1910 – 2003
The first graduate of the Social Work School of the Va’ad Le’umi, now the Baerwald School of Social Work of the Hebrew University, Sylva Gelber was born into a Zionist family. Her father, Louis Gelber (1878–1968), and his brother, Moses (1876–1940), were successful textile wholesalers who had immigrated to Toronto in 1896 from the town of Berezhany in Austrian Galicia. They and their children were among Canada’s foremost supporters of Jewish nationalism. Moses’s son, Edward (1904–1971), a lawyer and a rabbi, devoted his life to serving the Jewish community. Among other posts, he was president of the Zionist Organization of Canada (ZOC) and co-chair of Israel Bonds of Canada for a number of years before moving to Israel with his family in 1956. The children of Louis and Sara (Morris, d. 1954) were Lionel (1907–1989), who acted as political advisor to the Jewish Agency Office in New York between 1945 and 1948; Marvin (1912–1990), who, in those same years, worked as a lobbyist urging the Canadian government to support the nascent state of Israel and over the years was involved with the Palestine Economic Corporation, the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University, and the ZOC; Arthur (1915–1998), who was a president of the Toronto Zionist Council, a founder of the Canada-Israel Cultural Foundation, and active in other Zionist organizations; Sholome (1918-2001), an ordained rabbi who assisted in organizing “illegal” immigration to Palestine while working with UNRWA in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; and Sylva.
Sylva was educated at Havergal Ladies College in Toronto, an exclusive girls’ school that admitted few Jews in the 1920s. Summers were spent at Camp Modin in Maine, an early Jewish and Hebrew educational camp, the alumni of which included members of the American-Jewish communal elite. Her application to Barnard College in 1929 was rejected, because “the Jewish quota was already filled.” She took courses at Columbia, New York University, and the University of Toronto that did not lead to a degree. After a stint as a columnist for the Jewish Standard, a Toronto Zionist publication then edited by Meyer Weisgal (1894–1977), she left for Palestine in 1932.
A meeting with Henrietta Szold led to Gelber’s enrollment in the new School of Social Work, which Szold had established to bring a scientific approach to social work in the Yishuv. After graduation, Gelber pioneered as a family counselor and probation officer with the Va’ad Le’umi Social Work Bureau (1932–1937) and as a medical social worker with the Hadassah Medical Organization (1937–1942). From 1942 to 1948 she worked for the (British) Government of Palestine Department of Labor. Throughout these years she was a member of a small group of influential Jerusalemites of North American origin that included Szold and Judah Magnes (1877–1948), the president of the Hebrew University.
Over time, Gelber drew apart from her former friends in the yishuv. To some extent, ideological differences caused the estrangement. But her romantic involvement with a British official was also a factor. In the charged atmosphere of the struggle for Jewish statehood waged against the British and the Arabs, doubts arose regarding Gelber’s loyalties. She returned to Canada in 1948 soured on the Zionist enterprise.
Gelber had left a country in which few women and no Jews could enter the public service. She returned at the moment when Canada was opening up, in part because of embarrassment regarding the country’s role during the Holocaust. Gelber embarked upon a career of distinguished public service. From 1950 to 1968 she worked as a health insurance consultant to the Government of Canada Department of National Health and Welfare. From 1968 to 1975 she served as director of the Women’s Bureau of the Canada Department of Labor, and from 1970 to 1974 she was the Canadian representative to the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Concurrently she served as special advisor to the Canadian UN General Assembly delegation and as Canadian delegate to International Labor Organization conferences.
Gelber held honorary degrees from Queen’s, Memorial, Guelph, Trent, and Mount St. Vincent’s universities. She was awarded the Canadian Centennial Medal in 1967 and made an officer of the Order of Canada in 1975. She served on the boards of governors of Trent University, the Canadian Human Rights Foundation, and the Canada-Israel Cultural Foundation, which her brother, Arthur, had helped to establish. She was founder and president of the Sylva Gelber Music Foundation and wrote a memoir of her Yishuv experiences, No Balm in Gilead (Ottawa, 1989). She died in Ottawa in 2003.