Editorial: Goldie Hershon – and Jewish Leadership

Dec. 8, 2020

The Canadian Jewish community has been blessed with many fine leaders. Leadership itself can be simple in complicated times and complicated in simple times. It takes a wise person to navigate these various roads. Those who successfully complete that journey are the leaders we remember (it’s hoped we forget the bad ones).

Goldie Hershon, who died last week at the age of 79, was a leader who successfully navigated complicated roads in complex times. Her port of service was Canadian Jewish Congress (of which CJR publisher Bernie Farber was CEO, and worked closely with Goldie).

She held many different lay leadership positions within the organization. Whether it was national vice-president of CJC, chair of the CJC National Plenary Assembly, vice-president of the North American section of World Jewish Congress, chair of CJC’s Soviet Jewry committee, or her three years (1995-1998) as national president of Congress, Goldie was unique.

She was no politician. She spoke her mind and heart and demonstrated truth to power. Whether meeting with heads of state, presidents, prime ministers, or premiers, Goldie was simply Goldie. She engaged with Holocaust survivors, Jewish poor, and CJC staff as though they were all part of her family. She took advice but knew her mind. People wanted to be in her company. She had a great laugh and warm smile that grabbed you from the moment you met her.

When Goldie became president of CJC in 1995 she fought for it. Unlike today, Canadian Jews then chose their leaders. Her opponent, Thomas O. Hecht, was a popular Montrealer, and the race was passionate and emotional. Goldie squeaked to a narrow victory and Canadian Jewry was the real winner.

She led us through the fractious Quebec referendum of 1995 and deftly took former Premier Jacques Parizeau to task when in a bitter concession speech, he blamed “money and the ethnic vote” for the loss. Canadian Jewry was staunchly nationalist and was part of a group of ethnic leaders who spoke out against separation. Goldie was very much its leader. She scolded Parizeau’s choice of words as “reprehensible,” and many feel that it was her public pronouncement, among those from other “ethnic” leaders, that hastened Parizeau’s retirement from politics shortly thereafter.

With Goldie’s death, we are able to look both back to the past and ahead to the future. We yearn for the days when leadership percolated up from the grassroots, enabling stalwarts like Goldie.

And yet, as we look to the future, we are concerned that leadership today does not see the worth or feel it necessary to emulate the Goldie Hershons of yesterday.

Perhaps in Goldie’s passing, we will all have an opportunity to embrace the importance of amcha and the need for us all to play a role in Canadian Jewish life.

May the memory of Goldie Hershon always be for a blessing.