Always a visionary, Ellie Meyerhoff Katz’s quest in life was — to paraphrase Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry — to boldly go where no woman had gone before.
Now that she’s gone, her children know she would’ve loved nothing more than to preserve that legacy.
That’s why they’ve established the $2 million Eleanor Meyerhoff Katz Jewish Innovation Endowment, with the hope that it enables Jewish learning and progress.
A joint partnership between Hillel International’s Office of Innovation in New York and the University of Pennsylvania Hillel — where three of her five children were active — will oversee endowment distribution.
They said Hillel meant the world to her, and this is her way of showing that appreciation.
“Our mom was an innovator and a change agent both on a local and global scale,” said Sally Katz, the only one of the five who lives in Philadelphia, where she serves on the board at Penn Hillel. “She played a leadership role in critical years for Hillel International, and Penn Hillel has a piece of her spirit in it.
“She was always thinking outside the box and pushing the envelope to make Judaism meaningful and accessible regardless of someone’s Jewish background.
“This endowment is a wonderful way to honor her legacy of local empowerment and national visioning. The connection to Penn Hillel makes it all the more meaningful.”
Penn was also the recipient in 2008 of a Katz family endowment toward what is now the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, named for Ellie Meyerhoff Katz’s late husband.
“[Ellie’s children] were looking to do something to commemorate their mom like they had done with their father,” said Rabbi Mike Uram, Penn Hillel executive director, who will coordinate the project in conjunction with Hillel International Chief Innovation Officer Rabbi Dan Smokler. “We started meeting and having conversations last December.
“Herbert Katz was a philanthropist and a big supporter of Hillel. His wife was an innovator and someone on the cutting edge. This is an incredibly generous gift and cements the Katz family’s legacy for constantly striving to build a Jewish future.”
The endowment is divided into three phases, which will intertwine.
The first will be the Katz Innovation Summit to be held in Orlando, Fla., in December as part of Hillel International’s annual conference. Up to 1,000 Hillel leaders from across the world are expected to attend.
The summit will include a series of workshops and visioning exercises that will provide potential ways to foster the culture of Jewish innovation going forward.
At that time, they’ll reveal the details of the Katz Innovation Award, which is expected to be a $5,000 prize for a person or group of people who devise the most innovative concepts toward a Jewish future.
Finally, Faith Leener was hired as the first Katz Innovation Fellow.
Her job will be to plan the upcoming summit, then recruit future innovators.
“We need new ideas, projects and technology to serve young Jews,” said Smokler, who’s known Uram, as well as Tom Katz, a Penn grad and the oldest of three Katz sons, for years. “Jewish life is more diverse. We need new approaches.
“Life is different for young people. They live longer, live in different places, live in a more cosmopolitan and free world than their predecessors. There’s nothing wrong with Judaism, but the world changes.”
The hope is that the Eleanor Meyerhoff Katz Jewish Innovation Endowment will enable the Jewish world to change with the future. And it starts with Hillel.
“Hillel’s always been willing to try things from all angles,” Sally Katz said. “In doing so, they’ve been finding so many ways for Jews to be engaged both inside and outside the Hillel building.
“Whether it’s social action, Israel advocacy or just getting a nice kosher meal, Hillel tries to provide something that will connect with their Jewish experience.”
For the Katz family, that experience has always included showing its appreciation by giving back.
“Being philanthropic and making sure the Jewish community — especially when it comes to education — is taken care of has always been important in our family,” she said. “It’s in our blood.
“Our mom was such a special individual, and her spirit of giving to the community was so effusive, being able to do something like this was a no-brainer. We just thought this would make her happy and smile from up above.
“[We want] to encourage students to be innovative to dare to do what we might think is only possible. That’s what it’s about.”
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