so sad.”
Unfortunately, Sage was no stranger to coping with devastating loss.
Lois, Sage’s only daughter, said her mother suffered the loss of her 24-year-old son, Robert, as well as another child, who died three days after birth.
But Sage was a resilient, spirited woman, and as Rabbi Cohen remembers her, a “powerful presence.”
“Wherever you met her, she filled a room. She called on people to be the best they can be. She challenged people,” the rabbi said.
“She was the most wonderful, giving, loving [woman],” Lois added.
“She made everyone feel as though they were special.”