Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments. Brought to you by Heritage Toronto’s Plaques and Markers Program.
In 1917, a group of philanthropists felt their community was being solicited by too many charities during the holidays. It was complicated to have so many people coming to the door, canvassing for donations. So, a group of community leaders decided to improve the situation by incorporating all the existing groups into the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies Toronto, which was given a charitable charter in March 1917.
The core founding group included Edmund Scheuer, a jeweller and the federation’s first president; Abraham Cohen, the first honorary secretary; and Ida Siegel, who wasn’t given a seat after she argued there should be a woman representative. The federation later expanded to become a vitally important institution during the Depression, and still exists today as the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto.
Before the federation existed, a number of Jewish charities would hold fundraising drives around the High Holy Days, and people would be visited by door-to-door donation collectors. There was a 1912 attempt to organize some of these into one group, the Associated Hebrew Charities, but it didn’t last. According to the Ontario Jewish Archives, the association, which didn’t include every charity, couldn’t keep up with the demands from a boom in immigration and a 1916 recession.
Siegel alone helped start seven charitable and social organizations before the federation, including the Herzl Girls’ Club, Hebrew Ladies Sewing Circle, Daughters of Zion, and Hadassah-WIZO. She and her brother also started the first free Jewish medical dispensary, which became Mount Sinai Hospital in 1923. The federation supported the dispensary and hospital until 1940.
The goal of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies was to organize the fundraising efforts for all the associated charities into one big annual drive. Each year, the federation would kick off a big fundraising drive and profits would be distributed to affiliated organizations.
But, according to historian Jack Lipinsky, this new way of organizing charities didn’t go over well with everyone. In Imposing Their Will: An Organizational History of Jewish Toronto, he writes that in the 1920s, some organizations left the federation because they disliked the “insistence on scientific charity and professionalized accountability in spending.” Women’s groups, who, according to Lipinsky, had “traditionally provided the soldiers of Jewish charity work,” also started leaving in the 20s because they disagreed with some Progressive reforms. But people had become used to giving only to the federation each year, so some groups that left found it difficult to fundraise enough to continue as they had.
In April 1917, the Globe and Mail reported that the federation expected to make $40,000 that year. In 1934, deep into the Great Depression, the federation launched its drive with a goal of $80,000 to help, as the Globe described it, “the present condition of unemployment and consequent need.” But, in 1931, the federation had its sights set even higher, with a fundraising goal of $175,000. Presumably, the group had to lower its goals as the Depression dragged on and potential donors lost jobs or depleted savings. A number of articles in the 30s gave frequent updates on the progress of fundraising efforts and the endorsement of politicians, including the mayor and the premier.
In 1938, the federation was absorbed into the new United Jewish Welfare Fund, which included any other Jewish organizations not covered by the federation. In 1948, after the creation of the State of Israel, the fund combined with the United Palestine Appeal to form the United Jewish Appeal, which still exists today.
The federation moved from its Simcoe Street location, where the plaque dedicated to its history stands today, to 179 Beverly in 1928. The new location was named Scheuer House in honour of Edmund Scheuer. At the dedication ceremony, Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman praised Scheuer for his decades of community service. “Mr. Scheuer is a living refutation to those who go up and down the land casting sneers and scorns at hundreds whose ambitions have enabled Canada to reach out to a greater destiny,” Isserman is quoted as saying in the Globe. “Mr. Scheuer symbolizes the great contribution which the immigrant has made to Canada.” Scheuer had been a Globe reader for decades, and had a number of letters to the editor published that were critical of their coverage of the Jewish community or issues that affected the community.
Scheuer was killed at 95, in July 1943, by a streetcar. He’d been sick and confined to his home for a month and was crossing the street when he was struck. In a tribute in the Globe titled “A Fine Citizen,” he was remembered for his childhood in Paris and for his philanthropic work. Another Globe article highlights achievements from his impressive resumé, which included opening the first Jewish religious school in Ontario, his work with the federation, being named a justice of the peace, and working with Holy Blossom Temple. An article in the Star, “A Tribute to Edmund Scheuer,” by an anonymous columnists called “the Observer,” recounts his friendship with Scheuer, their discussions on religion, and how it’s possible and productive for Christian people and Jewish people to get along.
The Globe ended its tribute with a reflection on Scheuer’s life and work:
“It was a pity that he did not live to see the fulfilment of his most fervent desires, the unconditional surrender of Hitler and his villainous associates, who had brought such disgrace upon Germany, and the birth of a new and better world in which righteousness and justice would prevail. For the triumph of these he worked selflessly all his life and he leaves in Toronto the memory of an able, enlightened and lovable man.”
May is Ontario Jewish Heritage Month.
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A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the United Jewish Welfare Fund combined with the United Palestinian Appeal, not the United Palestine Appeal, to form the United Jewish Appeal. Torontoist regrets the error.