Former Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia executive and Gratz College President Ernest “Ernie” Kahn died on Oct. 11. The Center City resident was 96.
During Kahn’s 36-year career serving the Jewish community in Philadelphia from 1978 to 2014, he acted as the director of allocations and planning, associate executive vice president and interim executive director on three occasions. Kahn was the interim president of Gratz College from 1997-’99.
According to a 2020 Jewish Exponent article about Kahn becoming an honorary trustee of the Jewish Federation, Kahn served on almost every committee the organization offered.
“In the Jewish communal world, when you’re in a high-level position of authority, you’ll always find someone who doesn’t like you or how you do your job. I doubt you’ll find anyone who didn’t like Ernie or how he did whatever job he did,” said Jay Steinberg, a former Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia professional staff member.
Kahn, despite his busyness and status as an “Energizer bunny,” according to American Jewish Committee Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey Regional Director Marcia Bronstein, still took time to chat with colleagues and visitors, wanting to learn their stories. He was the center of the web of connection at the Jewish Federation and beyond.
“He was the institutional memory of the Jewish community of Philadelphia,” Bronstein said.
Along with stories of the Philadelphia Jewish community, Kahn contained a multitude of stories, both victories and tragedies, of Jewish communities all over the world.
Born in 1926 in the eastern German city of Schwäbisch Gmünd, Kahn was 8 when the Nazi Party rose to power. Forbidden by law to attend school with his Christian counterparts, Kahn moved to Stuttgart, where the closest Jewish school was.
The Kahns avoided the plight of many German Jewish families with the help of Kahn’s father’s friends and customers of the family’s retail stores. Kahn also had a maternal aunt living with her husband in New York who was able to provide financial assistance and ensure the family stayed together during their journey to the U.S.
Though Kahn was forthcoming about his childhood when asked, his family doesn’t have a clear picture of how exactly he survived the Holocaust.
“At various different times, my father has given credence to the various different stories, which leads me to believe that there’s probably an element of truth to almost all, that there was not just one series of events,” daughter Rachel Kahn Ross said.
The Kahn family arrived in the United States — by way of France and England — on the Queen Mary in the fall of 1939, and Kahn had a formal bar mitzvah shortly after arriving.
Despite his tumultuous childhood and journey to the U.S., Kahn never described himself as a Holocaust survivor or refugee.
“That would not be my father’s style, to either see himself as a refugee or as a Holocaust survivor,” Ross said. “I think I can say he considered himself to be among the very fortunate.”
He received a bachelor’s degree from the City University of New York, a master’s degree in social work from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in education for social movements from the University of Maryland, where he later worked as an assistant dean at the school of social work. Kahn also was involved at the Baltimore Hebrew College.
By the time he moved to Philadelphia in 1978, Kahn was 52 and a seasoned Jewish professional. Toward the end of his career at the Jewish Federation, his biggest challenge was retiring, colleagues and family said unanimously. Daughter Beth Kahn remembers her father stepping down, but then helping the Jewish Federation with a project, which over and over became a return to employment.
“His work was very, very important to him,” she said. “He was very committed to the Jewish community. … Next to his family, it was probably the most important thing.”
When he wasn’t working, Kahn enjoyed going to the theater and symphony with his wife Marcia of 67 years, who died in February, and traveling, including on a trip with his grandsons to Schwäbisch Gmünd and Stuttgart in 2017 to visit his childhood home, family store and synagogue.
On a 2015 Jewish Federation mission to Israel, Kahn and his family visited Yad Vashem. At one point during the guided tour, he split off from the group and started telling a couple of stragglers about his childhood during the Shoah. The group eventually swelled and congregated around Kahn.
“We gathered a following of about 30 other people behind us,” Beth Kahn said, “who decided they wanted to listen to my dad tell his story.”
Kahn is survived by his two daughters and two grandchildren. JE