At the Oct. 23 ceremony for the unveiling of a plaque honouring National Council of Jewish Women of Canada’s 120 years of service are, from the left, Sharon Allentuck, Gloria Roden, Debbie Wasserman, Dr. Richard Alway, Councilor James Pasternak and Eva Karpati. (photo from NCJWC)
On Oct. 23, National Council of Jewish Women national president Debbie Wasserman accepted a plaque honouring the work of NCJW. It was from Parks Canada and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada and it was unveiled at the Toronto offices of NCJW Canada. The recognition came on the council’s 120th anniversary.
“NCJWC in Vancouver has an enviable track record of working with disadvantaged elementary schools, funding programs of nutrition, hygiene, cooking, farm visits and street safety,” NCJWC Vancouver’s Debby Altow told the Independent. “We have received heart-stopping letters of thanks from the kids and their teachers; they inspire us to do even more in our fight to alleviate poverty…. Our Operation Dressup delivers thousands of items of good clothing, plus shopping certificates for teens every year, and our Books for Kids program reaches into daycares, preschools, doctors’ offices and other sites…. We hope to expand these programs into other nearby communities.”
Altow said, “Vancouver section president Catherine Stoller is following in the footsteps of her mom, Sheilah, serving as president of the section for the past three years. Our section has been an integral part of the community for over 90 years, and the Heritage designation, while it rests in Toronto, really applies to every province where council has been active.”
Of the Oct. 23 event, Wasserman said, “The ceremony was very moving. We began by proceeding into the auditorium…. The Canadian flag was dominantly displayed and the plaque was draped. We all sang O Canada. The master of ceremonies then introduced all the dignitaries and all spoke about the importance of NCJWC over its 120-year history. The ceremony’s highlight was when we all came off the stage to unveil the plaque displayed on an easel.”
Wasserman and NCJWC Toronto president Eva Karpati unveiled the plaque. Ena Cord, immediate past president of the Toronto section, read the inscription in English and Dahlia Rusinek, a past Toronto section president, read it in French. There were many photos taken, and a reception followed.
“Parks Canada contacted us earlier this year to tell us that NCJWC was to be recognized as an organization of national significance to Canada, seeing that we were the first Jewish women’s organization in Canada,” explained Wasserman. “The plaque will be permanently installed at 44 St. George St. in Toronto, the former head office of NCJWC.”
Dignitaries at the ceremony included Eric Nielsen of Parks Canada (master of ceremonies), Dr. Richard Alway of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Toronto City Councilor James Pasternak (York Centre), NCJWC Toronto member and historian Gloria Roden, and Sharon Allentuck, NCJWC immediate past president and Winnipeg section member.
“As a passionate advocate for social justice and equality since 1897, the National Council of Jewish Women of Canada has forged an enduring legacy of community service across Canada,” Nielsen noted in his remarks. “It’s incredible to think that the council was founded right here in Toronto and has been growing steadily for over a century.
“The birth of the council came at a truly interesting time in Canadian history,” he continued. “During the late 19th century, urbanization, industrialization and immigration were causing social disruption in many cities across Canada. It was at this time that a pioneering group of Jewish women united to effect social change. Led by Meldola de Sola, wife of a distinguished Montreal rabbi, women of the Holy Blossom Synagogue in Toronto began meeting in private homes to study Genesis and the teachings of Judaism in preparation for beginning philanthropic activities in their communities.
“At the time of its founding in Toronto, the National Council of Jewish Women of Canada focused on supporting young girls and new immigrants. They provided shelter, training, and other forms of assistance, all while strengthening the Jewish community.”
Nielsen said that, through NCJW, Jewish women across the country “gained a voice in Canadian society and the women’s movement.”
The oldest Jewish women’s organization in Canada, NCJWC has evolved, said Nielsen, “to meet the changing needs of the most vulnerable in society.” And it “continues to work tirelessly to promote social justice, freedom, equality and tolerance at home. Equally concerned with the well-being of people outside of Canada, the council’s members have also collaborated with aid organizations, such as the Red Cross, to contribute to humanitarian efforts abroad.
“Thanks to their efforts, we are creating a rich mosaic portraying the greatest moments of our nation’s history. Future generations will better understand their history through this mosaic and, hopefully, better understand themselves and the values of our country.”
Nielsen congratulated NCJWC. “The council’s invaluable legacy,” he said, “is a source of inspiration for all who work to promote meaningful social change, at home and abroad.”
Noting that NCJWC “began in 1897 with 20 women studying and learning Bible,” Roden said the council “realized there was an urgent need to help immigrants arriving daily in Toronto. And so, by 1909, a place was needed for the growing group to expand their activities. Two rooms on Walton Street in the Ward were rented, but, by 1913, there was a move to new larger headquarters on McCaul Street.
“With the outbreak of the First World War,” she said, “young council members took an active part and McCaul Street was transformed into a Red Cross centre, providing hospital supplies and other necessities for wartime aid. In 1918, with the Spanish flu epidemic, council volunteers carried meals to 800 flu victims from our kosher kitchen and provided home nursing care.
“In 1919, council women became big sisters to children and working girls, and bought Fairview Cottage at Whitby Beach to provide these girls with an oasis for much-needed fresh air and sunshine. By 1937, council continued their involvement with the Jewish Camp Council to included Camp Camperdown near Orillia.”
The offices on St. George were “purchased with a modest down payment,” said Roden. “It was called Community House, with the Jewish community using the much-needed premises for a variety of activities. It operated classes, including cooking, sewing, journalism, language, dance and art. Sports teams were formed … [to help newcomers to Canada], a daycare centre, English classes, and even a legal storefront service was established. A club for handicapped girls was formed to teach sewing and social skills, and there were interpreters to translate for the newly arrived.
“The NCJW has continued with our motto of ‘Faith and Humanity,’ and the voluntary participation as our civic responsibility as citizens of our great country. We continue to study, educate ourselves and participate with pride.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.