Ernest M. Kahn
After nearly two decades of trying, Ernest Kahn still hasn’t mastered this retirement thing.
“When it comes to retirement, you are the biggest incompetent I know,” his friend Rabbi David Teutsch tells him, only half-joking.
It’s not for lack of trying, Kahn, 86, says in his office at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, where every Tuesday he carries out the duties of senior executive consultant. It’s just that there’s still work to be done, and he’s not ready to wash his hands of it.
Kahn was 53 in July of 1978 when he first set foot in the Federation building, then at 16th and Locust Streets in Center City. He’d had a rewarding career in academia — assistant dean at the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland — and had run one JCC in Stamford, Conn., and supervised programs at another JCC, this one in Chicago.
Jerome Stern was Federation president when the organization lured Kahn to Philadelphia as director of allocations and planning. Since then, Kahn has served in too many capacities to count, including three stints as interim executive director.
The Federation wrestled with different challenges a quarter of a century ago, Kahn recalls. The Soviet Jewry movement was in its early days, and Israel was still coping with the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war five years earlier.
“Our main concern was procuring Israel’s physical security and building the country” to absorb the large number of immigrants coming from Argentina, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and other immigration hotspots, Kahn says. “There was also the concern that we were not raising anywhere near the amount that a large, relatively affluent federation was expected to make.”
Why the gap? Kahn says Philadelphia was famously short of the type of international mega-businesses other cities boasted, which affected the annual campaign’s bottom line.
Kahn officially “retired” in 1995, only to be pressed into service for a study on Soviet Jewry for the National Council of Jewish Federations, and again as interim president of Gratz College.
His second stab at a life of leisure found him teaching at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College until Federation called again, this time to help the Jewish Community Centers of Philadelphia transition into three independent entities. And in the past few years, there has been the Jewish Population Study to review, and the Priorities Committee of Federation to serve on. His latest project, working with Federation’s Policy, Strategy and Funding Committee, means he’s got his eye on the future — even as he passes the baton.