Lewis Katz's death leaves a major void in the Jewish community that he was inextricably linked with over the years.
The death of philanthropist, publishing magnate and sports team impresario Lewis Katz, 72, in a plane crash on May 31 has left a major void in the Philadelphia-area Jewish community that Katz was so inextricably linked to over the years.
While recently making news for his acquisition, alongside H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com, Katz had long been a headliner in his involvement in the local Jewish scene.
Jennifer Dubrow Weiss, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey, of which the Betty and Milton Katz JCC in Cherry Hill — named after benefactor Lewis Katz’s parents — is a constituent, lamented the loss of Katz as well as Susan Asbell, a leader with the Boys and Girls Club of Camden County, who also perished in the crash.
She called both “champions for those in need, through their involvement in the Jewish community as well as the secular community. Their philanthropy, friendship and volunteerism will leave a legacy for an entire community and set an example for all to follow.”
Katz also was the benefactor of the JCC in Margate as well as one now being built in Princeton.
Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, recalled Katz as an early benefactor of Hillel at Temple University, where a new building was dedicated in 2009 as the Edward H. Rosen Center for Jewish Life.
Alpert remembered Katz’s keynote address at the 2009 event, in which he “discussed the important role Temple had played in his life” and “how it has served as the public college for Jewish Philadelphia.”
Katz, a biology major who graduated in 1963 from the school’s College of Science and Technology, did not belong to Hillel while at Temple, but in his speech, he recognized “the importance of Hillel in creating ties that would draw students in to” the larger community, Alpert said.
He also spoke a lot about Rosen, Temple Hillel’s namesake and a longtime leader in the local Jewish community, “as a good friend who had introduced him to Hillel at Temple. He saw Ed as the personification of what Jewish students should strive for in growing into Jewish leaders.”
Rosen himself returned the favor, calling Katz a mensch “who was very kind and generous to me” as one of the center’s major contributors.
“He not only supported Hillel with his generosity, but with his time and charisma,” Rosen said. “For a big shot with contacts all over the world,” he added, Katz always remembered his roots and remained a down-to-earth communal leader.
Katz never lost his sense of the synagogue as a focal point of Jewish life, according to Rabbi Aaron Krupnick, who has been senior rabbi since 2000 of Congregation Beth El of Voorhees Township, N.J. Katz, a native of Camden, had been a member there since childhood. His father died soon after Katz’s birth, and he was raised by his mother.
“He was brought up at Beth El — he had his Bar Mitzvah here,” said Krupnick.
Katz observed his father’s yahrzeit there each year and, in the saddest of ironies, the Jewish anniversary of his father’s death fell this year the night after Katz perished in the plane accident in Massachusetts.
“It was the 71st yahrzeit for his father, and I said Kaddish for him,” the rabbi said.
While “Judaism was a very important part of the world for him,” Krupnick said, Katz was also a man of the world in his vision: “What he wanted for the Jewish community, he also wanted for the non-Jewish community.”
To that end, he was intent on using his wealth to build bridges. “He felt strongly about using his resources to bring people together.”
Those resources were plentiful. Katz made his fortunes through a variety of outlets. He formerly owned the giant Kinney Parking Systems of New York and had owned and run Interstate Outdoor Advertising. As a sports mogul, his investments and ownership ran the gamut — he had owned both the New Jersey Nets in pro basketball and ice hockey’s New Jersey Devils.
A founder of Katz, Ettin & Levine, a law firm in Cherry Hill where he also was a partner, Katz, who had graduated first in his class at Penn State’s Dickinson Law School, also wound up owning a handful of radio stations throughout Jersey.
Beth El was one of the many beneficiaries of his philanthropy. The synagogue’s sanctuary is named in honor of Lewis and his late wife, Marjorie.
Krupnick said Katz also funded the temple’s first confirmation class trip to Israel.
A recurring appraisal from those remembering Katz was how “he was sensitive to people down on their luck since, pretty much, he came from nothing,” Krupnick said.
Indeed, when he delivered his acceptance speech upon receiving an honorary doctorate from Temple University last month, Katz discussed the hardships he had faced growing up, giving thanks to the university for being there for him.
The presentation of the doctorate followed on the heels of the announcement that Katz had pledged $25 million to Temple’s School of Medicine — the largest such grant ever accorded the university. The Temple Board of Trustees, of which Katz was a member, announced just prior to Katz’s death that they will be naming the School of Medicine in his honor.
Perhaps Rabbi Alpert of Hillel best summed up the impact of Lewis Katz on those who knew him: “He reflected Jewish values; he was a gracious gentleman and a great model for younger Jews to follow.”
Private funeral services were being planned by the family to take place at Platt Memorial Chapels in Cherry Hill. Temple University will hold a memorial service for him at 11 a.m. on June 4 at its Performing Arts Center, 1837 N. Broad St. Among the scheduled speakers are President Bill Clinton, Gov. Ed Rendell, Gov. Thomas W. Corbett, Mayor Michael A. Nutter, sports mogul Ed Snider, Temple trustee and former college roommate William H. Cosby, Rabbi Jerome Krupnick of Congregation Beth El in Voorhees, N.J., and members of Katz's family.