Donald Butler dies; lifelong Pittsburgher co-founded Hillel Academy
Whether as a teacher, publisher or administrator, there were few Jews in Pittsburgh whose lives Donald Butler didn’t touch.
Butler died, Monday, April 22, at home. He was 93.
A lifelong Pittsburgher, Butler left a profound mark on the community in many ways.
Perhaps most notably, he co-founded Hillel Academy in Squirrel Hill in the 1940s — together with the Yeshiva, among the first Jewish day schools in the city — and remained a life member of its governing board.
“Since Mr. Butler passed away … I have received numerous emails and phone calls, describing the incredible impact that [he] had on the lives of our alumni,” Hillel Academy’s current CEO, Daniel Kraut, wrote in a letter to the Chronicle. “In the words of one alumnus, ‘I lost my Rebbi.’
“Upon my arrival at Hillel Academy five years ago,” Kraut continued, “I was invited by Mr. Butler to come over to speak with him about my new job. He impressed upon me the importance of Hillel Academy to Pittsburgh, to the Jewish community, and to him. He truly loved Hillel Academy. Over my next five years as CEO, Donald Butler, in his 90s, would attend board meetings, shepping nachas in the growth of Hillel Academy. He would sometimes stop me weeks later to ask me budget questions, or to pass on a quick fundraising tip.”
Butler’s love for Jewish education didn’t end with the school he co-founded.
Before World War II, he taught Hebrew school at Congregation Poale Zedeck, where he was a lifelong member, and remained a student of Judaica himself, attending the classes of Rabbis Eliyahu Safran, Yisroel Miller and Daniel Yolkut, almost up to the time of his death.
Butler also took an active role in the administration of Poale Zedeck, serving as a president of the congregation in the 1970s.
“He had a sense of history, yet he always looked toward the future,” said Rabbi Yisroel Miller, former spiritual leader of Poale Zedeck. “Often at board meetings he would bring his recollections from the 1930s and ’40s to give us a sense of history and perspective. At the same time, he understood there had been enormous changes in Jewish life, and we must ask ourselves what is needed for the next generation.”
Nationally, Butler became a leader within Orthodox Judaism particularly within the Orthodox Union.
“Donald was on the OU Board since the early ’50s and was an integral part of revitalizing and energizing the organization,” said Safran, a neighbor of Butler’s when he was the spiritual leader at Poale Zedeck, and today vice president of communications and marketing at OU.
According to Safran, Butler served as vice president of the OU’s Central East Region from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s. He became vice president of the OU in 1964, senior vice president in the early 1970s and honorary vice president in the early 1980s until his retirement in 2002.
“He was a wordsmith; he was a most articulate spokesman for Orthodoxy,” Safran said. “He frequently served as master of ceremonies at many Poale Zedeck and community dinners and functions. … He would spend countless hours at his typewriter … masterfully committing every word to writing to be absolutely sure each individual honored and every event noted would receive their due, accurate and detailed recognition.”
As a president of the Jewish Family & Children’s Service in the late 1980s, Butler did far more for the agency than just chair its body of volunteer leaders.
According to Dodie Roskies, who succeeded Butler as JF&CS president, Butler actually took over as director of the agency when the executive director became ill and could not work for several months.
“Donald refused to place him on a medical leave because he felt it would harm him financially and psychologically,” Roskies recalled.
“Donald Butler was a mentch,” she added. “I knew him best when he was chair of the board of JF&CS, and he mentored me as I was the incoming chair. He exemplified compassion, and respect for each individual’s honest efforts.
Donald was an optimist, a devout man with a flair as a raconteur, but most of all, he was a mentch.”
Butler also left his mark on The Jewish Chronicle, having served on the paper’s original board of trustees — a natural fit for a longtime publisher.
While at the Chronicle, Butler exhibited a determination to tell the truth, even when it wasn’t popular to do so.
In a 2002 interview with the Chronicle for the paper’s 40th anniversary edition, Butler recalled one time when a kosher butcher in Squirrel Hill was found to be selling nonkosher meat. The butcher’s certification was removed, but the Chronicle board decided not to do a story about the incident.
Butler disagreed with the decision, so he and a group of others purchased an ad in the paper to announce that the butcher was no longer kosher.
“This was an important thing for Jews to know,” Butler said at the time. “Nothing derogatory, [we] just let them know this was no longer a Jewish place.”
Butler “had the most even temperament of anyone I ever met,” said his nephew, Danny Butler. “He was generous almost to a fault. All you had to do was hold out your hand.”
In fact, his daughter said at his funeral that she never heard her father yell at anyone.
Butler’s circle of friends reached beyond denominational lines.
Dan Butler, of Squirrel Hill, recalled the longtime friendship his uncle, an Orthodox Jew, had with Rabbi Solomon Freehof of Rodef Shalom Congregation — a Reform rabbi.
In fact, Freehof started his uncle on “the only hobby he had,” his nephew said, when the rabbi made him a gift of an old siddur. Butler soon became a collector of rare religious books.
Also among Butler’s extensive archive of books and other writings was a complete collection of Freehof’s halachic responsa (interpretations).
The friendship was “unusual for anytime, and it was a good thing,” Dan Butler said. He noted that his uncle’s son, Rabbi Raphael Butler, a past (executive vice president) leader of the Orthodox Union, highlighted that friendship when he eulogized his father at the funeral.
Born in Pittsburgh July 15, 1919, Butler was a son of the OU’s first kosher supervisor for Heinz ketchup, which was the first product the OU ever undertook to supervise. It now supervises thousands of products around the world. After graduation from Taylor Allderdice High School, he and his brother, Abraham, began a publishing business, which produced playbills and programs for local theaters, Rodef Shalom’s weekly bulletin, FM music guides, to name some projects.
They also published a long-running magazine in the city, “This Week in Pittsburgh,”(later KEY Magazine) which was distributed through hotels, restaurants and theaters.
He served in the Army during World War II, becoming a vice chaplain, and then a chaplain in North Africa.
While in the service, he embarked on an adventure. He traveled from Cairo to Palestine (under orders to secure religious articles for the troops), crossing the Sinai Desert in a rented car, and keeping a 19-page, single-spaced diary about the trip.
“It wasn’t really a diary, it was a letter to his girlfriend back in Boston — whom he later married and was married to for 67 years,” Danny Butler said. “But it’s like a diary because he detailed every part of the trip, including what he ate (noteworthy because of the lack of kosher food in North Africa) and his meeting with the chief rabbi.”
Years later, back in Pittsburgh, he spearheaded a drive to support religious communities in Israel, which raised $18,000 and collected 18 Torah scrolls from area synagogues — a project Dan Butler said was virtually unknown to any Pittsburgh Jews today. The younger Butler only learned of the effort himself when he came across a family photo of a mass meeting at Poale Zedeck celebrating the project with the scrolls being displayed at the front of the sanctuary — each held by a community representative. He showed it to his uncle who told him the story just weeks before his death.
Butler is survived by his wife, Chantze (Bard) Butler; children Dr. Gail (Jack) Bendheim, David J. (Sharon) Butler, Rabbi Raphael (Pessy) Butler and Lani (Dr. David) Pelcovitz; 20 grandchildren and 45 great-grandchildren.
The funeral was held in Poale Zedeck, the site of only a handful of funerals in the past, according to Dan Butler.
“It’s a rare honor,” he said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)