Left to right: former National Council of Jewish Women Vancouver section president Shirley Hyman; Gloria Hendin, tribute committee chair; Barbara Heller, longtime supporter of council; Marion Poliakoff, the guest of honour; Bonnie Gertsman, former Vancouver section president; Anne Melul, former Vancouver section membership chair; and Debby Altow, past president, Vancouver section. (photo by Joanne Emerman)
National Council of Jewish Women hosted a tea at Temple Sholom on Jan. 9 to celebrate Marion Poliakoff, a true Renaissance woman. At 94 years young, she continues to be an inspiration to council members past and present.
Poliakoff’s career and her personal life demonstrate the principles of NCJW: fostering multiculturalism, alleviating poverty among women and children, supporting family counseling in Israel through ALUMA, and cherishing music and family. Her commitment to clear and convincing communication has been a boon to many newsletter writers – and she continues to edit us closely.
Gloria Hendin, who chaired the event committee, welcomed everyone. Shelagh Stoller bought the gift for Poliakoff, which Shirley Hyman presented. Barbara Heller managed all the banner decorations, Bonnie Gertsman and Anne Melul organized the food, and Judy Stern greeted guests as they arrived. The entertainment came courtesy of Poliakoff’s daughter, Amy Poliakoff, who brought her flute from Boston. I delivered the tribute speech, which I share below.
Vancouver section president Catherine Stoller set the tone for the annual general meeting that followed the celebration. “Looking backward, we recall our ancestry. Looking forward, we confront our destiny,” she said. The board of directors was installed by Shanie Levin with those words ringing in their ears!
In preparing my remarks, I read Melul’s biographical notes on Poliakoff, Carol Weinstock’s article on NCJW in the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia’s journal, The Scribe, and the book More Than Just Mrs.: Jewish Women’s Organizations in B.C., as well as the council’s cookbook. Of course, I also spoke with many council members who worked with Poliakoff, and reflected on my own personal experiences with her. With some minor editing, to reflect their publication after the event, my remarks follow.
Marion was born in the United States. Holding a bachelor’s from Simmons College in Massachusetts and a master’s in journalism from New York’s Columbia University, she married Mel Poliakoff in 1949, adopting Mel’s son Merrill at the same time. Although at first they were unable to live in Tenafly, N.J., because, as Jews, they could not buy a house there, nevertheless they did move there a few years later. She became the first Jew elected to public office, serving on the board of education.
In 1972, she moved to West Vancouver with her husband and their daughters Amy and Nan. They loved tennis, skiing and sailing. Sadly, Merrill and Nan are gone, but many of Marion’s family were able to join the council’s tribute.
When Marion met Bess Narod – Bess is from Ottawa; I knew her family back home – they went to an NCJW meeting, and that was the start of Marion’s connection with council. The first big item she worked on, the hearing screening project in schools, demonstrated council’s mission: identify a need, pilot a response, make it a success and turn it over to government. The Vancouver health department now runs it.
Marion also met Rita Weintraub, who became a lifelong friend. Together, they have worked to support the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver.
Meanwhile, Marion got another master’s degree – from the University of British Columbia’s School of Social Work – and, through a field placement at Britannia Community Centre, became interested in multicultural issues. Always the consummate writer, she contributed the Multicultural Corner column to the monthly newsletter of the B.C. Association of Social Workers; another column went into the Britannia newsletter, which was translated into Italian and Chinese.
The City of Vancouver grabbed Marion and she ran parenting groups for mothers in three community centres – using translators for Farsi, Chinese and Italian participants. In 1981, she received the Social Worker of the Year Award from the B.C. Association of Social Workers for her multicultural work.
I met her when I was the director of communications for the Canadian Cancer Society and she was a social worker at the B.C. Cancer Agency. I was working on breast cancer issues, with multicultural projects for Chinese and South Asian women. We found we had much in common.
Marion was also the one who called me every year to pay my NCJW dues, even though I was not an active volunteer in those years. She recruited me after I retired to join the board and, 13 years later, I’m still on it in one capacity or another.
In 1991, HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters) was brought to Canada from Israel as a council initiative by Carol Slater. Ever alert to new connections, Marion linked Britannia, along with Simon Fraser University, to council as our community partners to launch the HIPPY project. She was intimately involved in establishing its work with immigrant mothers and their families. While its name has changed to the Mothers Matter Centre, HIPPY remains one of council’s programs, and Wazi Kapenda, its Western director, was in attendance at the tribute.
Marion’s volunteering extended to driving people to services at Congregation Har El, eventually donating her beloved baby grand piano to the shul, fundraising for the synagogue, and cooking and serving food weekly to needy and homeless people at Harvest House.
Later, she joined the North Shore Osteoporosis Society, organizing monthly speakers. I spoke at one gathering and there were more than 100 people attending – a not uncommon number!
Her commitment to ALUMA (formerly the Israel Family Counseling Agency) was, and continues to be, an inspiration. She fought for support for ALUMA in council, because the organization was dedicated to supporting people in Israel who could not afford professional counseling but who desperately needed it. And Judy Stern could always count on Marion to canvass for Friends and Angels, council’s only annual fundraiser.
Marion’s was a home where music was loved and valued, even after the piano was gone. She supported the Vancouver Symphony, the Vancouver Chamber Music Society and Music in the Morning. Music continues to be a tree of life for many of her family members. Her close friend Shirley Lecker is part of that tradition.
Do you see a thread unspooling here – with HIPPY, with anti-poverty issues, with a commitment to Jewish values, with a passion for family, with a professional eye for communication, with an abiding love of music? When I said Renaissance woman, the label is legitimate.
It is such an honour to acknowledge Marion for her work with council – and with many of us personally. It is beyond words. To simply say thank you is really inadequate. But, from the bottom of my heart, and from all of us, thank you, Marion.