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In memoriam: eulogy for Chancellor Emerita Rose Wolfe

Rose Wolfe (Shoshana bat Moshe v’Chaya)
Funeral - January 2, 2017 – 4 Tevet 5777

Eulogy by Rabbi Splansky

Rose Wolfe died during the Festival of Chanukah when we celebrate the triumph of the small, the few, the weak, the vulnerable. Our prayerbook praises God by Whose Power the righteous were valiant and victorious. By God’s Grace, our ancestors were able to create something miraculous. They took back their sovereignty in the Land of Israel, lit every light in the Temple, and brought honour to the Sanctuary once again. In Rose’s lifetime, she not only witnessed such a transformation for the Jewish People – from a time of terrifying darkness to a bright and noble light – we helped to create it!

On Chanukah we bless the eight sacred lights.  They are holy, untouched.  But what of the Shamash?  The one set apart?  The one sometimes lonely, but never alone?  The one who works tirelessly to bring light to others?  This was Rose Wolfe.  She was the Shamash who lit at least eight candles throughout her lifetime.

First Candle – Her Family of Origin
Rose was born in Toronto on Augusta Avenue to Morris and Clara Senderowitz, who had both come from a tiny Romanian village called Stefanesht.  She was the middle of five children: four sisters and one brother.  They lived behind the family’s small, but successful bakery. The work was arduous and the hours were long for them all, so there was sometimes tension in the house. 

Clara was a formidable woman.  In addition to her responsibilities in the bakery, she managed the household, sewed the children’s clothing, and welcomed relatives and other newcomers who needed shelter until they found their way in the New World. A “Mrs. Bergman” for example, lived with the family before and after the war. Rose resented having to give up her bed and move to the third floor where there was little heat, but her parents’ model of the mitzvah of hospitality and the mitzvah of supporting refugees and those with less – stayed with her for a lifetime.

Although unschooled, Morris was a voracious reader and believed in the power of education. Rose was a good student. She earned a gold medal for high marks at Ryerson Public School, went onto Harbord Collegiate and Oakwood where she earned 100% in history. Rose enrolled in sociology at University College at U of T and graduated in 1938. 

At a time when very few women went to university he afforded all four of his daughters the opportunity to attend the University of Toronto. For an interview for U of T News, Rose recalled:  “We never knew how they did it. They sold bread for five cents a loaf. Maybe they made half-a-cent profit on each loaf, so you think of the number of loaves of bread you have to sell to eke out a living. They were both very industrious people. My mother sewed all our clothes. She worked in the bakery, took care of the whole house and took in two of my orphaned cousins. I remember that right in the middle of the Depression, she decided we should move and we ended up in Forest Hill, when Forest Hill had cows in it. We never knew why she decided to move there when most Jewish families moved to Grace Street or Palmerston. It was a mystery.”

Second Candle – Her Career as a Social Worker
Rose went on to earn a diploma in Social Work in 1939. And although she always regretted not going to medical school, her Social Work degree gave way to a most fulfilling life of service.
Rose found several positions with social service agencies and ultimately found her place with Jewish Family and Child Service. After the war, she helped to resettle refugee child-survivors of the Holocaust. Following her mother’s example, Rose was wholehearted and generous in this work. And she, in turn, was profoundly shaped by the orphaned children and teenagers in her care. (I believe some of you here today are representatives of the many who found a home here in Toronto, thanks to Rose Wolfe.) This humbling and gratifying early career as a Social Worker led to Rose’s lifelong commitment to Holocaust Education and advocacy for social welfare and matters of human rights for all.

Third Candle – Ray
Much of Rose’s life was intertwined with Ray’s. They met as teenagers. He drove his father’s Cadillac, making him what Rose called “The Most Eligible Bachelor.” His big personality and big ambitions were a match for hers, but it was the war that motivated them to marry. As a married man, Ray could defer conscription to the Infantry and, by enlisting, he was able to volunteer for the Air Force. And so they married on July 5, 1941, on five days’ notice.  The Air Force took them from coast to coast – from Vancouver to Moncton.

