The legacy of Meyer W. Gasner (1906-1974)

If the city ever proclaims an official day dedicated to the Jewish community’s many successes, it would be most fitting to call it Meyer W. Gasner Day.

That’s because MW, as he was known, gave the community its start. He’s the man who spearheaded almost every aspect of Jewish living in Toronto, be it Jewish education, kashruth, rabbinical councils, Israel campaigns and much more, He was an Orthodox Jew, yet he was able to bring together Jews from every movement and faction and keep them talking to each other. He was a man for all seasons and was highly respected for being so.

“How do you describe ‘larger than life?'” asks his grandson Robert Gasner. “Zaidy was an honest, ethical, modern Orthodox Jew who understood what it was to be a Jew and how to live in a very difficult time and a difficult world. He was a very altruistic and philanthropic man who got things done. Through his power, he was able to single-handedly create an organized, vibrant and thriving Jewish community.”

Meyer grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the second of six children. He was a Talmudic scholar, graduating from what became known as Yeshiva University. One day, while working as a salesman for a fabric company, he happened upon a lovely girl named Goldie Segal who had been visiting a friend in his apartment building. Before long, he had followed Goldie to Toronto, where they got married and started their new life.

Meyer put everything he had into everything he did. In 1927, he and a friend went into the auto parts business and were very successful. But Meyer left it in 1942, using his many contacts to help the U.S. government secure elusive aircraft parts during the war. He then became the Canadian sales rep for a Chicago-based auto parts company and went on to head up Midas Muffler Canada.

Despite being busy with his profession and his growing family, Meyer was constantly looking after his community, too. Through his power of persuasion and his deep sense of Jewish pride, Meyer succeeded in bringing people together to talk, to brainstorm, and to act. He became a director of UJA Federation’s Board of Jewish Education and helped build Associated Hebrew Schools. He helped acquire the land where Shaarei Shomayim Synagogue now stands and was shul president in the early 1950s. He managed to get the city’s rabbis to sit together and discuss important community issues. He was among the first in the city to publicly appeal for Israel Bonds. He supported many causes including Baycrest Centre and Mount Sinai Hospital and fought hard to establish kosher kitchens there and at the city’s major hotels. And he was so struck by the State of Israel that he became the first importer of Carmel Wines and brought many other Israeli products to Canada.

But perhaps Meyer’s most famous achievement was the creation of the Kashruth Council of Toronto — COR — which gave a uniform stamp of approval to all kosher products and establishments in the city.

“Pop fought for unity,” says his son Leon. “He felt it was important for every thought-provoking Jew who wanted to see Judaism thrive. He didn’t believe in fragmentation. He had friends in all walks of life and was very well respected. They’re still talking about him.”

Adds Robert, who became active in Jewish campus activity and UJA because of his grandfather’s influence: “Of all the community leaders I know, Zaidy is the one who’s the most sorely missed. He was the bridge between all of the different organizations and types of people in the city. If we could build another Meyer W. Gasner, the community would be so well off.”

Samuel J. Sable, Meyer’s co-conspirator when it came to Jewish causes, says his close friend and mentor would be extremely pleased with how the community has flourished.

“When I go to a function and see all our young people so concerned about the community and Israel and UJA, I’m so proud because we created it all 45 years ago,” says Sam, 90, who established the Meyer W. Gasner Memorial Scholarship Fund at the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto. The fund annually awards scholarships to Toronto high school graduates who are planning a year of study in Israel and intend to pursue a career in Jewish education. “They are our future leaders, and Meyer would be as proud as I am of the marvelous job they do.” ♦

This story originally appeared in the Canadian Jewish News and appears here courtesy of the author. © 2003 by Cynthia Gasner.