Versatile Gerstein leaves long list of accolades

Reva Gerstein (courtesy Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives)

Reva Gerstein tallied many firsts in her impressively long career. She was the first child psychologist in the Ontario school system; the first female member of Ontario’s Committee on University Affairs (CUA), appointed by then-premier John Robarts in 1962; the first female director of McGraw-Hill Ryerson Publishing, Maritime Life Assurance, Avon and International Nickel (INCO); and the first female chancellor of Western University, a post she held from 1992 to 1996.

A 1980 profile in The CJN described her as “a solitary, talented lady in a man’s world.” Indeed, Gerstein was an early breaker of glass ceilings.

At the time, she said she owed her success to her father, David Appleby, a Polish immigrant and importer who died in 1979.

“He treated me as an equal,” she said. “I’ve never known the feeling of being uncomfortable as a woman.”

A psychologist, educator, policy adviser, corporate director and passionate mental health advocate whose expertise was sought out by prime ministers, premiers and mayors, the protean Gerstein died in Toronto on Jan. 6. She was 102.

A member of the Order of Canada and Order of Ontario, Gerstein served as president of the National Council of Jewish Women from 1954 to 1958, and introduced gerontological fellowships, mental health programs and “golden age clubs” across Canada, according to a lengthy death notice that listed her accomplishments.

Gerstein was a member of Holy Blossom Temple for decades, marrying there in 1939. “She was often lauded as the first woman in many spaces, and her family is proud that she made people recognize she was the first Jew in those rooms as well. Our congregational family mourns her passing,” said the synagogue’s Rabbi Jordan Helfman.

Gerstein taught diagnostic and clinical testing at the University of Toronto and York University. She worked on major provincial educational reports, provided new insights into mental health treatments for youth, ran a youth hostel for transient students and even served on a task force on policing in Ontario.

“She has had a full, professionally satisfying life,” The CJN stated 40 years ago. And she was far from done.

Born in Toronto on March 27, 1917, Gerstein earned bachelor, master’s and doctoral degrees in psychology, all at the University of Toronto. In 1938, she applied to a local hospital for an internship but was turned away because she was Jewish.

“I felt very badly,” she recalled, “but those were the rules. I found something else to do. I never banged my head on the wall. I believed that real competence eventually gets through.”

During the war years, she taught psychology at the University of Toronto and worked directly with Sir Frederick Banting on the effects of oxygen deprivation on mental abilities for the Royal Canadian Air Force, according to her death notice. She was later hired by the East York-Leaside Board of Health as the first child psychologist in the Ontario school system.

At war’s end, squeezed out by men returning to their university jobs, she joined the Canadian Mental Health Association, where she established Mental Health Week in Canada and ran a weekly program on mental health on CBC Radio.

In the ensuing decades, her life was a whirlwind. In 1968, she founded and chaired the campaign to raise funds for the creation of the Hincks Treatment Centre for Adolescents, which is now part of the SickKids Centre for Community Mental Health.

In the late 1970s, she was appointed by then-premier Bill Davis to the revamped Ontario Council on University Affairs. Around the same time, Canada’s newly elected prime minister Joe Clark invited Gerstein to be deputy minister of health and welfare. She declined. “I didn’t want to live in Ottawa,” she explained. “I wanted to be with my family and husband.”

A high point for Gerstein came when Toronto Mayor Art Eggleton asked her to chair his Action Task Force on Discharged Psychiatric Patients in Toronto. Her report led to one of Canada’s “most profound shifts in mental-health care to a non-medical model that focused on healthy living beyond psychiatric hospitals,” noted an obituary published by Western University.

That meant ensuring that people recovering from mental illness had access to homes, social services, employment and dignity. Her work helped shift Canadian mental health care from a medical model to one focused on healthy, community-based living.

When the province opened support facilities for mental illness survivors in 1989, they were named the Gerstein Crisis Centre. With two locations, the centre provides 24-hour counselling, emergency beds and a mobile crisis team.

“She spent a lifetime working to give voice to those usually unheard by society,” the Gerstein Crisis Centre noted in its online tribute.

For her efforts, she was awarded six honorary doctorates.

Being a female professional with such high visibility may have been a novelty in her day, but she believed more women should shake up the workforce.

“They’re showing men they can handle a variety of jobs,” she said in 1980, but added, “they aren’t equal in pay, and some men still feel threatened by women.”

Gerstein was predeceased by her brothers, Irving and Sidney Appleby, and husbands Bertrand Gerstein and David Raitblatt. She is survived by her sons, Irving and Ira, 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.