Dec. 8, 2020
By JANICE ARNOLD
MONTREAL—Tributes are pouring in for Goldie Hershon, who was president of Canadian Jewish Congress from 1995 to 1998, following her death on Dec. 4 at age 79.
Hershon, the daughter of Polish immigrants whose community activism was strongly motivated by a visit to Auschwitz in 1979, was one of only two women to hold the top national post with CJC, which was disbanded in 2011.
(The first female president of CJC was Dorothy Reitman of Montreal from 1986 to 1989.)
An activist for Soviet Jewish emigration, Hershon chaired CJC’s Soviet Jewry committee and moved up the ranks to become the organization’s Quebec Region chair in 1989 and later, a national vice-president.
But her ascent to the national presidency succeeding Toronto historian Irving Abella was far from assured. Thomas Hecht of Montreal, a longtime community leader and prominent businessman, challenged Hershon for the post.
What ensued was one of the most keenly contested campaigns in the history of CJC. In the weeks leading up to the triennial CJC Plenary Assembly in the spring of 1995 in Montreal, Hecht made an intense bid for office.
Hershon’s win was razor-thin, beating Hecht by just 16 votes. Her term began with the need to heal the polarization in the community, which she succeeded in doing.
Hershon’s three years as president were among the most consequential for the Canadian Jewish community since the Second World War. The country was in the midst of a national unity crisis triggered by the failure of the Charlottetown Accord in 1992.
The Parti Québécois government was gearing up for a referendum on independence, to be held in November 1995 after months of tension. Although narrowly defeated, the province would be plunged into a long night of self-reflection. Anglophone and ethnic Quebecers felt especially uncertain over their future.
Other major issues Hershon had to deal with were the continuing effort to bring suspected Nazi war criminals living in Canada to justice and the need to better serve small Jewish communities across the country.
Internationally, CJC was engaged in aiding Jews in the former Soviet Union and pressing Swiss banks to release dormant accounts that were held by victims of Nazi persecution.
Hershon (née Libman) grew up in what was the Jewish immigrant district of Montreal. She attended United Talmud Torahs and Herzliah High School, and became a teacher.
She and Shelly, her husband of 61 years, were among the young Jewish couples who settled in the then remote West Island suburb of Dollard-des-Ormeaux, where they raised their children, Cindy and David. The couple contributed significantly to the development of the Jewish community and, in particular, Congregation Beth Tikvah.
Among the plethora of condolences on the Paperman & Sons funeral home website are many from those who fondly remember the Hershons from those years.
Others are from her CJC days. “I have many happy memories of Goldie and consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to work with her at CJC. She was a determined and courageous community leader, and a lovely person,” wrote Jack Silverstone, who was Congress’s national executive director.
Former Quebec Region chair Dorothy Zalcman Howard commented, “She was vibrant, warm, generous and kind. She was a friend and a colleague you could always count on, and she had an innate ability to bring people together, to uplift those around her and lighten the burden of others…Goldie leaves a legacy of love and compassion for family, for friends, for communities at home and around the world.”