Ruth Wolfish Rotman was a trailblazer in the volunteer world when Na’amat Canada was still known as Pioneer Women. Na’amat is part of an international women’s organization, with roots in the Labour Zionist movement, that provides social services to women and children in Israel.
In 1959, Rotman was the first woman to become the organization’s Toronto president, while working a full-time job. Some of the organization’s leaders doubted she would last the two-year term, because she wasn’t reachable during the day, she recalled.
Rotman served as the organization’s national president from 1969 to 1972. She assured others who followed in her footsteps that “they’d get much more out of it than they would give,” she said in an interview at her home with The CJN.
Now, as she nears her 100th birthday at the end of May, she is likely the organization’s oldest active member. Her community work, she said, is one of the factors to which she attributes her longevity. She still attends meetings of her local chapter and the national organization, in which she is a lifetime member of the board.
Rotman will be feted on May 17 at a 100th birthday fundraising dinner at the Borochov Cultural Centre in Toronto and will celebrate with her family in June. She also has a group of seven women who go out together on their respective birthdays.
Funds raised from the Na’amat event will support the renovation of the Na’amat Women’s Rights Center and Legal Clinic in Petah Tikva, Israel, in order to make it wheelchair accessible. The clinic – which is staffed by lawyers, social workers and counsellors – serves hundreds of women every year.
The Toronto-born honouree thinks she might have become a lawyer herself, had she not lost her mother at age 15. As the oldest of six children of immigrant parents, Rotman spent her after-school hours in the early 1930s preparing family meals, following her mother’s death. Her father worked as a furrier for the T. Eaton Company.
An alumna of Harbord Collegiate and Central Commerce high school, Rotman began working as a bookkeeper at Royal Canadian Fuels, eventually becoming the internal auditor for a group of companies it acquired.
People are bored if they’re not interested. When you meet someone, try and get to the bottom of what makes them tick.
– Ruth Rotman
In 1978, she married her longtime boss, Manny Rotman, who had been widowed three years earlier. Manny Rotman’s late son, Joseph Rotman, for whom the University of Toronto’s business school is named, hooded Ruth Rotman when she received her BA in political science, with a minor in Jewish studies, in 1996.
Ruth Rotman took some of her courses in Israel, where she and her husband lived for 20 years until his death. She went on to complete her master’s degree, graduating in 2003, and considered pursuing a PhD, but opted instead to focus on her work in the community.
A hefty dictionary perched on her walker at home, which she had consulted before the interview, attests to her continuing interest in language. The CJN and a copy of the Globe and Mail, which she reads “meticulously,” were also near at hand. She believes it’s important to “keep up.”
Rotman said she has never been bored a day in her life. “People are bored if they’re not interested. When you meet someone, try and get to the bottom of what makes them tick,” she advised. “Ask what they do, what they like, what they don’t like. That’s meaningful communication. I think it’s very important to communicate with people.”