Bnai Shalom president is recalled as healing force

As he lay on his deathbed last week, Congregation B'nai Shalom president Jerry Katz offered a final message.

"Raise your dues," he exhorted a member of the executive board who had come to the hospital to pay his respects.

"That's how committed and dedicated he was to the synagogue," said Katz's longtime friend Karla Smith, recalling the anecdote with an affectionate laugh.

More than 400 people gathered Wednesday of last week to remember Katz, who died of cancer the previous day at age 53. He was no relation to this reporter.

Katz, executive vice president and chief operation officer of Butterfield & Butterfield auction house, served as president of the Walnut Creek Conservative congregation twice — from 1994-1996 and again starting in March of this year.

During his first term, he saw the synagogue through one of the most difficult periods in its history. A group of B'nai Shalom congregants had split off and formed their own synagogue, Congregation Ohr Emet.

"It was a divisive and contentious time," recalled Smith, who currently serves as B'nai Shalom's vice president. "At that time I was on the board and he wasn't. I said, `Jerry, this is the time for you to step in.'

"He healed the community by being very open and inclusive and refusing to be competitive with this new congregation and instead being cooperative."

B'nai Shalom Cantor Marc Dinkin also praised Katz's leadership style.

"He was very thorough, very professional," Dinkin said. "At the same time, he had a really warm, sensitive approach. I think what he left behind is motivation for people to become dedicated volunteers to the synagogue and Jewish community. That's what he did."

Katz's leadership acumen revealed itself early.

Born in Tooele, Utah, into humble beginnings, he held jobs from the age of 10 in order to help his family financially. As a teenager, he was elected president of his local Jewish youth group, thus beginning a lifetime of service to the community.

A Vietnam veteran, he served 18 months in combat, attaining the rank of sergeant and earning the bronze star for bravery and courage.

Challenging his commanding officers to save the most vulnerable victims of war, the children, he convinced his superiors to establish several orphanages.

After the war, Katz earned his degree in business administration at the University of Puget Sound, working the night shift at the local 99 cent store. In 1968, he married his teenage sweetheart, Pat, whom he met at a bar mitzvah. They had two sons.

"I was thankful to be married to him every day of my life," his wife said. "He was the most outstanding person I have ever known. He was an exemplary human being."

Katz worked for 17 years with Industrial Indemnity in San Francisco. In 1996, after the company was sold, he found a position with Butterfield & Butterfield.

But despite his devotion to the business world, he always made volunteer work a priority.

"He was a rare type of individual who would rather be scout leader than CEO of a major company any day of the week," said his son Jason, 21.

He did, in fact, serve as Cub Scout leader, as well as a soccer and baseball coach. "He was a family man all the way," his wife said.

In addition to serving as president of B'nai Shalom, Katz served as president of other organizations, including Contra Costa Midrasha, a Jewish afterschool high school program.

"He really lived his Judaism," Smith said. "It wasn't something that was just off to the side."

He became more observant during his illness, she noted, laying tefillin daily and adding the name Chaim or "life," to his Hebrew name Yosef Y'rahme'ayl.

"He really used Judaism as a source of inspiration," Smith said, "as a basis of how to live and die."

Katz is survived by his wife and sons, Corey, 24, and Jason.

The family requests that donations in Katz's name be sent to the Healing Fund at Congregation B'nai Shalom, 74 Eckley Lane, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.