When Dennis Waldman suddenly died of a heart attack at age 41 in 1989, over 1,200 people packed into Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel in Toronto for his funeral – so many that Benjamin’s had to unexpectedly open up an extra section. Orthodox mourners waited outside and walked behind the hearse, to show their appreciation for Waldman’s work as a night teacher at a local yeshiva.
When Waldman’s family and friends saw how many people attended his funeral, they decided to find a way to continue to honour his memory going forward.
“He was very well respected in the community, from his students, from their parents. And when he died so suddenly and so tragically and so young, there was a kind of an outpouring of grief and affection in the community and that was attached to a memorial donation,” said his wife, Nell Waldman.
That’s why Dennis Waldman’s loved ones started the Dennis Waldman Foundation for Jewish Education, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Each year, it awards a one-time scholarship of $4,000 to a Canadian student who’s entering university and has “a demonstrated history of involvement in communal Jewish life.”
The foundation’s board wanted the scholarship to go towards something Waldman would have cared about. As a teacher, he was always passionate about education, so presenting the scholarship to a graduating high school student made sense. He was also very well-rounded, according to his younger brother, Steven Waldman.
“So we were looking for not only good marks … we’re looking for good community service, teacher references were important and they had to write a good essay. We’d look for sports that they were involved in, music, anything that would fit being a well-rounded individual,” he said.
Steven Waldman mentioned one previous winner, a student from an Orthodox girls’ school who had good marks and played the drums, as one such example.
He said that the foundation generally receives around 30 applications a year, which are narrowed down to a shortlist of three or four applicants to be interviewed.
Over time, the foundation has become something of a family affair. Nell and Dennis Waldman’s children have helped out, as have Steven’s children, although they never met their late uncle. Even the children of some of their cousins are getting involved.
“I look forward to it every year. I love the idea that we do this. I’m really proud of what we do. I’m really proud of the students that win it,” said Steven Waldman. “We think it’s great and I’d love to see it go on in perpetuity, that the next generation is going to take it over.”
Nell Waldman is also proud of everything the foundation has accomplished.
“Dennis was a gifted and beloved teacher – and an admirable human being. For 30 years, the Waldman Foundation has made sure that his memory remains a blessing by awarding a scholarship in his name to a young person of high promise in the Jewish community. This ongoing commitment over three decades has been a labour of love accomplished by several generations of Dennis’s family and friends,” she wrote in an email to The CJN.
Both Nell and Steven Waldman acknowledged that it is difficult to know how Dennis would have felt about having a scholarship named after him, but in the end, they both agreed that he would undoubtedly have approved of the results.
“You know, he wasn’t the sort of person that looked for accolades, so from that point of view, if it was about him, I don’t know what he would say,” said Steven Waldman. “But I think, in theory, he would have loved the idea that there were scholarships for education, because he was an educator – he believed very much in it.”