My beloved sister, Irene Borins Ash, died on June 7 of complications from pancreatic cancer, which she contracted three years ago. Irene had major surgery and two six-month rounds of chemotherapy and the cancer itself was now in remission, but it so weakened her body and spirit that she had become very fragile.
Above all else, Irene was a people person. Nurturing warm and loving relationships mattered to her. She cared about people both in the local sense of “shalom habayit” (peace in the household) and global sense of “tikkun olam” (repairing the world). It is no surprise that she became a social worker, receiving a diploma from Seneca College (1973) and an MSW from Yeshiva University (1987), with a BA in Anthropology from York University (1984) in between. The area of social work that most attracted her attention was geriatric, and she spent most of her social work career helping seniors.
Irene was also a talented artist, particularly in the areas of weaving, tapestry, and photography. Her best photographs were of people, often in candid poses, enjoying each other’s company or expressing emotion.
In 2000, Irene created the first of 4 photography and texts exhibits that were exhibited in numerous locations over the next 15 years. Two of those exhibits led to two books in which she combined her artistic and social work passions: Treasured Legacies: Older and Still Great (Second Story Press 2003) and, co-authored with her husband Irv Ash, Aging is Living: Myth Breaking Stories from Long Term Care (Dundurn Press, 2009).
In Treasured Legacies: Older and Still Great, she interviewed and photographed fifty elders, some well known (Oscar Peterson and David Suzuki) and some not, who despite adversity were living purposefully and continuing to contribute to family and community. I admired her chutzpah in approaching those her were well-known and convincing them to participate in her project. Her portraits often capture resilience, compassion, and inner grace. It is sadly ironic that Irene herself will not experience the stage of life that so fascinated her.
In Aging is Living Irene and Irv interviewed and photographed another group of people living meaningful, purposeful, and joyful lives in long-term care homes. This book, supported by the Ontario Long-Term Care Association, should have considerable relevance to the current tragedy of Covid – 19 in long-term care homes. When the government commission looking into Covid – 19 and conditions in long-term care homes does its work, it should read Aging is Living as a statement of the potential of long-term care homes.
In recent years, Irene became interested in the potential of community initiatives, especially those of faith-based communities, to restore the environment. She and her husband Irv Ash made a video, entitled One Planet: Harnessing Hope, about this theme, that is available on YouTube and on her website. Her efforts in this area were cut short by her illness.
You can learn more about Irene’s work and see photos of her art on her website.
Thinking back on our lives as adult siblings, Irene and I shared the most time together at the Borins family cottage that we owned from 1981 to 2007. We spent many weekends there canoeing, boating, walking in the woods, cooking, and hanging out. Those memories are precious.
Irene leaves her husband Irv Ash, her mother, Beverley Ludwig Borins, her brothers Sandford and Michael Borins, sisters-in-law Beth Herst and Heidi Bergstrom, brother-in-law Mel Ash, nieces Adryan and Haley Bergstrom-Borins, and nephews Alexander and Nathaniel Borins. She was predeceased by her father, Sidney Borins.
Donations in Irene’s memory should be made to either of the two funds Irene set up as bequests in her will: Jewish Family and Child Foundation of Greater Toronto “Irene Borins Ash Fund” or Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology “Irene Borins Ash Endowed Award.”