For years, the joke about Ernest “Ernie” Kahn, 94, is that he mastered everything he’s ever done in service of the Jewish community, save for one: staying retired.
Over and over again, Kahn, who has been affiliated with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia since 1978, has announced that he’s ready to hang ’em up. And then, in short order, he’s back for one “last” go-round.
In fact, on June 17, the Jewish Federation’s Board of Trustees gave him a special title, one that he can’t retire from: honorary trustee.
During a Zoom ceremony, Chair Susanna Lachs Adler told Kahn that it was “a well-deserved and, I have to say, overdue honor at this stage of your career and devotion to our board of trustees and to our Federation.”
“Thank you,” Kahn said, “for your faith and confidence.”
Later, Kahn said the honor was “more of a commendation than I think I had managed to do was worth.”
“Not that I didn’t do any work,” he laughed.
Kahn, who fled Germany with his family in January of 1939, got his undergraduate degree from the City College of New York before earning a master’s degree in social work from the University of Chicago and a doctorate from the University of Maryland in education for social movements. He was already 52, with decades of Jewish communal work in New York and elsewhere on his resume, when he arrived in Philadelphia in 1978. He was hired to be the director of allocations and planning and associate executive vice president of Jewish Federation.
Mimi Schneirov worked on several different committees with Kahn, serving as president of the Jewish Federation from 1987-1990. Kahn has “superhero qualities,” she said, citing his legendary reserves of energy. He certainly needed it, according to Schneirov; at various points, Kahn served on just about every committee there was, spent time as the interim president of Gratz College, and thrice was Jewish Federation’s interim executive director.
From the beginning, she saw that he was “highly intelligent, very passionate and, yet, managed to have a sense of humor.”
“We laughed a lot, too,” Schneirov added, “and that made working with him such a pleasure.”
Bennett Aaron, whose term as president of Jewish Federation immediately preceded Schneirov’s, remains amazed by Kahn’s ability to light up a room, and to engage with the full scope of the Jewish community.
“His personality was very well suited to dealing with a very diversified group of volunteers on a variety of committees,” Aaron said. Kahn was helped by his “very, very big smile.”
Contemporary leaders of the Jewish Federation are just as laudatory of Kahn’s recent work. Chief Operating Officer Steve Rosenberg said that Kahn is “a mensch, gentleman, scholar. Really, any superlative, that’s what this guy is.”
Even in the last few years, Kahn was heavily involved in the research and writing phases of new organizational by-laws. Rosenberg remarked that watching the precision and attention to detail that Kahn brought to his work was like watching a great surgeon.
And perhaps most importantly, Rosenberg believes, Kahn, for all of his institutional memory, has never been the type to be beholden to the way it’s always been done; even now, he has ideas that show that his finger remains firmly on the pulse.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody like Ernie,” he said.
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