Siegel was deeply in­volved in Toronto’s early com­mu­nity

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - Feature - BILL GLAD­STONE SPE­CIAL TO THE CJN

When Ida Lewis Siegel turned 90, Cana­dian Jewish Congress of­fi­cial Ben Kayfetz wrote an ar­ti­cle cel­e­brat­ing her many ac­com­plish­ments within Toronto’s Jewish com­mu­nity, not­ing that she had de­voted her life to the com­mu­nity’s wel­fare and that she was still in pos­ses­sion of an im­pres­sive mem­ory.

“She can re­cite from mem­ory the ad­dresses and iden­ti­ties of ev­ery Jewish (and non-jewish) store­keeper in the old ward, along Queen Street West, down York Street and in the El­iz­a­beth-ch­est­nut-cen­tre Av­enue sec­tor,” Kayfetz ob­served.

Both of those fac­tors – Siegel’s deep in­volve­ment in Toronto’s early Jewish com­mu­nity, and her long-stand­ing prac­tice of writ­ing down or recit­ing her anec­dotes and mem­o­ries from the old days – are the rea­son the On­tario Jewish Ar­chives Blankenstein Fam­ily Her­itage Cen­tre has such an im­pres­sive range of ma­te­rial on her.

Siegel (1885-1982) was born in Pitts­burgh but her mother – an ac­tivist in Jewish af­fairs in her own right – brought her as a lit­tle girl to Toronto where her fa­ther had al­ready taken up res­i­dence. They took a train to Lewis­ton, stopped to view Ni­a­gara Falls, then crossed the lake on the Iro­quois steamer to Toronto. “I im­me­di­ately loved Canada and still do,” she wrote in a rem­i­nis­cence many years later.

In a short es­say The Old Time Fam­ily Doc­tor, Siegel re­called the days when a fam­ily mem­ber would rush to the clos­est tele­phone in a lo­cal sa­loon when an ex­pec­tant mother went into labour. “Not even the most re­tir­ing woman hes­i­tated to en­ter the sa­loon when the doc­tor was needed – and he al­ways came, in re­sponse to the sa­loon tele­phone, early or late, in his horse and buggy.”

Siegel’s brother, Sa­muel Lewis, or­ga­nized the city’s first Zion­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion, Agu­dath Zion, in 1898, a time when the Zion­ist move­ment was gain­ing huge mo­men­tum and the Drey­fus case of France was “up­per­most in the minds of the peo­ple.” In 1899 Ida Lewis (be­fore her mar­riage) presided over the first meet­ing of Daugh­ters of Zion, the first women’s Zion­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion in Canada, in her home on El­iz­a­beth Street near Dun­das Street. Prof­its from their pop­u­lar balls, held an­nu­ally in the Tem­ple Build­ing, were sent to aid the Jews of Pales­tine.

Nu­mer­ous other Zion­ist groups sprang up, in­clud­ing the Zion Cadets, which marched in a city-wide mil­i­tary pa­rade in 1905. Another group, Ohavis Zion (Love of Zion) be­gan as a mixed or­ga­ni­za­tion open to both young men and women. How­ever, as Siegel noted, “it lasted only six months be­cause, as was said, there was too much Ohavis and not enough Zion.”

There was only one cheder in town in those years, the Tal­mud To­rah lo­cated on “aris­to­cratic” Simcoe Street, which later moved to Brunswick Av­enue. Its much-re­spected prin­ci­ple and teacher was Ben­zion Nathanson. “He car­ried no stick around with him, and when out of pa­tience [did not] de­liver a Roosh­e­sen frank – a Rus­sian slap – like one I knew in a Sun­day School.” In­stead, Nathanson “merely pleaded” with his pupils to be­have.

Siegel lamented the lack of ed­u­ca­tional re­sources for girls, and es­tab­lished the Zion­ist Sun­day School for girls above Ca­plan’s Butcher Shop on Dun­das west of El­iz­a­beth. A suf­fragette sym­pa­thizer, Siegel drew in­spi­ra­tion from her friend, Hadas­sah pi­o­neer Hen­ri­etta Szold, as well as from fem­i­nist Susan B. An­thony, whom she once met in New York State.

She was in­stru­men­tal in found­ing Hadas­sah in Canada, the He­brew Ladies Ma­ter­nity Aid So­ci­ety, the YM and YWHA, the Goel Tzedec Sis­ter­hood, and the city’s Toronto Home and School Coun­cil. In be­tween these do­ings, she served on the Tal­mud To­rah Aux­il­iary, the Women’s Aux­il­iary of the Beaches In­sti­tute, the Child Wel­fare Coun­cil of Toronto, and other char­i­ta­ble en­ter­prises. A tire­less char­i­ta­ble or­ga­nizer, she was also, im­pres­sively, a mother of six.

Through her vi­sion to cre­ate a Co­op­er­a­tive Board of Char­i­ties, she in­flu­enced lo­cal char­i­ties to work to­gether and led to the Fed­er­a­tion of Jewish Phi­lan­thropies of Toronto and the present-day Fed­er­a­tion. Her un­stop­pable am­bi­tion to im­prove the lot of the less for­tu­nate led her to run for a seat on Toronto’s Board of Ed­u­ca­tion, to which she was elected in 1930 de­spite “stiff op­po­si­tion from ev­ery source,” she wrote. “The feel­ing be­hind it was that, once elected, it would be hard to keep the Ward spot open for am­bi­tious young men, as a step­ping stone to higher po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions.”

In the WW I era, the Toronto YMCA ruled to keep a Jewish boy from join­ing. Siegel tried to in­ter­est the Jewish com­mu­nity in a sports fa­cil­ity of their own, but many felt that fundrais­ing for the Tal­mud To­rah was more im­por­tant. Un­daunted, she rented space in an ad­ja­cent build­ing where young peo­ple could en­joy sports and ex­er­cise. After a sports team headed by Jack Lands­berg won a first vic­tory against the Balmy Beach Club, Siegel was hastily sum­moned be­cause a fight had bro­ken out on the field.


Ida Siegel with Ed­mund Scheuer at the Cana­dian Jewish Farm School in Ge­orge­town, circa 1927; and in 1971.

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