If you have ever met a friend at the Jewish Community Centre (JCC), contributed to an Ottawa Jewish Community Foundation fund that ensures the future well being of the community, or felt relieved that our community’s most vulnerable were being cared for, then you have experienced, in some way, Norman Zagerman’s passionate and unrelenting commitment to the Ottawa Jewish community.
The longstanding community leader, who played a pivotal role in founding, directing and supporting the causes that are the heart and soul of our community, died on June 2 at age 88.
“Norman was a giant in our community,” said Jewish Federation of Ottawa President and CEO Andrea Freedman. “We are fortunate to be able to build on what he and his generation created. His death is a profound loss. We are grateful that his family shared him with us.”
An Ottawa native, Norman Zagerman was born September 19, 1929 to parents Morris and Mildred Zagerman. Community service, it seems, was been embedded in his DNA. His father was founding chair of the original JCC on Chapel Street, his mother was active in Hadassah and was founding chair of the JCC Library Committee, and his brother Joel advocated on behalf of Ottawa youth.
When Joel died at a young age, the teenaged Zagerman was inspired to continue the community service work begun by his big brother. He began fundraising for the Young People’s Division of the United Palestine Appeal and was chair of the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) young people’s division before he turned 20.
Thus began a life of community service that lasted for over 70 years.
“He was a phenomenal guy,” said Rabbi Reuven Bulka. “He was caring, honest, trustworthy and wise. Full of integrity. A true role model. He cared about the community and making it a better place. He had determination, passion and energy. He showed that with that electric combination, nothing stops you from doing what you feel needs to be done.”
Growing up in Ottawa at a time when anti-Semitism was common, Zagerman was frequently harassed and called a “dirty Jew.” The small, localized Jewish community was in the early stages of developing its infrastructure and Zagerman took on an ever-expanding role in ensuring the community had both the funds and the institutions needed to enhance and preserve Jewish life.
After chairing the UJA campaigns in 1969 and 1970, Zagerman became vice-president and then president of the Jewish Community Council of Ottawa/Vaad Ha’ir (now the Jewish Federation of Ottawa). While president of the Vaad from 1973 until 1975, Zagerman recognized the need to safeguard the community’s long-term financial viability and was instrumental in establishing the Ottawa Jewish Community Foundation. He was one of its first directors and served as its president in 1982-83.
Another milestone during Zagerman’s tenure as Vaad president was changing the Vaad constitution to allow for public participation in the election of officers.
Described as a “fundraiser extraordinaire,” Zagerman was at the forefront of multiple fundraising campaigns, including ones for Carleton University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion University, Technion and the Royal Ottawa Hospital. Following in his father’s footsteps, he chaired the campaign to build the new Soloway Jewish Community Centre in the west end.
Zagerman served on several boards, including the Ottawa General Hospital, Carleton University, Algonquin College, Canadian Jewish Congress, the Social Planning Council of Ottawa, the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation Maplesoft Centre and the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. He was an honourary chair of the Bank Street Cemetery Revitalization project and the Hillel Lodge capital campaign.
“Zagerman lives and breathes the Ottawa Jewish community,” said then-Vaad president Stephen Victor in a 1989 Ottawa Jewish Bulletin article. “It’s his lifeblood. No one has contributed more throughout his lifetime than Norman with his time, energy and money.”
In this tireless community involvement, Zagerman not only played a key decision-making role, but also became known as an honest, wise and trusted role model who you could go to for advice and guidance. It is no surprise that he was affectionately nicknamed the “Vaad-father.”
In 1984, Zagerman received the Gilbert Greenberg Distinguished Leadership Award, the highest tribute that the Ottawa Jewish community can bestow on an individual, honouring a lifetime of leadership in the Jewish world.
In 1989, he was B’nai Brith Man on the Year in recognition of his outstanding community service. The Ottawa Citizen applauded him as a local hero, saying, “If Judaism canonized or beatified its members for helping their fellow man, Norman Zagerman would surely be sainted.”
“I don’t raise the money, people raise the money,” the modest Zagerman told the Citizen. “The people who give you the money are the ones who deserve the credit, not the person raising it.”
Zagerman worked in the family steel and lumber business – Zagerman & Co – until 1993 and then became a financial advisor with BMO Nesbitt Burns. He retired in 2012, but retirement didn’t stop him; rather, it gave him more time to be available to anyone who asked.
Zagerman’s generosity and community spirit extended beyond his leadership roles to single out individual achievement. So taken with the difficult yet heartening job of oncology nurses, he and his wife established the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation’s Carole and Norman Zagerman Compassionate Care Award. The pair also endowed the Norman and Carole Zagerman Varsity Basketball Scholarship at Carleton University, which recognizes outstanding academic achievement and involvement in the men’s varsity basketball program.
Zagerman is survived by his wife of 32 years, Carole; four children Mark, Joel (Lisa), Laurie (Bob), and Andrea (Bruce); two grandchildren Brinkley (Mike) and Misha; two great-grandchildren Emerson and Leo; and three siblings Herbert (Corrine), Shirley and Ruth (Manuel). He was predeceased by his first wife Valerie and his brother Joel.
Zagerman leaves behind an immensely grateful Ottawa Jewish community, one that is all the more comfortable, confident, secure and engaged because of his determination to make it a better place. His legacy is enduring.
“If you care there is no limit to what you can do,” said Rabbi Bulka. “That is Normie’s legacy. The best way to lead is by example and Normie was a true leader.”