Bill Kahn brought new kind of leadership to Pittsburgh Jewish community

Bill Kahn brought new kind of leadership to Pittsburgh Jewish community

William Kahn
William Kahn

By Staff and releases

William Kahn, a dedicated Jewish communal professional whose activism and vision made him a venerated figure on the national stage, died on June 27 in St. Louis, Mo. He was 87.

Kahn grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of Joseph “Ziggy” and Anna Kahn. He attended the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree and a master’s degree in social work. He married his late first wife, the former Shirlee Fink, while working in Jewish communal service at the Council House in St. Louis following his university studies.

Kahn had many positions over the years in the field of Jewish communal service, including executive director and camp director of Denver’s Jewish Community Center, and executive director of the St. Louis Jewish Community Centers Association, a position he held from 1958 to 1977.

In the fall of 1978, Kahn moved back to Pittsburgh where he became director of the Jewish Federation here.

“He came to Pittsburgh from St. Louis, and he had never before been an executive of a Federation,” said Sidney Busis, who was Federation chair during Kahn’s tenure here. “He just worked out beautifully. He was a wonderful people person, and he got a lot of people involved. He just took to it like a fish in water.”

Kahn was innovative in his approach to developing leadership in that he was one of the first Federation directors to draw from the volunteer pool to fill professional positions, according to Jane Berkey, who Kahn hired to work at Federation here in 1980.

“I think Bill Kahn brought a new kind of professional leadership to Pittsburgh,” said Berkey. “He was a real presence. He was gregarious and anxious to meet people. I think he sort of shook the town up a little bit, in a good way.”

Kahn also was instrumental in launching the Career Development Center here in response to the vocational needs of Jews emigrating from the former Soviet Union, according to Berkey.

Kahn was so successful in his Pittsburgh Federation post that he was recruited to work as executive vice president of the New York Federation of Jewish Philanthropies in 1981. In New York, he oversaw the merger of the Federation with the United Jewish Appeal of New York.

In 1986, Kahn returned St. Louis to serve as executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, a post he maintained until his retirement in 1990.

“We have lost a real giant, not only for local Jewry but on the American Jewish landscape,” said Andrew Rehfeld, CEO of the St. Louis Federation, in a prepared statement issued by the Jewish Federations of North America. Rehfeld called Kahn “an extraordinary man who was larger than life, a big personality with big dreams” who left an important legacy.

Kahn was most proud of his work for civil rights, according to the JFNA’s press release. He marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., and hosted King as a speaker at the JCC’s Liberal Forum. He chartered a plane of interfaith clergy to Washington in 1963 to hear King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In recognition of his civil rights work, he was one of two recipients in 2008 of the Heschel-King Award by Jews United for Justice of St. Louis.

He was beloved as a private man, as well. “Other people can speak to his remarkable public legacy,” said son Michael Kahn, according to the JFNA statement. “But I knew him as ‘Dad’ and he was a wonderful father who always found time for his children. He encouraged us to explore and to be courageous, and he taught us great moral lessons, both big and little.”

Kahn taught by the way he lived, his son said. He recalled asking his father as a child why he would call attention to an error made in his favor in a restaurant check.  “My father said, ‘You have to do what is right.’” 

Kahn was one of the driving forces behind the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, which honored him in 2006 by naming a garden for him. More than 30,000 young people visit the museum each year.

Kahn made a lasting impact on Jewish life, according to Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of JFNA. “Bill chose to dedicate his life to justice and to the well-being of the Jewish community,” Silverman said in a prepared statement. “He will be missed, but his work will continue to benefit us all.”

In addition to the late Shirlee Kahn, Kahn was also the husband to the late Margot Roberts Kahn.

Kahn is survived by four children and their spouses, 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Condolences may be sent to Michael Kahn at 20 Heather Hill Lane, St. Louis, Mo., 63132.