Julia Koschitzky remembered by a few who knew her best—in speeches at her funeral, and interviews with The CJN Daily

Henry and Julia Koschitzky.

The following is an edited and condensed adaptation of The CJN Daily podcast from March 24. (You can also find a full Julia Koschitzky obituary by Ron Csillag of The CJN.)

Gerald Sheff, architect and co-founder of Gluskin Sheff, a Bay Street wealth management firm

I came to Toronto in 1971, originally from Montreal. I moved here from Boston. And I would have become involved in the Jewish community initially through UJA. I would have come into contact with Julie, and as I assumed more and more responsibility in the community, it got more and more involved. I got to know Julie better, I travelled with her and/or Henry [her husband] and some of the members of their family over many years on Israel trips. We were in Kyiv together. We were at Babi Yar together, two-and-a-half years ago. We were in Russia together. In fact, we met with [Vladimir] Putin, believe it or not.

She had extraordinary gifts of communication and empathy and kindness and generosity and softness. She was literally loved by all. I can’t recall ever having heard anybody saying anything bad or mean or nasty about Julie. 

I’ve worked with Julia on many things over the years, but two things come to mind. One is, we were co-chairs of the Operation Exodus campaign involving getting Soviet Jews from the former Soviet Union, to Israel. There was Julie and myself—and there was Phil Granovsky who was also another important Jewish communal leader of a previous generation. There were four others involved at the time. There were seven co-chairs of this campaign because it was such a significant campaign and it was the dominant thing that was going on in the Jewish community at that time, worldwide. And I say Toronto set the pace and set the worldwide standard, including what was going on in the United States in terms of raising the bar for how much money could and should be raised very quickly to take advantage of the Exodus—and to bring these Jewish people to Israel.

Julie worked hard on her speeches. She measured every word carefully. And she was impeccable, she always got a standing ovation. Her performances were consistently remarkable, I would say, raising the bar on herself every time.

Her motto was always, “You must remember.” What does that mean? What does that look like? Was she talking about her Holocaust experience or being an immigrant? 

It probably means both of those things. She clearly had a Holocaust experience in the sense that her family escaped from what became Nazi Germany, before it was Nazi Germany. They happened to have the foresight to get out very early and go to Cardiff, Wales, originally, and then they bounced around a bit. I’m not sure the details between that place and North America, eventually landing in Toronto, where she met Henry. They were an amazing couple. They were a force—but both personally, very low-key and approachable people, and kind to everybody. They were a unique couple. I would say they produced an amazing and unique family.

Yaniv Koschitzky speaking at his grandmother’s March 2w funeral at the Shaarei Shomayim synagogue in Toronto

It is why you brought a notebook to every event you attended, as every speech presented a learning opportunity to jot down some notes and quotes to use in future speeches. It is why every meal, be it Pesach or a regular Sunday brunch, deserved the finest china and crystal jugs, and why it was essential to get dressed to the nines for every occasion, even a Zoom bris. It is why you made a point every time we gathered as a family to express your Hakarat Ha’Tov, to appreciate what HaShem has given us. And it is why, when you were deservedly bestowed with the Order of Canada, you took the opportunity to serve as the officiating government representative for new Canadian citizens, articulating to them how transformational the opportunity they had to be Canadians truly is. As you too were once a new immigrant standing in their very position. You truly never missed an opportunity to make an impact, Savta. And for that, we and the entire Jewish people are forever grateful.

Daniel Held, former executive director, the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education, Toronto, UJA Federation

I had just returned from a year in Israel and I was working with youth movements, convening them together in the Toronto Jewish Youth Council. And it was a really hard time in Israel. It was right after the Passover bombing in Netanya. And at the time, Julie was chairing a consortium of organizations around the issue of Israel and showing our support for Israel during the Intifada—and she organized a rally in Mel Lastman Square in North York. And I remember her calling and asking me if I would speak at that rally on behalf of youth from the city. It was my first time really interacting with her and seeing her leadership, seeing the way that she brought people together from across the community from very different walks of life, very different religious views, very different political views. And she was able to unite so many different people from so many walks of life around an issue that was core to us as a community.

You worked at the Koschitzky Centre for seven years. What is the importance of that institution to Jewish education in the Toronto area? 

The family knows that education is the future of our community. If we want to confront any issue in our community into the future, be it antisemitism or poverty or caring for the most vulnerable or our relationship with Israel, we need a Jewish community that is deeply educated in who we are, and has strong Jewish values and identities. They really believe that investing in Jewish education is the core way to do that. So we created with them the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education here at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, bringing together the best of Federation and the best of philanthropy in our community to make sure that we can invest in creating the strongest Jewish day school system in Toronto, through scholarships and making sure that no child be denied a Jewish education because of the cost. That’s also through communities of practice—and helping our schools grow and build a capacity to be the best they can be. 

But I will also say it would be very easy for the Koschitzky Centre to say that our job is about Toronto, but Federation here, and the family, really believes that we should be helping communities wherever they are. So I’m fortunate in my job to be able to also work with communities in Vancouver and Ottawa and Calgary and London and Hamilton, in the day schools there, and across the United States, to be able to share what we learn with other communities. And I think that is part of the generosity and also the vision that we share so deeply.

We deal with day schools, supplementary schools, camps, Israel Experience Birthright, Hillel, PJ Library. The core of that is Jewish day schools. So there are about 10,000 kids in Jewish day schools in Toronto. Toronto is a day school city. We are fortunate to have about a third of elementary school kids and about a quarter of high school kids in Jewish day school. And those numbers are, next to Montreal, the highest in North America, and really have a profound impact on our community, not just today, but into the future.

Sarena Koschitzky, her daughter, who also spoke at the funeral

No one could say it like Julia, whether you were in San Francisco, Moscow, Berlin, Montreal, Ottawa, Washington, Metula, the southern steps of Jerusalem, Caracas, Toronto, Cape Town, Morocco, Melbourne, San Paolo, Calgary, Geneva, Winnipeg, Amsterdam, Antwerp—you got a standing ovation. You wowed presidents and dignitaries, and you inspired young people in every city you visited. Each and every one of your presentations was a true labour of love. And as you said when you spoke in Berlin, “The past has served as my guide and my teacher. It has given me a great deal, but it has also demanded for me a great deal. That’s my challenge, to use the lessons of the past to motivate me to even greater action.” And so you never stopped.

Jonathan Koschitzky, her son, speaking at the funeral

As I sat in my mother’s office last night to put down these words, I looked around at the walls covered with plaques from a multitude of Jewish institutions, awards, honorary degrees, and pictures of her with dignitaries from around the globe and especially Israel, I couldn’t help but be struck with awe. How did one person accomplish so much in a single lifetime? It reminded me of a joke. Although comedy wasn’t my mother’s forte. You all know that my father is an unremitting joke teller, so in his honour, I will take the liberty to share it with you. A renowned lawyer dies at a young age and goes to heaven. When he gets there, he demands to speak to the manager and complains that his life was unfairly cut short for no good reason. The gatekeeper says, “Hold on a minute. Let me check the files.” He pulls up his record and replies, “I don’t know what you’re complaining about. According to your billed hours, you’re 120 years old.” Looking around my mother’s office last night, it was obvious that she, too, had managed to beat the system and accomplished 120 years worth of achievements in a fraction of the time.