Women+: An Exhibition of how Women Shaped Jewish Life in Ontario

The Ontario Jewish Archives’ vast collection of documents, photographs and audiovisual materials records the past 170 years of Jewish life in the province. Evident in the records is the role that women played and continue to play in building and shaping Jewish domestic and public life. And yet, many of their stories remain hidden—little known contributors to the rich historical record.

Women+, the OJA’s joint exhibition with Baycrest’s Department of Culture and Arts, spotlights and celebrates Jewish women in the community and their historic contributions to a variety of fields. This exhibition is the first installation of a two-part collaborative project with Baycrest. Through the lens of themes such as labour, the home, religious observance, sports, arts, and the war effort, the Women+ photography exhibition is a snapshot of Jewish women’s power, agency, and legacy.

Ida Siegel portrait, 1933. Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 15, file 37, item 25.
Composite of Trustees of City of Toronto Board of Education, 1933. Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 15, file 37, item 26.
Jewish Nursery and Children’s Home, 218 Simcoe Street, ca. 1916. This orphanage was one of the first recipients of funds from the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of Toronto (now UJA Federation of Greater Toronto). Ontario Jewish Archives, accession 2008-3-5.

Toronto’s earliest Jewish philanthropic bodies were quick to respond to the influx of immigrants fleeing Eastern Europe in the early 1900s. Women-run institutions were quick to provide widows, orphans, the sick, and the needy with critical services such as social assistance, health care, and maternal support. 

Of the 10 original agencies funded by the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of Toronto in 1917, six represented the work done by women: the Ladies Co-operative Board; the Jewish Orphans Home; the Jewish Girls Club; Junior Council of Jewish Women; the Hebrew Ladies Maternity Aid and Sewing Circle; and the Hebrew Young Ladies Boot and Shoe Society. They were the pioneers of Toronto Jewish philanthropy.

Jewish Girls’ Club of Toronto group at beach in Whitby, [between 1916 and 1919]. Ontario Jewish Archives, item 1878.
National Council of Jewish Women, Junior Council girls picnicking, Thornhill, 1920.Ontario Jewish Archives, item 18.

Ida Lewis Siegel, along with Abraham Cohen and Edmund Scheuer, was one of the founders of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of Toronto in 1917. 

She was born in 1885 in Pittsburgh, shortly after her parents had immigrated from Lithuania. The family moved to Toronto nine years later. She would meet and marry Isidore Siegel, a travelling salesman, and bear six children. 

Communal work was Siegel’s calling. She is credited with helping to found a large number of Jewish philanthropic and social organizations including the first ladies’ Zionist society in Canada, the Daughters of Zion (1899). But it was in medicine and education where Ida made her mark. With the help of her brother Abe Lewis, Siegel formed the first free Jewish dispensary in Toronto, located on Elizabeth Street in Toronto’s St. John’s Ward.

 She was also instrumental in unifying the early disparate Jewish social service organizations into the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies (1917) when they realized that fundraising needed to be centralized. However, she was denied a seat on the executive board, even after campaigning for a female representative.

In 1930, Siegel was elected to the Board of Education for the City of Toronto, the only Jewish representative of 20 members. She held that position for six years, and never shied away from vocalizing her support for women’s equality in education and politics. In an undated letter to the editor of the Toronto Globe newspaper, Siegel offered her congratulations to the first woman elected as chair of the Windsor Board of Education, stating that Windsor was “proving itself more broadminded than Toronto.” Siegel went on to criticize the Toronto Board for continuously passing up a woman trustee for chair, even though her qualifications were equal to those of the men on the board. “It is up to the women of Toronto to remind those concerned that women now enjoy the franchise and are in line for public office on a merit basis equally with men.”

In 1937, she ran unsuccessfully for alderman in Toronto, but remained politically active with the Association of Women’s Electors. She was active in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom from 1915 onward and was an outspoken opponent of both world wars.

Dora Dworkin in nurses uniform, [1909?]. Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 10, item 17.
Dorothy Dworkin with members of the Mount Sinai Hospital Ladies Auxiliary, Toronto, [ca. 1923]. Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 10, item 1.

A contemporary of Ida Siegel, Dorothy Dworkin was a prominent early leader in the community. She was both a health care worker in the Toronto Jewish community and a founder of Mount Sinai Hospital (Toronto). Her family business, Dworkin Travel, assisted hundreds of European Jews immigrating to Canada. 

Dworkin was born in Latvia, one of William and Sarah Goldstick’s ten children. She came to Canada in 1904, at 14 years old. She studied nursing in the United States by training at Mount Sinai Hospital in Cleveland and then took her exams in midwifery in 1909. She received her diploma from the State Board of Ohio.  

When Ida Siegel and her brother Abe Lewis set up a free Jewish dispensary, they hired Dworkin to run it. She would run the dispensary during the afternoon when it was open and make house calls the rest of the day, attending to immigrant women who refused to give birth in the hospital.

