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Jewish Family & Child celebrates 150 years

Dora Wilensky, JF&CS’s executive director from 1931-1959, when she graduated from McMaster University. (Queen University Archives)

Jewish Family & Child (JF&CS) will celebrate its 150th anniversary with a gala on May 9, in which it will reflect on Jewish life in Toronto from 1868 to the present, through an interactive exhibit that will tell the story of the organization’s history.

In order to create a timeline of past events, JF&CS appointed an archivist to sift through the Ontario Jewish Archives.

“We are breaking down 150 years into six different time periods, each period having its own interactive display with photos, reading and audio material. It’s an opportunity for people to explore and be educated about the different time periods. As well, we narrowed it down to the top 25 milestones, which are featured on an online timeline available on our website,” said Hannah Wasserman, JF&CS’s director of development and communications.

Dating back to 1868, when it had a budget of only a few hundred dollars, it has become one of the foremost family service agencies in North America. Today, with more than 140 staff and a budget of over $24 million, JF&CS provides over 30 programs and services that support children, families and communities through prevention, protection, counselling, education and advocacy services.


“The history of our agency is the history of our community’s extraordinary response to the most vulnerable among us. It is our hope that the future will be filled with as many personal stories of resilience and rejuvenation as the past,” said JF&CS executive director Brian Prousky.

In 1868, the Ladies Sick Benefit Society was established. These philanthropic women from affluent families were affiliated with the Toronto Hebrew Congregation (the city’s first synagogue, which later became Holy Blossom). Their mandate involved helping the sick and needy within the Jewish community. The members distributed free loans, tended to the sick, assisted widows and provided support following the death of a member.

“The Ladies Sick Benefit Society was the founding agency of many Jewish social service agencies that you see today,” said Wasserman.

The Toronto Hebrew Ladies’ Aid Society emerged in 1899 and provided essentials, such as coal and groceries. It gave dowries, covered funeral expenses, visited the sick and bought clothing for children. It operated within Toronto’s first Jewish neighbourhood, The Ward, which was the home of many eastern European immigrants who had arrived during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1905, the society had become the largest Jewish charitable organization in Toronto, boasting 300 members.

JF&CS executive director Brian Prousky

Starting in 1919, family welfare work within the community was overseen by the Family Welfare Committee, which was part of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of Toronto. In 1931, the agency was restructured and renamed the Jewish Family Welfare Bureau.

By the 1920s, the bureau’s focus shifted to immigration, wife abuse and suicide. Then, during the Great Depression, it started trying to address the problem of unemployment. In 1931, Dora Wilensky was appointed as the executive director of the bureau. She was in charge of assisting families with procuring services, such as medical care, heating, clothing, housekeeping and counselling.

“Dora was so ahead of her time. She understood social work and community needs. She understood Jewish needs and the needs of immigrants. She was so relevant to the time, and continues to be relevant today,” said Wasserman.

In 1943, a merger took place involving the Jewish Child Welfare Association and the Jewish Family Welfare Bureau, to form JF&CS. Dora Wilensky continued to serve as the executive director of the agency until 1959, when her life was cut short at the age of 56. Under her leadership, JF&CS became one of the most innovative and dynamic social welfare agencies in the city.

From the 1980s on, JF&CS expanded with offices across the city.

The JF&CS anniversary gala will be held at The Warehouse Venue in Toronto.

“There will be entertainment reviving the comedic footage from Jewish Folks Telling Jokes and the cuisine will reflect the history of Jewish culture. We will hear from two former clients who will share their personal success stories about how the agency helped them,” concluded Wasserman.