Both Rose and Ray were “larger than life” personalities. They were united in their drive and ambition and community-minded spirit. Liz and Jonathan remember that the weeks leading up to an election could be tense in the home, because their parents were equally passionate about politics. Ray leaned right, and Rose leaned left – sometimes hard left.

After the war, Ray returned to work for his father’s fruit and vegetable wholesale company. One good deal led to another and the business flourished, but Ray worked “fruit market hours” – 4 am to 8 pm – and that took a toll on them both.  Everything changed when in 1952, to their delight, Jonathan was born and Elizabeth came two years later. The story goes that when Liz was in Kindergarten, Rose came home from work one day to find her daughter in tears at the doorstep. Right then and there Rose decided to devote herself full-time to the family.  She was the perfect hostess.  She was glamorous.  She looked and dressed the part – no matter the part. They travelled the world and met the most interesting people. Rose enjoyed the luxuries of a non-working woman, but, truth be told, she sometimes resented being the executive’s nameless wife.  So….

Fourth Candle – Community 
Rose got serious about community leadership. She was invited to participate in UJA Women’s Division and that began a career in philanthropy.  Rose assumed one leadership position after another:  (just to name a few)

  • Chair, Women’s Division, United Jewish Appeal
  • President, Federation of Jewish Women’s Organizations
  • President, Jewish Family & Child Service
  • President, Toronto Jewish Congress (at the time of the Zundel Trials) 

At a dinner in her honour, Historian Irving Abella gave tribute, saying:  “Within the Jewish community the name ‘Rose Wolfe’ has become synonymous with class, courage, compassion and commitment.  For organized Jewry, Rose has been a trailblazer. She helped break down the stubborn barriers that precluded women from their proper role in community councils.  But what matters most is not that Rose Wolfe was the first woman to do a lot of things, but that she was invariably the best person in doing them….”

Rose treated her volunteerism as a professional.  She was “all in.”  As the chair of the Community Relations Committee of the Canadian Jewish Congress Rose became the community’s champion against anti-semitism and bigotry of all forms. She built bridges to many other communities, opened dialogues with other religious groups, and influenced politicians and government positions.

From her days in her parents’ bakery, Rose learned about money. How to earn it.  How to save it.  How to spend it.  How to raise it.  And how to give it away. Rose will always be remembered for her generosity of both precious time, as well as philanthropy. The list of organizations of which she was an Officer, Director or Governor is lengthy and diverse, including, among others:  The Banting Institute, The Canadian Jewish News, Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Mount Sinai Hospital, National Ballet Company of Canada, Pearson College of the Pacific, Trillium Foundation, Governing Council – University of Toronto.

Fifth Candle – Israel
Rose’s passion and lifelong commitment to Israel began with their first trip in 1959. Ray invested in business there and they developed dear friendships and close personal relationships with many of Israel’s most notable citizens and politicians across the political spectrum. Rose counted among her personal friends Mayor Teddy Kollek of Jerusalem and Mayor Cheech Lahat of Tel Aviv.  Ray and Rose traveled to Israel regularly and their home became the Toronto venue for hosting Israeli dignitaries and business associates for decades.

Sixth Candle – The University of Toronto
Rose’s entire career was in the service of her country and her community, but reached its pinnacle with her election as Chancellor of University of Toronto in 1991.  The invitation came just one year after Ray’s death and she was grateful for the opportunity for a new focus.  Her appointment was shocking to many at the time, but Rose disarmed and charmed them all by wondering aloud and often:  “How is it possible that a housewife from Willowdale could become the university’s first Jewish chancellor?”  No one could deny her raw talent.  She was a natural born leader.  Rose Wolfe could talk just about anyone into just about anything.  She could work any room. She was petite even in high heels, but in character, she was a giant!

The University gave Rose a new and most fulfilling life. She embraced the role fully and she blossomed with the challenge. With memories of Jewish quotas, Chancellor Wolfe was determined to enhance the presence of Jewish Studies at University of Toronto.  She worked tirelessly to cultivate and engage communal donors. And she personally ensured that Holocaust Education would always have a place at the University by establishing The Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair in Holocaust Studies. 

