Obituary: Cynthia Gasner, 91, was a prolific columnist for The CJN and a groundbreaking volunteer in Toronto

Cynthia Gasner—a longtime freelancer for The Canadian Jewish News, host of a Jewish television show in the 1970s, and the public face of COR (the Kashrut Council of Canada) in its early days—died Nov. 9 at her Toronto home after a year-long struggle with the after-effects of COVID. She was 91.

A community volunteer who served on many boards and committees, and the matriarch of a large extended family, Gasner was known for her warmth, support of younger colleagues, and a seemingly bottomless well of energy, determination, and willingness to take on new challenges. She was “a giver,” recalls The CJN ‘s former editor Mordechai Ben-Dat. Because of her involvement in the community, he said, she found many stories to write about, “and because of her nature, people liked to speak to her… She put people at ease.”

In an online interview hosted by Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim Congregation last year, Gasner reflected on her life and career, recalling that she never took on full-time employment, in order to be available for her family.

A trailblazer as a working mother and sometimes the lone woman on volunteer boards, Gasner served as the first female on the Baycrest Executive, where she was vice-president for three terms, and was part of a group of women who successfully fought to obtain voting rights for married women at Shaarei Shomayim. She also served on the boards of the Lands of the Bible Archaeology Foundation and the Canadian Shaare Zedek Hospital Foundation.

The daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants, Gasner—born Cynthia Goldie Kleinert—studied accounting in high school. One of her early jobs was as controller of the then YMHA’s Camp Council. It wasn’t until her second daughter reached university age that she pursued post-secondary education herself, taking 12 years to complete an honours BA in Political Science. She also earned a certification in public relations from Ryerson (now Toronto Metropolitan University).

Raised in a leftist home, Gasner embraced Orthodoxy when she married in 1952. In her online interview, she credited memories of her pious maternal grandmother for her influence in that regard. As well, in a statement on the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto website, she credited her late father-in-law Meyer Gasner as her role model and mentor for volunteerism; and her immigrant parents, Will and Anne Kleinert, originally from Chmielnik, Poland, for instilling her work ethic and values of family unity and tzedakah.

It was under her father-in-law’s chairmanship that Gasner served as public relations officer of the Orthodox division of Canadian Jewish Congress—as COR was first known, said former COR chair Marvin Sigler in an email. She was “one of the pioneers who helped develop COR from its fledgling years,” updating its kashruth directory and reaching out to homemakers, food companies and retailers.

“Her professionalism created great respect for COR,” Sigler said.

In a eulogy at her funeral, Rabbi Sam Taylor, of Shaarei Shomayim, lauded Gasner as “someone not of theory but of action” who “made a difference to the Jewish infrastructure of the city.”

Her son Jon, also speaking at her funeral, said his mother “always stood up for the underdog, and was never afraid to voice her opinions when she knew she stood up for social justice.”

Grandchildren who spoke at the funeral evoked an independent, hands-on bubbie who raked her own leaves, tackled household tasks at her cottage in the early morning hours, stayed in close contact through FaceTime, and hosted dinners and sleepovers. They recalled her teaching them the importance of volunteerism and tzedakah, how to make gefilte fish and even how to ski, navigating moguls “with grace and passion” at the age of 65.

Gasner’s early volunteer work included chairing UJA’s social services division in the 1950s when she worked for the YMHA. She was a sisterhood president at Shaarei Tefillah synagogue, formed a parents’ advisory council at the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, and served as an executive officer of National Council of Jewish Women.

The news releases she wrote as a volunteer for NCJW came to the attention of The CJN’s founder Meyer Nurenberger, and she began writing for the newspaper at his invitation. In the 1970s, she also hosted a Jewish show called Chai on CFMT Television.

Both positions typified her willingness to pursue opportunities that came her way, including a stint at Loblaw, where she played a role in the launch of the company’s President’s Choice products. “One thing seemed to lead to another,” she recalled in her online interview. “I was willing to try almost anything.”

Ben-Dat recalled Gasner as “a deeply good person” who also cared deeply about what was going on in the community. “She wanted to make it better for people.”

Gasner leaves her sister Renee Solursh, children Myra Mechanic, Brenda Lass, Robert, and Jon; 17 grandchildren, and 20 great-grandchildren.