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Merle Koven grew up in Kingston, Ontario and attended Kingston Collegiate. After high school, Merle enrolled in teachers college in Toronto. He later taught school in Kingston. Merle married Philip Koven, a well-known local businessman, philanthropist and community volunteer, who died in 2008. He was owner of Rosen Heating and Cooling, which merged with another old, established city business to form Rosen, Triheat and Anglin, now run by their two sons.
During their forty-five years of marriage, the Kovens raised three children, Adam, Kenneth, and Rebecca. Both Phil and Merle Koven were prominent in the community. In 1982, Merle Koven broke new ground when she became president of Beth Israel in Kingston, possibly the first woman president of an Orthodox synagogue in North America. She was vice chair of Queens 1990s, although she did not have a degree.
The Merle and Philip Koven Bursary in Art History at Queen's University was initially established by Philip Koven in honour of his wife, Merle Koven, both passionate supporters of the arts in Kingston. This fund provides financial support for upper-year students in art history. After Philip Koven passed away in 2008, the fund received many gifts in his memory.