Obituary: Marcia Koven, founder of the Saint John Jewish Historical Museum, preserved the community’s stories

Marcia Koven

A leading light of the Saint John, N.B. Jewish community may have dimmed, but will never be extinguished.

Marcia Koven, the long-time Saint John resident, died in Ottawa on March 4. She was 96.

Koven is remembered for building and growing the Saint John Jewish Historical Museum to keep the community’s stories alive.

She was a volunteer par excellence. In her resume, in the section labeled “employment”, she described herself as a “lifetime professional volunteer.”

In addition to conceiving of the museum, which opened in July 1986, and serving as its inaugural curator, Marcia served as president of the Henrietta Szold Chapter of Hadassah-WIZO; president of the sisterhood of Congregation Shaarei-Zedek; was founder and secretary of the Shomer Club, an organization of seniors; was secretary of the Association of Museums of New Brunswick, and secretary of the Canadian Jewish Historical Society.

Always busy and efficient, Koven participated in Congregation Shaarei Zedek’s burial society, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, and the Canadian Cancer Society. She was creative, relentless and tireless—an inspiration to colleagues, friends and family for her no-nonsense, can-do spirit, and determination to see the spark of an idea through to its execution.

Born in Saint John on Dec. 26, 1926, to Rose and John Jacob Freedman, she lived in the city until 2013, when she moved to Toronto to be closer to family.

Koven graduated from Saint John General Hospital School of Nursing in 1948. When she was in her early 50s, she decided to enroll in the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Sociology in 1982.

While a UNB student, she first imagined a museum that would commemorate the Jewish community which had about 250 families at its peak in the 1960s. 

Katherine Biggs-Craft, current executive director and curator of the museum, recalls being a student with Koven in 1986.

“One day she said she was applying for a grant to hire a summer student and to open a museum. I immediately asked it I could apply. My application was accepted on the spot.

“The grant came through and in May 1986, I found myself sitting at a small wooden desk in a second-floor studio at 49 Canterbury Street. There was a table with papers and photos and an ancient wall safe where Marcia was storing the audio cassettes of about 40 interviews she had done (with old-timers of the Saint John Jewish community).”

Biggs-Craft recalls her first task was to transcribe the oral interviews. “That was my introduction to the Jewish history in Saint John and the subtleties of Yiddish vocabulary—I was two weeks in before I figured out what a shul was.”

After her time as a grant employee, Biggs-Craft returned to school but, in February 1989, came back to the museum. She worked alongside Koven to build exhibits, supervise dozens of summer students, create a library, and tell stories to visitors who came from all over the world.

“I learned a lot from Marcia—about meeting high standards (you need to look professional and know what you are talking about), about how to talk to people (even the ones you didn’t like!), about the importance of family and community, about life and about never giving up,” Biggs-Craft wrote in a tribute to Marcia on Facebook.

“No one ever imagined that ‘Marcia’s Museum’ would turn into the best thing to happen to the Saint John Jewish community. It is still thriving—collecting, preserving, sharing—36 years later.”

Koven was predeceased by her husband, Jerry (Joseph) Koven, who died in 2010. She is survived by a sister, Edythe Steinberg and four children: Diane Koven (Al Garman) of Ottawa, Charlotte Koven of Toronto, Andrew Koven (Lynn Lurie) of New York, and Sherry Koven Sheffman (Robbie Sheffman) of Victoria, B.C.; eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

A graveside ceremony was held at the Shaarei Zedek Jewish Cemetery in Saint John on March 7.