Obituary: Leo Goldhar, 91, a philanthropist with the vision to build Toronto’s northern-most Jewish community centre

Leo Goldhar was remembered by the Maccabi Tel Aviv FC, which is owned by his son Mitchell.

Leo Goldhar, a philanthropist, successful businessman and volunteer, died in Toronto on March 11. He was 91.

But no one could have imagined his success based on his first 20 years, said his son Mitchell Goldhar in his eulogy.

Leo’s story began on Jan. 18, 1932. He was born to immigrants Rose and Sam Goldhar above their delicatessen and cigar shop near St. Clair Avenue and Dufferin Street.

With parents too busy to pay attention to him, Leo ran free amongst the streets of Toronto. With a distrust of systems and a confrontational attitude, he never finished high school.

“What Leo Goldhar did have going for him, however, was enormous ambition and luck,” said Mitchell.

Leo was willing to try almost anything. He was determined to prove everyone wrong and he had incredible street smarts.

In his early 20s, Leo sold chains, shower doors and worked with tile and carpet companies. Eventually, he found success in the land development and construction business.

“It was a long and arduous journey and he endured many setbacks along the way,” said Mitchell.

It was during this time that Leo met the love of his life, Sala Greenberg. Sala was a Holocaust survivor from Poland. She came to Canada through adoption by distant relatives, according to an account the family gave to Ynetnews.

“His marriage to our mother Sala was the foundation for most of the joy and fulfillment he experienced in his life,” said Mitchell.

The couple spent a lot of time with Leo’s sister Dorothy and brother-in-law David. On the last day of his life, Leo gave an interview about his immigrant parents with Dorothy and spoke to her on the phone.

As Leo found business success, he jumped into the world of Jewish communal life. He served as the campaign chair for UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and sat on the board of the Joint Distribution Committee which funds Jewish welfare programs in Eastern Europe.

One of his proudest legacies was playing a pivotal role in securing the land and raising funds for the Joseph & Wolf Lebovic Community Campus in Vaughan, just north of Toronto. The centre’s convention centre and social hall is named in his and Sala’s honour.

“At a time when Thornhill Woods was largely underdeveloped, Leo had the foresight and leadership to secure the funds and land needed to build the Lebovic Campus—one of the most important hubs of Jewish life in the GTA. The impact of his legacy will be felt by families across our community for generations to come,” Adam Minsky, CEO of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto said in a statement.

More recently, Leo joined the board of the UHN Foundation, a network of Toronto hospitals. Leo and Sala contributed to the creation of a foot and wound clinic at Toronto General Hospital, in memory of their friend, Doug Hanson and his wife, Tennys Hanson’s contributions as the foundation’s CEO.

For his leadership in philanthropy, Leo received the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada.

“For never having finished high school, those were missing letters he always dreamed about and longed for having next to his name,” said Mitchell.

Leo also served on the board of The CJN for many years.

“He was a valued board member who was fully engaged and instrumental in developing a number of philanthropic efforts on behalf of the papers. He was always supportive of The CJN but never hesitated to challenge the board and management to innovate and seek opportunities. We very much appreciated his involvement and perspective as a leader of the Toronto Jewish community,” Elizabeth Wolfe, former president of The CJN’s board, said in a statement. 

Outside of his community work, Leo spent many memorable summers with this family at a cottage. In their eulogies, his grandchildren fondly recounted their memories of their zayde and his love for television, telling stories and their grandmother.

“We bid farewell to an intelligent, beautifully unique, colourful, larger than life man who was admired and loved. We will miss him, remember him and cherish his memory for many years to come. Rest in peace dad, you earned it.” concluded Mitchell.

Leo Goldhar is survived by his wife Sala; three children, Stephen, Mitchell, and Karen; and five grandchildren.