Despite having volunteered with at least 17 Atlanta Jewish organizations over the past quarter-century – even serving on multiple boards at once – Lee Katz was “totally overwhelmed with the response” and “kind of blown away” by a ceremony in his honor earlier this month.
More than 300 community leaders and members of Katz’s Temple Emanu-El attended Shabbat services Nov. 8 to honor him for his service.
“I was reluctant to have this. I usually stay behind the scenes,” he told the AJT. He said he doesn’t seek out recognition but prefers to operate in the background. “I’m not used to being in front of the spotlight.”
The reason he capitulated to being honored: “If it helps other people do something good is why I agreed to do it.”
Emanu-El’s President Robert Wittenstein said Katz was honored as “the epitome of a community leader who has had a huge impact through years of service and is an example we want to hold up to encourage others to aspire to the same level of commitment.”
During a tribute to Katz, Rabbi Spike Anderson said “Honoring Lee Katz for his dedication to actively care for the Atlanta Jewish community was long overdue. Lee has worked with almost every major Jewish institution quietly behind the scenes in their times of trouble and is known as the person to call when there is a complex set of issues that need careful thinking. He does all this gratis, without fanfare, and with his gracious good humor.”
For the past 35 years Katz has operated his own firm, Katz Partners LLC, in which he helps turn around troubled businesses. He performs similar financial services for the Jewish community. Katz said he was pleased he’s been able to use his advisory skills pro bono to help Jewish organizations become more financially viable.
He currently sits on the boards of Jewish HomeLife and its foundation, The William Breman Jewish Home Foundation, the Atlanta Jewish Foundation and the Piedmont Healthcare Foundation. He also chairs the Friends of the Georgia Holocaust Commission in its effort to move the Anne Frank exhibit to a new location in Sandy Springs and the Life & Legacy program of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta to attract legacy “gifts for after-lifetime giving.”
Katz said the latter is the culmination of all of his work in the Atlanta Jewish communal world over the last 25 years because the program helps ensure the community’s survival. If agencies don’t have 25 to 35 percent of their top line revenue from legacy gifts, they could struggle and disappear, he said. So far, $20 million has been pledged and Katz’s goal during his four-year commitment to the program is to raise $75 million, he said. “It will add to the stability of Jewish organizations.” It’s also a commitment to l’dor v’dor, he added.
When asked how he juggles all of his involvements, Katz cited the cliché: “If you want something done, give it to someone who is busy. I guess I resemble that remark.”
Probably his longest-serving position has been as an officer or sitting on the board of the Marcus JCC for the past 25 years.
Katz said the organizations he helps rarely schedule meetings at the same time. He divides his time between his volunteerism, his personal life and his professional responsibilities with the help of an iPad and “the cloud.”
“I’m a very mobile person,” Katz said, while speaking to the AJT in the parking lot outside Temple Emanu-El.
In addition to other community volunteers who help him fulfill his commitments to Jewish organizations, Katz credited his wife, Arlene, for her support. “She never complains when I don’t show up for dinner or have to change plans or change a vacation.” Katz has four sons and six grandchildren. His two daughter-in-laws are also involved in the Jewish community, one leading the parent-teacher organization at The Davis Academy and the other in the same position at the Atlanta Jewish Academy.
When asked about his own inspiration, he pointed to his parents. Although they didn’t have a lot of money, his birth father gave his time to Jewish organizations. His mother drove congregants to medical appointments “way before Uber.”
After his father died, he was adopted by Israel Katz, also a philanthropist.
Katz emulated strong mentors such as Malcolm Minsk, Jerry Siegel and Sid Kirschner, and they supported him, in return, he said.
After the tribute at Emanu-El, several people asked him for advice on how to get involved. “That really made me feel good, people trying to do things to make the [community] better. I can’t do it alone. What can we do to ensure we physically keep the Jewish people around another thousand years, l’dor v’dor?”