Ida Siegel

Ida Lewis Siegel’s résumé of accomplishments in Toronto’s Jewish community reads like a city directory of Toronto’s earliest and enduring Jewish social services. Institutions such as today’s Mount Sinai Hospital, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, Canadian Hadassah-WIZO, and Toronto’s Jewish Community Centres (JCCs) are just a few of the many organizations that Ida Siegel helped found. From the very young age of fourteen, Ida demonstrated her aptitude for leadership when founding the Daughters of Zion in 1899, the first ladies’ Zionist society in Canada. Although her formal education ended in grade ten, Siegel remained an advocate for education and women’s rights throughout her life. Her accomplishments can be traced through her varied philanthropic work, unyielding advocacy, and her brief foray into politics.

Ida Lewis Siegel (1885-1982) was born to Samuel and Hannah Lewis in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on 14 February 1885. Her parents, immigrants from Lithuania, would relocate once again when moving their family to Canada in 1894. In 1905, on her twentieth birthday, Ida married Isidore Hirsch Siegel. Isidore Siegel, who worked as a travelling salesman, eventually owned a store in Cochrane, Ontario. Together, with the support of her mother, they raised their family of six in Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood.

At the time of Ida’s immigration to Canada, there were no safeguards from poverty, nor was there a publicly-funded healthcare system. The number of disadvantaged within Toronto’s Jewish community was rising as immigrants fleeing persecution and economic hardships in eastern Europe sought refuge in Canada. Ida had a front row seat to the very pressing needs of these newly-arriving immigrants. At the time, Toronto’s Jewish community was very small, numbering only three thousand. This predominantly English-speaking Jewish community was now confronted with absorbing more than twenty thousand Yiddish-speaking immigrants within the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Although their needs were complex, Ida demonstrated ingenuity in creating interventions and providing support. She boldly tackled issues of child poverty and social integration, for example, with the establishment of grassroots organizations, such as the Herzl Girls’ Club (1904) and the Hebrew Ladies’ Sewing Circle (1907). With the aid of her brother Abe Lewis, she co-founded the first free Jewish medical dispensary (1909), the forerunner to Mount Sinai Hospital. In 1917, Ida was instrumental in organizing a unified fundraising body for Jewish organizations known as the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of Toronto, now the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.

Simultaneously, Ida put her attention towards other pressing issues of the era that resulted in many notable successes. A dedicated pacifist, in 1915, Ida joined and served as vice-president of the Toronto branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. And in 1933, she fought for and won the discontinuance of mandatory cadet training in the public schools. In 1930, she became the first Jewish woman to be elected to the Toronto Board of Education, a post she held for six years. Siegel continued to advocate for women’s equality in education and campaigned for the rights of female educators. In a 1926 letter to the Globe and Mail, Ida wrote, “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, Siegel ran for alderman in Toronto. Although unsuccessful, she remained politically active with the Association of Women’s Electors, championing the rights of women to hold public office and encouraging women’s involvement in politics. Not surprisingly, Ida remained active throughout her life. In the 1970s, Siegel supported civics instruction to immigrant children at Dewson Street Public School. There, she discussed her own experiences as an immigrant in Canada and her work as an immigrant aid worker and advocate to help inspire Toronto’s next generation of leaders.


Archivist Notes

The records that make up the Ida Siegel fonds include correspondence, diaries, family memoirs, scrapbooks, photographs, and textual records documenting her personal, professional, and communal activities. From her records, we can learn firsthand of the challenges confronting members of Toronto’s early Jewish community. Siegel was a leader in an era that was rife with seemingly insurmountable barriers, including overt discrimination, racism, and sexism. Siegel’s bold, outspoken, and notable advocacy is now a matter of record. Her writings are exceedingly interesting evidence of her character, and grit, and proof of the necessary qualities of a leader.

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