Obituary: Shirley Granovsky, a philanthropist who never forgot her family’s early financial struggles

When Shirley Granovsky died on May 17 at the age of 98, the Toronto Jewish community lost one of its most generous benefactors.

And yet, she was in her mid 80s before donating to causes and organizations became a central focus in her own life.

Stepping into the role of a major philanthropist involved supporting organizations as diverse as UJA, United Way, Kehilla, Ve’ahavta, JF&CS, Associated Hebrew Schools, Baycrest, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival—and many more.

Shirley’s husband died when she was in her early 70s. And over the course of a nearly 50-year marriage—like many women of her generation—she generally deferred to him on financial matters, including philanthropic ones.

At first, she did not feel comfortable taking on those responsibilities.

“She was afraid. She was nervous. She never made those decisions. It was always my father who was the architect of their philanthropy,” said their daughter, Maxine Granovsky.

“(My husband) Ira and I would talk to her, and it took years for us to convince her. ‘It’s okay mom, you can do it.’

“And then once she started, it was like a drug. It was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so amazing. It’s so wonderful. It’s so great.’”

Born in Toronto in 1924, Shirley Rockfeld grew up in poverty during the Depression. Even when she started a family with Phil Granovsky, they struggled financially in the early years—and required assistance to send their eldest children to Associated Hebrew Schools.

But by the time Maxine entered school, her father and uncle’s paper manufacturing business, Atlantic Packaging, was enough of a success that the family no longer needed financial aid.

Eventually, it became so successful that the family could become major community donors.

Still, it took a lot of time for Granovsky to get used to that position, let alone act on it herself.

“We knew that she was going to probably leave some money in her will to charities. And we said to her, ‘Mom, do it now, so you can see the difference you’re making. Why wait until it’s too late and you’re gone?’ After many conversations, we would talk and leave it with her, she finally said, ‘Okay, I’m ready.’”

Maxine admires her mother for overcoming her initial lack of confidence. She also said her mother was always humble and undemanding, happy to give money to worthy causes without conditions or fanfare.

In fact, she would always decline when organizations would request to honour her.

Hannah Wasserman, director of development and communication at Jewish Family and Child Services (JF&CS) worked closely with Granovsky for the past decade.

“I would say she’s one of the most gracious people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting,” Wasserman said, adding that she considered Granovsky a full member of the JF&CS family and a dear friend.

“The reaction to her passing was like one we’ve never seen at the agency before… anybody who works at the agency, when you say the name Shirley Granovsky, everybody knows.”

Granovsky must have been impressed after making her first donation to JF&CS in 2012, because a year later she became the first person to make a $1-million donation to the agency.

Wasserman was impressed by her interest in and passion for the work, with an understanding of the issues beyond just writing a cheque. It was because of her that JF&CS was able to create new programs that were “innovative and different and groundbreaking.”

Prior to that, JF&CS would mainly support impoverished people in the community by providing them with direct financial assistance.

But it was Granovsky who envisioned a more sustainable and holistic intervention that would help people get themselves out of poverty. As a result, JF&CS used that initial donation to set up a program called Striving to End Poverty (STEP).

The first cohort had 12 women, and the new program helped them break the cycle in many ways, such as paying for them to go back to school or buying them a computer.

“It was so successful that we expanded that platform throughout the agency to help all our poverty reduction clients,” Wasserman said. “And it just continued to evolve into a much more sophisticated form of poverty reduction.”

“Because of her continued donations, our poverty reduction program has been reinvented and evolved and changed exponentially… We can offer financial empowerment support and housing support. It’s all thanks to the foresight and vision that she had.”

Although the broader Jewish community will best remember Granovsky for her philanthropy, her loved ones will remember much more.

Shanitha Kachan-Sheff knew Granovsky because her husband is a business partner with Maxine’s husband, but they actually first met in the sukkah of another Jewish community leader, Julia Koschitzky.

They struck up a friendship at that event, and Kachan-Sheff began to attend the “legendary” holiday baking classes hosted by Granovsky.

“She was kind of the original Marie Kondo. She was organized, immaculate, an incredible housekeeper, looked gorgeous and beautiful all the time, immensely proud of her personal appearance. And for sure, Maxine and her sister Fahla follow their mother’s lead. They’re both very, very fashionable and elegant women, and that’s who Shirley was.

“She was kind and caring and also very, very interested—and this is what I felt about from my time with her—in who I was as a person… Her generosity of spirit brought out the best in most people that she touched.”

Kachan-Sheff also remembers a true matriarch who loved her large family. She called her an incredible role model for women of different generations because of her ability to get things done, her humility, her warm social life, and her interest in supporting all kinds of community endeavours.

Maxine remembers her parents as a great team. Her mother was a fantastic cook and baker who helped support the struggling family by selling her baked goods to synagogues. She never forgot what it was like to live with economic instability—and that always motivated her generosity.

“She truly, truly loved life, and valued the gift of life. She was also a very, very compassionate person, especially for those who are less fortunate than her,” Maxine said.

Shirley Granovsky is survived by her four children, Fahla, Ronald, Stanley and Maxine; grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She was predeceased by her husband Phil.