In 1911, Dorothy married Henry Dworkin, who was the founder of the Toronto Labour Lyceum. Henry opened a small variety store in 1917, which later became the tobacco and shipping agency business Dworkin Travel, located at 525 Dundas Street West. In 1928, Henry was tragically killed in an automobile accident. After his death, Dworkin ran the travel business and continued committing a great deal of her time to charitable work. She helped open Mount Sinai Hospital in 1922, and was the president of the Mount Sinai women’s auxiliary. Throughout her life, Dworkin played a pivotal role in helping to raise both public and financial support for this institution.

She continued to run her business and support the activities of Mount Sinai until her death in 1976, at the age of 86. In her records, she reflected on the early days of the Dispensary: 

This dispensary was a great boon to the Jewish immigrants arriving from all parts of Europe. They could not speak English and could not make themselves understood at the out-patient clinics of the local hospitals. They could not afford $1 fee charged by private physicians—Dr. Kaufman charged 50 cents for each visit. . . . The experience I gained at this time was invaluable . . . I was in charge of the dispensary when I returned to Toronto . . .  Our quarters were on Elizabeth Street near Agnes (now Dundas). The dispensary was open every afternoon. After hours, I devoted myself to home calls, usually at night when most babies seem to be born.

Dworkin’s dedication to the physical well-being of Jewish women in the community came during a time when hands-on volunteer work was as necessary as fundraising:

No history of Mount Sinai would be complete without an accompanying history of its women’s aids. Lack of space prevents telling a complete story, but during the course of its busy life, Mount Sinai would have fallen by the wayside time and again had it not been for the unflagging enthusiasm and devotion of its women supporters. In 1926, the Mount Sinai Hospital Women’s Auxiliary was formed. I was its first and only president. No volunteer, working for Mount Sinai today as a member of an organized group, can conceive of the tasks performed by these women. When cooks could not be hired or were absent for some reason; when there was a lack of dishwashers; when vegetables needed to be peeled or fruit to be canned; if there was shortage of bed linen, if it needed mending and so on and on. 

Ruth Schwartz, 1936. Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 80, series 5-1, item 14.
Sylvia Schwarz, Self Portrait, 1950. Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 80, series 5-1, item 17.

Sylvia Schwartz was born in Toronto in 1914, the youngest of four daughters to Joseph and Gertrude Schwartz. Her father owned a fur-manufacturing company and he later became a partner in the Park Plaza Hotel on Avenue Road. 

Sylvia had a very successful career in photography, beginning in the 1940s, owning a studio on Grenville Road (near Women’s College Hospital). She soon became a prominent portrait photographer in Toronto, capturing images of families, servicemen during the war, and brides. She eventually carved out a niche specializing in child portraiture.

In addition to her professional activities, she was also recognized for her commitment to Communism. She befriended many famous American artists who were supporters of the cause, such as Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, and Cab Caloway, frequently travelling across the border to attend meetings and to work with her American comrades. She documented these trips in her photographs, including a number of brilliant portraits of these jazz musicians.

The collection of photographs by Syliva Schwartz at the Ontario Jewish Archives includes her commissioned work, such as formal portraiture and Jewish lifecycle events like weddings and bar mitzvahs. In addition, there is her private work, which includes candid photographs of her family, often at their cottage in northern Ontario.

In 1976, Sylvia set up a special children’s book award to honour her late sister Ruth, who was a respected Toronto bookseller. The award was first presented to Mordecai Richler for Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang

In 2004, six years after Sylvia’s death in 1998, her family changed the name of the award to the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Awards to honour the memory of both sisters. Two awards are presented annually, one for picture books and one for young adult and middle-grade texts.

Libby Rosenberg (right) with fellow volunteers Helen and Eileen at the Servicemen’s Centre, 44 St. George Street, Toronto, 1944.Ontario Jewish Archives, accession 2010-2-3.

But what happened when WWII broke out? The women adapted. 

Jewish women’s organizing was tested to its fullest at the onset of the Second World War. In addition to enlisting in the various branches of Canada’s armed forces, there were a number of other ways in which Canadian Jewish women served the war effort. There were many women-led campaigns to support service personnel abroad and next of kin impacted at home. With the establishment of the Women’s War Efforts committee of the Canadian Jewish Congress in 1942, the work of Canadian Jewish Women was united under one banner. These women organized monthly shipments of comfort boxes to overseas servicemen with cigarettes, personal care items, and food. In addition, women established, furnished, managed and staffed non-denominational service centres (canteens) across the country. 

The Toronto location of the Canadian Jewish Congress’s Servicemen’s Club was located at the National Council of Jewish Women’s building at 44 St. George St. Considered to be one of the most successful locations, 150,000 men and women were reported to have enjoyed this canteen’s hospitality in 1943 alone. The non-denominational facility was open 24 hours a day and stood as an “example of democracy in action, where Jew, non-Jew, white and coloured, meet in free, equal and comradely social intercourse, enjoying wholesome fun in intimate homelike surroundings.” 

Whether as individuals or as collectives, the impacts made by Jewish women on communal life are on full display in Women+, on now at Baycrest’s Kalifer Culture Hub until April 2023.

Header image: Jewish Nursery and Children’s Home, 218 Simcoe Street, ca. 1916. This orphanage was one of the first recipients of funds from the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of Toronto (now UJA Federation of Greater Toronto).Ontario Jewish Archives, accession 2008-3-5.

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