As Chancellor, Rose enjoyed the company of Kings and Queens and Heads of State.  She presided over the graduation of 60,000 students over her six year tenure, acknowledging each one individually. She conferred honourary degrees on Presidents and Kings and ultimately received one herself for her dedication to the university.  Rose was named a Senior Fellow and Visitor at Massey College and a Senior Fellow at University College. At the end of her tenure, an exquisite stained-glass window was dedicated at Massey College in her honour, and the University of Toronto Alumni Association established The Rose Wolfe Distinguished Alumni Award.

But most of all, she reveled in the friendships among the university’s faculty and staff. They became her new extended family for the remainder of her life. She shared a closeness that came with shared purpose, but true-to-form, Rose never refrained from speaking her mind or taking even the most senior leadership to task.  With his British accent, Rabbi Marmur used to tell Rose that she was the “Queen Mother of the University of Toronto.”  He writes of Jerusalem now about her “rare combination of dignity and personal warmth that characterized her years as Chancellor and stayed with her till the end.”

U of T President Emeritus Rob Prichard has sent condolences:
“You know that Rose was a spectacularly successful Chancellor, the best in the modern history of the university. She raised the bar and redefined The Office for all who have followed her. She built bridges between the university and our many communities that we badly needed and learned so much from, the Jewish community most prominent among them.  Rose also made me better, teaching me so much, providing wisdom and perspective, and directing me to better choices and more productive courses of action.”

Current President Meric Gertler commented:
“So many aspects of University life were imbued with Rose’s warmth and wisdom, whether it be Jewish and Holocaust Studies, Social Work, University College, Massey College or the wellbeing of commuter students. It is hard to think of anyone who has shaped the University of Toronto as positively and profoundly as Rose Wolfe.”

Seventh Candle – Children and Grandchildren
Rose taught her children and grandchildren by example.  She set high standards for them as she did for herself.  Rose was a working mother, twenty-five years before it was common.  Her imposing library, from floor to 14-foot ceiling, was enough to send a clear message to her children that learning and being curious about the world and ideas was essential for constructing a life of meaning. She was not a doting Jewish Mother or sweetheart- Bubbe, but she was constant as a Matriarch, with deep concern for her family.  She provided them with good guidance and passionate protection.

Jonathan and Liz learned how to care for aging parents from Rose’s example. She had visited her own mother Clara every day and nursed her through illness and pain until she died.  Liz and Jonathan saw their parents in and out of hospitals for some thirty years. Their devotion and care never waivered.  Rose fought aging with everything she had. Even last week she was giving directions to the ambulance driver on the way to the hospital. Thanks to her fiery spirit, the excellent care from her team of doctors and caregivers, and the loving loyalty of her children, Rose rallied again and again. 

Eighth Candle – The Legacy of Character
The one constant throughout her long life, was Rose’s demand for excellence from herself and everyone in her orbit and her innate interest in people. She inquired with genuine interest into the wellbeing of others.  Displaying remarkable empathy, Rose made others feel important. The few times I went to visit with her in her home, I was surprised how long the conversations became.  She wanted to know about Holy Blossom Temple and my own emerging leadership.  She gave good guidance and encouragement.  Just being in her presence, made us all want to aspire, to rise to the occasion of the finest version of ourselves.

Liz writes:  “From her mother, Rose inherited a formidable presence, empathy for others, and her demand for excellence. From her father, Rose acquired her inquiring mind, commitment to education. From her husband, Rose learned how to work a room and manage a board. From her lifelong friends, Rose learned humility. From her children, Rose knew love and lifelong devotion. From her grandchildren, Rose learned how to laugh at herself.”
Together with Ray, Rose Wolfe built a family and a life that represents the fulfillment of her parents’ greatest dreams, and then some.  Rose ascended to places of influence and impact that only she would dare to dream for herself.  And now we carry her light with us.  Her children and grandchildren, her friends and colleagues, her thousands of students – you are her light in this world.  

Rose died on Friday.  Saturday night the Chanukiah was complete with eight candles standing tall and proud on the window sill.  Eight candles illuminating the world with a triumphant glow of dignity and purpose.  Now her work is complete.  Her task in this lifetime has been fulfilled.  Only now, the Shamash can she rest.

Zichrono livracha.  May her memory be a blessing to all whose lives were illuminated by hers.  May her memory be a blessing to all who are enlightened by her life example.  Amen.