Obituary: Sheila Goldbloom, 96, was a mentor who believed in building understanding between communities

Sheila Goldbloom, right, is greeted at the 2019 launch of her memoir Opening Doors by Amal Elsana Alh’jooj, a Bedouin from Israel she mentored at McGill University.

Sheila Goldbloom was confident that she was destined to make a contribution to society when she graduated from Mount Holyoke, a prestigious women’s college in Massachusetts, in 1947.

Unlike other elite schools of its kind at the time, Holyoke groomed its students to make the world a better place through real-life work, rather than finding a suitable husband.

Goldbloom, who died at age 96 on July 3, fulfilled that promise spectacularly over her long life, as a social work professor at McGill University and as a community volunteer, a term that does not begin to convey her ground-breaking services to a multitude of educational, social, philanthropic and governmental organizations.

She was a mentor to generations of professionals and volunteers, especially women, and is credited with elevating the status and influence of the non-profit sector in Quebec—in both the anglophone and francophone communities.

Like her late husband Victor Goldbloom, she was, in her understated way, a bridge-builder between peoples of different faiths, languages and cultures. One of her causes in recent years was the restoration of the historic Christ Church Cathedral, acting as honorary co-chair of fundraising.

Goldbloom was one of the early champions of the McGill Middle East Program for Civil Society and Peace Building, known today at the International Community Action Network (ICAN), which since 1997 has brought together Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to improve the lives of disadvantaged people in the region.

She mentored three Arab women studying social work in that program. One of them was Amal Elsana Ahl’jooj, a Bedouin from a village in Israel, who was among the first cohort. She would stay on at McGill to pursue a PhD and become ICAN’s executive director. The two remained friends until Goldbloom’s death.

Prof. Jim Torczyner, founder of the McGill program, said, “Sheila contributed so much to civility and civil society through acts of kindness, with wisdom, and a true sense of justice and fair play. She influenced thousands of social work students and was a role model for so many. She served the community so effectively, tirelessly and in so many different spheres. I have lost a dear friend.”

Later in life, Goldbloom was an advocate for vulnerable seniors. At age 82, she was appointed by the Quebec government to co-lead a commission that toured the province, listening to the needs of the elderly.

Born Sheila Barshay in New York in 1925, she was the only child of progressive-minded parents, both born in the Pale of Settlement, who she described as well ahead of their time. Her mother volunteered with Planned Parenthood with the support of her husband, a lawyer, who died suddenly when Sheila was 10.

Eleanor Roosevelt was Goldbloom’s idol growing up and, as she notes in her memoir Opening Doors published three years ago, a favourite quote of hers was “Understanding is a two-way street.”

Her first job was with the League of Women Voters in her native city.

When she was 21 she was introduced, through family friends, to Victor Goldbloom, a young doctor from Montreal who was training in New York. After they married the couple settled Montreal in 1949.

A modest, quiet-spoken person, Goldbloom carved out her own identity, yet managed to be a supportive wife to a busy pediatrician turned politician and engaged mother of three.

Moving to a linguistically and religiously divided Quebec, where women were seen as second-class citizens, was a culture shock for Goldbloom. Her first job in Montreal was at the YWCA, where she helped young women who had moved to the city from the countryside.

As soon as her kids were in school, she resumed her own education, pursuing a master of social work at McGill.

She developed an expertise in the burgeoning field of community organization. Her professors were so impressed that she was invited to teach after graduation, first as a lecturer and later promoted to associate professor. It was a vocation that would last almost 30 years, until her retirement in 1992.

Goldbloom became an active political wife with Victor’s election to the National Assembly in 1966, until he left public office in 1979. In 1970 he became the first Jewish cabinet minister. He died in 2016.

Numerous people speak of her ability to encourage people of all kinds that they, as an individual, could make a difference.

“Sheila was, quite simply, one of the finest human beings I have ever known,” said Deborah Corber, a lawyer involved in various community endeavours. “Beyond her obvious intellect, organizational and ambassadorial skills, Sheila’s unique gift was to make one feel heard, respected and appreciated. Every moment engaging with Sheila left me feeling uplifted.”

The lengthy list of organizations in which Goldbloom played a pivotal role includes Centraide, to which she brought greater participation by the English-speaking community; the Fondation de Grand Montréal, which she helped create; Vanier College; Allied Jewish Community Services and Jewish Family Services (forerunners of Federation CJA and Agence Ometz); Meals on Wheels; Batshaw Youth Centres, and the Queen Elizabeth Health Complex.

She was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1999 and the Ordre national du Québec in 2008. Her alma maters Mount Holyoke College and McGill bestowed honorary degrees upon her.The Quebec Community Groups Network named its annual community service award in her and Victor’s honour.

Goldbloom is survived by her children Susan, Michael and Jonathan and their families.