It was March 1988, only three months after Palestinians had launched an uprising in the West Bank (the so-called “First Intifada”), and Israel was under fierce international criticism for its tough response. Jewish communities abroad were scrambling to defend Israel and deal with fair-weather friends in government. In this difficult environment, the Canada-Israel Committee (CIC) convened a national conference in Ottawa to rally community troops and shore up political support for Israel.
At the time I was a young pro-Israel lobbyist, researcher, and educator, having assumed responsibility for the Toronto office of the CIC just weeks before the intifada hit. The Ottawa conference was meant to be shot of strength for Israel and a display of resilience for the beleaguered community.
But then thunder struck. Canadian foreign minister Joe Clark took the podium at the Ottawa conference and launched into an unbridled and unprecedented assault on Israel.
In front of the entire pro-Israel and Jewish community leadership of Canada, including his good friend and political backer Sidney Spivak (who as CIC chair was next to him on the dais), Clark alleged that Israel was committing “grave human rights violations” against the Palestinians designed “to impose force and fear.” He falsely accused Israel of preventing the Red Cross from treating injured Palestinians and lobbed other unsubstantiated innuendos.
As Clark went on and on, most people in the audience were frozen in polite astonishment to their seats even as their anger levels rose. After all, this was Canada, where courtesy and civility are part of the culture.
Nevertheless, about halfway through Clark’s rant, three bold women broke the genteel ice, stood up, and led a defiant walkout on Clark. They were Mira Koschitzky of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Neri Bloomfield of the Canadian Zionist Federation and Lily Frank of Hadassah-WIZO. Others followed, and in the lobby outside the conference hall, they started chanting loudly. My CIC colleague Shimon Fogel and I were tasked with calming them down. We didn’t succeed.
As the scandal played out over the following weeks leading to an emergency summit with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (where Clark was forced to recant), Mira, Neri, and Lily (and additional protesters like Stella Torontow) became heroes.
MIRA KOSCHITZKY passed away this week. She will be remembered as a determined Canadian Jewish community leader, and as empress of a righteous family that is among the greatest Jewish educational philanthropists worldwide. To me and an entire generation of young pro-Israel activists in Toronto, and especially to young women in community life, Mira was an outstanding role model. This column is my tribute to her.
The life of Jewish role model Mira Koschitzky
Born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, and raised on a feudal estate, Mira and her sister were hidden during the Holocaust by a gentile employee of their father’s, while her parents were hidden in a nearby village. They miraculously survived the war and came to Canada in 1947, speaking only Slovak, Hungarian and German, with Mira barely knowing the “Shema Yisrael” prayer alongside Christian prayers she was taught in hiding. (Mira stayed in contact with her saviors and their children throughout her life, always expressing deep gratitude.)
Mira’s love for Israel was a function of her Holocaust experience, and this deepened at an early age in a Zionist youth group followed by a year of study in the mid-1950s at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Such study in Israel by Diaspora youth was uncommon back then.
In Calgary and later in Toronto, Mira and her distinguished husband Saul became mainstays of the Jewish community, with Mira involving herself in multiple Jewish educational philanthropic ventures and human rights and tolerance causes. Her commitment to the Jewish community in Canada and around the world, and her devotion to the security and prosperity of the State of Israel was consummate and heartfelt.
Mira served with distinction as chairwoman of the national executive of the Canadian Jewish Congress, and in leadership capacities for UJA Federation Toronto, Bnei Akiva Schools of Toronto, Associated Hebrew Schools of Toronto, Bar-Ilan University in Israel and other organizations. She fought, for example, a yeoman’s battle to keep the Baycrest Home for the Aged in Toronto (which has become a noted academic health sciences center too) a kosher institution.
Mira led by example, with her children following in her footsteps and taking on significant community leadership roles. For example, her eldest son David Koschitzky has served as president of UJA Federation of Toronto, national chairman of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA, the successor organization to the CIC and CJC – which I represent in Israel), and chairman of Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal) World Board of Trustees.
Together with Saul (may he stay healthy and strong) over 66 years, Mira built a magnificent family that today includes great-grandchildren in Canada, the US and Israel who are loyal to the family tradition of religious commitment and devotion to community, with many serving in the IDF too.
Most of all, Mira taught her kids and grandkids to be modest like her; to be both confident leaders and unpretentious people. This is no small feat, truly the mark of menschlechkeit (integrity).
Mira’s sister-in-law, Julia Koschitzky, also was humble and brilliant, an internationally recognized Jewish community leader, again a role model for many. She passed away just over one year ago. These two “matriarchs” of the noble Koschitzky family truly set the gold standard in world Jewry for what makes a “leader.”
My siblings and I were fortunate to benefit from the Koschitzky family vision, as students and executives at the many Religious Zionist educational institutions they supported in Canada and Israel, beginning with the Bnei Akiva Schools of Toronto and Yeshivot Bnei Akiva of Israel, and Bar-Ilan University. For that and the continuing friendship of the younger Koschitzky generations we are grateful.
Saul has reminded me more than once that he and Mira were sitting in 1988 at the next table in a Toronto kosher restaurant called Greenfield’s when I was on a very first date with the woman who would soon become my wife. Saul told me straight out (perhaps it was the following week) that I should marry her. Saul and Mira’s warmth towards Bonnie and me ever since is something we will cherish always.
To the Koschitzky family, we extend traditional Jewish consolations, praying that they be comforted by the Heavens “among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Surely, Mira’s life story and sterling reputation stand as a blessing to all that were privileged to know her and were touched by her generosity.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Misgav Institute for National Security & Zionist Strategy and director of the CIJA Israel Office. The views expressed here are his own. His diplomatic, defense, political, and Jewish world columns over the past 26 years are archived at davidmweinberg.com.