Tribute: Herb Rosenfeld, a trailblazer for Toronto’s Jewish Community

The office walls of former UJA Federation President Herb Rosenfeld (z”l) are lined with dozens of awards, certificates of recognition, and photos with just about every Israeli Prime Minister and President that held office throughout the 1980s and 90s. However, as Rabbi Jarrod Grover notes, one might never have known about Herb’s many philanthropic achievements had it not been for the physical evidence that hung around his apartment. “His humility would not lead anybody to guess that he was as influential as he truly was, and I think that’s an extraordinary thing,” said Rabbi Grover, the Senior Rabbi at Beth Tikvah Synagogue, where Herb was a devoted member. “He was from a different generation of Jewish leaders, and was enormously respected for the depth of his knowledge and ability to build consensus on challenging issues.”

Herb passed away on November 8, 2020, at the age of 92, after serving as a key Jewish community leader for over four decades. Born in 1928 in Montreal to Harry and Esther Rosenfeld, he was raised in a family that was deeply committed to Jewish life. His father had fled Russian pogroms and settled in Montreal’s tight-knit Jewish community in the early 1900s as a teenager, eventually establishing a successful kosher meat enterprise. Over the years, Herb’s father became a notable philanthropist and community leader in Montreal.

However, the family was not immune to antisemitism, and Herb came to experience this first-hand in the form of the Jewish admissions quota to McGill University, which led him to complete his undergraduate degree at Halifax’s Dalhousie University. He was later admitted to McGill’s Law School, and upon graduation, Herb started his own notary practice and married his high school sweetheart, Riva (nee Bialik), with whom he raised four sons over the course of their 70-year marriage. In Montreal, Herb was very involved in the community, even organizing a Zionist Jewish summer camp for Montreal-area children.

In 1978, with the rise of separatism, French nationalism, and antisemitism in Quebec, Herb and his family were among the tens of thousands of Montreal Jews that moved to Toronto. After settling in his new home and career, Herb got involved with various Jewish organizations in Toronto.

Over the years, Herb saw the community double in size, as more and more immigrants came from Israel, South Africa, and the Former Soviet Union, greatly increasing the need for Jewish social service agencies that supported them. Herb was passionate about immigration, which led him to serve as the President of Jewish Immigrant Aid Services for Newcomers (JIAS) for many years.

Alongside his work at JIAS, he was on the Advisory Board of the Canadian Jewish News (CJN), where he worked with then-editor Mordechai Ben-Dat. “Peoplehood was one of the guiding motivations that carried Herb along a long path of community involvement,” said Ben-Dat. “He was like a lighthouse, always shining a light when things got dark, especially when it came to issues like Jewish education.”

Ben-Dat notes that Herb was a deeply curious person, who was principled in his stances related to the CJN and how things were covered in the Jewish media world. “He had such a love for the Jewish people, and embraced Judaism because it was a rich, rewarding, meaningful, and loving way to live. And that’s why he spent so much time helping the community, because he wanted to ensure that the Jewish way of life was passed on to his descendants.”

Herb held countless positions at UJA Federation, including as President of the Board of Directors. He helped oversee the many changes that took place from an organizational standpoint, including the merging of the United Jewish Appeal and the Canadian Jewish Congress into what became UJA Federation. “Community was key for him,” said Allan Reitzes, one of the former UJA Presidents who worked closely with Herb in various capacities throughout the 1980s and 90s. “As someone who came from Montreal, which had a very strong Jewish community with a tremendous amount of influence, he aspired for Toronto to have a cohesive community that built strong institutions and day schools.”

Despite his soft-spoken nature and mild demeanour, Allan emphasized Herb’s very strong personality and views. “You don’t get to be the head of a Federation if you’re a shrinking violet,” said Allan. “Herb was of the generation of Jewish immigration to Canada – he lived through the Shoah, World War II, Canada’s ‘none is too many’ policy. That’s why he was so passionate, because he lived through all that history.”

During his time as President, Herb’s commitment to various Jewish causes, like helping new immigrants and supporting Jewish education, was evident, and these areas remain important aspects of UJA Federation’s work today. “Herb wanted real life-transforming philanthropy to be at the core of UJA and its mission,” said Rabbi Grover. “Because of people like Herb, who put Jewish education on the list of important priorities for the organization, Toronto’s Federation invests so much into education, more than many other North American federations.”

Alan Sandler, another community leader and colleague of Herb, mentioned that Herb would often go out of his way to mentor younger members of the board, and always wanted everyone to be involved in key decisions made by UJA. “Herb was always very positive, and when he wanted to do something, he did it,” said Alan. “He had a clear direction for where the community should be headed and showed great concern for all aspects of community life.”

Throughout his years of involvement, Herb rightfully won a great deal of recognition, including the Ben Sadowski Award for Outstanding Leadership, UJA’s most prestigious award. A staunch Zionist and a pious Jew, Herb wanted to ensure that the next generation would be as dedicated to Judaism and the State of Israel as his own generation was. “His commitment to the Jewish community and to the Jewish faith went hand-in-hand,” said Rabbi Grover. “Each fed off one another – his religious convictions helped increase his community convictions, and vice-versa.”

Needless to say, Herb Rosenfeld leaves behind a truly remarkable legacy, having led a long life filled with love for his family, Judaism, and the Toronto Jewish community which he undoubtedly helped shape into what it is today.

May Herb's memory forever be a blessing.