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The powerhouse women of Canadian Jewish Congress

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Rose Wolfe with Larry Tanenbaum and Elizabeth Wolfe
Rose Wolfe with her daughter, Elizabeth Wolfe, and Larry Tanenbaum at the opening of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies. JACLYN SHAPIRO PHOTO

Rose Wolfe passed away last month at the age of 100. Among much else, Rose was the lay chair of Canadian Jewish Congress’ joint community relations committee (JCRC) when I began working there in 1984. She was a formidable woman, smart, dignified, compassionate and tough, very tough. You had to be in those days to stand with the big personalities chosen by Canadian Jewry to represent our community.

Folks like Les Scheininger and Moshe Ronen, as well as the late David Satok, Chuck Zaionz, Louis Lenkinski, Max Federman, Syd Harris and Milton Harris, were all bigger than life. This meant that a Jewish woman in a leadership position had to hold her own. And this she did with tenacity, vision and kindheartedness.

Rose Wolfe was the epitome of a Canadian Jewish leader. She was there for some of Canadian Jewry’s most important human and civil rights battles. From successful judicial encounters over Christian teaching and prayers in Ontario’s public schools, to taking on Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, Rose championed our community with poise and grace.

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Indeed, I still recall with fondness joining Rose at her home for lunch the first Tuesday of every month, where we meticulously planned each JCRC meeting. She served me cucumber and cream cheese petit fours for lunch, which would necessitate a trip to United Bakers later to pick up the rest of my meal.

Rose’s death got me thinking: it was expected within Canadian Jewish Congress that men and women would play equal governance roles, at a time when it was unusual for women to be in such positions.

In fact, women not only were major participants on committees, but fought election battles on the national and regional fronts to take the helm of leadership. In 1986, Montrealer Dorothy Reitman ran against the young Jewish student activist Moshe Ronen for the presidency of CJC. She won handily, but this battle set the stage for Ronen to become chair of the national executive a few years later, and, in 1998, CJC’s youngest president.

During her tenure, Reitman was a thorn in the side of Soviet diplomats in Canada as she championed Refuseniks not permitted to leave the then-U.S.S.R. In Canada, she also became a fierce advocate for refugee rights,

And then there was the epic battle in May 1995 between Thomas Hecht, the odds-on favourite and a CJC outsider, against Goldie Hershon, a CJC stalwart who entered the race late but won a stunning victory by a mere 16 votes out of almost 1,000. It was a bitterly fought battle, with charges and counter charges of irregularities, but Hershon hung strong for the victory.

In fighting against Quebec separatism, Hershon made her mark leading CJC’s national unity strategy, bringing on board many other ethnic communities. This, of course, led to the bigoted charge by then-Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau that it was “money and the ethnic vote” that led to the sovereignty loss.

And while all this was going on nationally, within the CJC’s regions, women also challenged men for leadership positions. Again in a hard-fought battle, Holocaust survivor Gerda Frieberg defeated the very capable Mark Anshan to lead CJC’s largest region in Ontario. Gerda was the right person at the time for the job. She joined hands with JCRC chair Wolfe, and they successfully battled the emergence of the neo-Nazi Heritage Front and Holocaust denier Zundel.

Gerda was not the first woman to head Ontario region. That honour went to Mira Koschitsky, who was among a phalanx of Jewish women lay leaders of congress. Others included Judy Feld-Carr, Dorothy Zalcman-Howard, Zena Simces, Sheva Medjuk, Ellen Terry Cole, Marjorie Blankstein and many more.

I was pleased when Justin Trudeau invoked his now famous, “because it’s 2015,” when asked why so many women were in his new cabinet. However, CJC had understood and accepted women in positions of leadership for decades, and was the better for it.