Rita Saslaw, center, with her daughter-in-law, Dianne, and son, Michael

Rita Saslaw has a passion for helping others that dates back to her childhood when she joined her parents in volunteer work to support World War II efforts.

As a young girl, she collected grease and foil from gum wrappers for the war efforts, she said. In first grade, she helped make mittens for poor children in Europe through an initiative under the American Red Cross.

“When I was in high school, I started (as) a ward secretary on Sunday mornings at Mount Sinai Hospital,” she said of her background in volunteering. “At the approach of the war, I think we just were interested in doing things. It was a different era in this country. We grew up with the idea of volunteerism.”

Having lived in Cleveland Heights at the time of the war, Saslaw said she did not think too much about its effect on Jews because, for a long time, they didn’t know what was going on in the rest of the world. She had family members who were trapped in Europe during the war and her family received minimal correspondence from them, but just enough to know that they were in the midst of it.

“I think, when you’re really little, you just know your immediate background,” she said. “I don’t think they knew how serious (it was) because the few letters that remain – and they stopped in 1939 – just indicated the war was on and they hoped we were OK. So I don’t think they realized how serious it was until it was too late.”

Saslaw said she was a stay-at-home mother for about 16 years. During this time, her volunteer work entailed being a member of the board of directors at Montefiore and serving as president of the junior auxiliary at Mount Sinai Hospital.

In addition to raising her three young children and volunteering, she also attended grad school, she said.

“Raising kids was very much a part of what I did, and the work I did was very stimulating, so I was happy to do both,” she said. “It was a balancing act.”

For about 10 years, she volunteered downtown for court community service, where she helped match people – who could not afford their court fines and were therefore sentenced to community service – with nonprofit organizations, she said.

Saslaw has also volunteered at InMotion in Beachwood, which serves people who have Parkinson’s disease, she said.

She volunteers at the Western Reserve Historical Society as well.

Volunteering is fulfilling for her because it’s something she has always done, having learned its value from her parents, she said.

“It was always something I did,” Saslaw said. “I guess my mother did that, too, at her temple when I was young and saw it. One of the things she did was sew shrouds at the old Heights Temple.”

Saslaw said her father was a block warden during the war. He learned first aid and was in charge of the block.

“I think it’s just something we did,” Saslaw said. “I just didn’t think about it.”

How do you feel about this article?

Choose from the options below.


Recommended for you