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Woman, 93, looks back on her extraordinary life

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Sheila Barshay Goldbloom, right, is greeted by Amal Elsana Alh’jooj, executive director of McGill’s International Community Network. (Janice Arnold photo)

Sheila Barshay Goldbloom was confident that she was destined to make a contribution to society when she graduated from Mount Holyoke, a prestigious women’s college in Massachusetts, in 1947.

Unlike other elite schools of its kind at the time, Holyoke prepared its students for work that would make the world a better place, rather than simply being a place to find a suitable husband.

Goldbloom was a headstrong young woman, and even though so-called “second-wave feminism” was still almost two decades away, she took it for granted that she would be meaningfully employed.

Her first job was with the League of Women Voters in her native New York City. Marriage was not a priority for her then.

But the then 21 year old was introduced, through family friends, to Victor Goldbloom, a young doctor from Montreal who was training in New York.

The couple moved to Montreal in 1949 and Sheila Barshay Goldbloom began an extraordinary life of family, career and community service that continues to this day.

At 93, Goldbloom has published her memoir, Opening Doors, in which she recounts how she balanced her responsibilities and interests.

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A modest, quiet-spoken person, Goldbloom carved out her own identity, yet managed to be a supportive wife to a busy paediatrician turned politician and engaged mother of three.

Her first job in Montreal was at the YWCA, where she helped settle young women who had moved to the city from the countryside.

As soon as her kids were in school, she resumed her own education, pursuing a master of social work at McGill University.

She developed an expertise in the new field of community organization. Her professors were so impressed that she was invited to teach after graduation, first as a lecturer and later promoted to associate professor. It was a vocation that would last 30 years, until her voluntary retirement.

She has since devoted herself to volunteer service, taking leadership roles at Centraide, Vanier College and others.

She also mentored three Arab women with the McGill Middle East Peace Program. Her most memorable experience was with Amal Elsana Alh’jooj, a young Bedouin woman from Israel who was in the first cohort of students selected for the special social work program. They remain friends and Alh’jooj is now the executive director of the McGill program.

Opening Doors conveys Goldbloom’s credo of being open to others. She imbibed that from her parents, especially her mother, who was far ahead of her time.

Eleanor Roosevelt was Goldbloom’s idol growing up and each chapter in the book opens with a quote from her, including the apt, “Understanding is a two-way street.”

Goldbloom paints a vivid portrait of her mother Esther (née Reich) and father Jacob Barshay, both of whom were born in the Pale of Settlement in 1901. He was a lawyer and she, his equal partner according to the author, was a progressive thinker who volunteered at a Planned Parenthood clinic.

Jacob Barshay died suddenly at age 35 when Sheila was 10, but her mother soldiered on, seeing that her only child received a liberal – but not elitist – education, which included taking her on a trip alone through Europe and the Middle East.

Goldbloom was blessed to soon have a similarly open-minded stepfather, Nat Rothstein, who encouraged her to be all she could be.

Moving to a linguistically and religiously divided Quebec, where women were seen as second-class citizens, was a culture shock for her.

Even within the family, there were differences of opinion. Victor Goldbloom’s parents, the legendary pediatrician Alton Goldbloom and wife Annie, held more traditional views of a woman’s role. They were also more observant, attending Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, while Sheila Goldbloom’s parents had embraced the new Reconstructionist movement.

The young couple chose Temple Emanu-El and the family continues to be among its prominent members.

Although she had not signed up for it, Goldbloom became an active political wife with Victor’s election to the national assembly in 1966, until he left public office in 1979. At first, she was uncomfortable in this world of upper-crust French-Canadians, but they put her at ease.

She recalls Claude Ryan, then publisher of Le Devoir and later Liberal leader, remarking to her in 1970 when Victor Goldbloom became the first Jewish cabinet minister in the province: “You must be proud that a Jew is in cabinet?”

“I answered: ‘I hope that he was chosen for his ability, not his religion,’ ” she writes.

Although Victor Goldbloom was re-elected three times in the predominantly Jewish riding of D’Arcy McGee, Sheila recalls that he wasn’t always appreciated. His Jewish opponent for the Liberal nomination in 1966, for example, portrayed him as not truly representative of the community.

Some years later, as language tensions were at a fever pitch, she remembers literally being spat on by those who felt her husband was too acquiescent to the demands of francophones.

Later in life, Goldbloom became an advocate for the elderly. At 82, she co-chaired a government commission that toured the province, listening to the needs of the older population.

She has had to adapt yet again since the sudden death of her husband three years ago.

In her 90s, she is determined to keep as physically active, intellectually alert and socially relevant as she can.

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