Leila Speisman, a former reporter at The CJN who navigated the complex waters of the Orthodox community with ease and aplomb, died in Toronto on Sept. 14 of pneumonia. She was 73.
In addition to Orthodox issues, Speisman covered the health beat, delving into the latest developments in cancer, diabetes and stem cell research, along with regimens for the elderly and urgent drives in the Jewish community for donors needed for life-saving procedures.
In the early 1990s, she was among a select group of Jewish-Canadian journalists who travelled to Switzerland on a trip organized by the Canadian Jewish Congress, to meet with officials from the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
She also wrote obituaries of local community leaders and religious figures.
“Leila was a fine journalist, quick to zero in on the key human elements of a story,” recalled Patricia Rucker, the editor of The CJN from 1989 to 1994. “She covered news and issues of special concern to the Orthodox segment of the community with integrity and sensitivity – not always an easy task.”
Former editor Mordechai Ben-Dat said that, “The CJN was privileged to have Leila on its staff. She was a fine writer and a valued colleague. She was also The CJN’s main bridge and key source of insight into the Orthodox community. She fulfilled this important and challenging role with commitment, consideration and courage.
“More than anything else, however, Leila was the embodiment of human perseverance and steadfastness through difficulty, hardship and even sorrow.”
The sorrow derived from the deaths of her husband, Stephen Speisman, a well-known historian of Jewish Toronto, and their daughter, Tammy. She knew her husband’s book, The Jews of Toronto: A History to 1937, practically by heart, as she had typed it when it was still his doctoral thesis. The volume won the Toronto Book Award in 1980, a year after it was published.
Leila Donna Panzer was born on Aug. 15, 1946, in Toronto. Her father, Yoseph Panzer, was an optician, and her mother, Esther Panzer, was from Ukraine and came to Canada via Milwaukee.
In the late 1960s, Speisman attended the University of Toronto, where she started out studying nursing, but switched to library science, in which she earned a honours bachelor’s degree. It was a turbulent time and she was a proud member of the campus anti-Vietnam War movement, in which she made friends with numerous draft dodgers who were studying there, according to her son-in-law, Michael Stavsky.
During the 1980s, Speisman freelanced for The CJN and wrote for and edited the High Holiday and Passover publications sent to members of the Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto (BAYT) Congregation in Thornhill, Ont. She was hired as a full-time reporter by then-CJN editor Maurice Lucow.
In retirement, Speisman often attended courses at Toronto’s Bernard Betel Centre. “She couldn’t get enough of learning and she never complained – the two things I remember about her,” said Sharon Chodirker, the centre’s co-ordinator of lifelong learning. “She had a thirst for knowledge and couldn’t get enough of the archeology course.”
Speisman was also involved at Baycrest Terraces in the three years she lived there, serving as the facility’s librarian.
She was “a role model for women in the Orthodox community, balancing family and career. She managed both with excellence,” said Rabbi Baruch Taub, the founding spiritual leader of the BAYT. “Together with Steve, they raised a family deeply committed to Torah values.”
As an honour student at university, “it was not surprising that in her career as a journalist at The CJN, whatever she wrote about, whether a community issue or event or a personality, it was captured brilliantly,” Rabbi Taub said.
She is survived by daughters Joanna and Shevi; sons-in-laws Michael Stavsky and Andy Urbach; and grandchildren Yitzy and Ezzie.