A Jew for All Jews: My Friend, Donald Butler

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Donald ButlerWe live in fraught times; times of anger and fear; times of polarization.  We see this in the politics of our nation and in the discourse by people of faith.   In so many aspects of life, people seem to sullenly retreat into those beliefs, feelings or opinions to which they subscribe, without regard for the dignity and value of those who do not hold their view.

They equate respect and consideration with concession, or with compromise of their fundamental values.

Few men’s lives stood in such opposition to this hurtful and harmful worldview than my dear friend, Donald Butler.   With the passing of one of the giants of the Jewish community, we have all lost a genuine mensch; someone who by his life and example showed us the better way to live.

Donald was a fierce upholder of the values of Orthodox Judaism.  He had served on the Board of the Orthodox Union since the early 1950’s and played an integral role in revitalizing and energizing the organization.  He served as Vice President of the OU’s Central East Region to the mid 60’s; became Vice President  and then continuing to rise in organization, becoming Senior Vice President by the early 1970’s.  He became Honorary Vice President in the early 1980s until 2002 when he retired.

My own relationship with Donald was so much more than professional.  Donald was my neighbor when I served as spiritual leader of Poale Zedeck in Pittsburgh.   It was there that I first came to know Donald’s way with words as he would often act as Master of Ceremonies at many community dinners and functions at the shul.

I can still picture him at his typewriter, honing his prose until it was perfect; determined to make sure that each individual deserving of being honored was honored and that every event received its due with accurate and detailed recognition.

His expertise with words found expression in his role as publisher for many years of This Week in Pittsburgh, which he wrote and edited to perfection, making it a journal we all looked forward to perusing.

He was passionate about the Jewish community and he became involved in every facet of its growth.  And, by “Jewish community” I mean the entire Jewish Community.  Although he was a major Orthodox leader and visionary – indeed, he was one of the five founders of the Hillel Academy, an astonishing commitment at a time when few could dream of successful day school and yeshiva education – he was never judgmental about another’s level of observance.

That was not his way.  He loved the entirety of the Jewish community, from the most observant to the most liberal.  His big heart and all-encompassing soul related to all.   Dr. Solomon B. Freehof, Dean of the Reform rabbinate in his day and rabbi of Pittsburgh’s Rodef Shalom Temple, loved Donald’s company and loved even more to schmooze with this “real Yid.”

His contributions to the Jewish community extended to the larger community as well – an expression of his fundamental “Jewishness” – bordered on the legendary.   He was the enlightened, creative and respected leader of Poale Zedeck where he served as president for many years, served on Federation, Jewish Family & Children’s Service as president.   When Pittsburgh became a major center for liver transplant surgery and we set up accommodations for families accompanying their loved ones for the long hospital stay – Donald and Chantze were our first primary partners, a role they continued to cherish long after we left Pittsburgh … caring, sharing, serving and giving all they needed to countless such families who, long after their loved ones’ recovery, continued to talk about what the Butlers “did for us” .

Donald Butler personified human decency.  Everything about him reflected the highest standards of decency, from his impeccable attire, warm and engaging handshake, embrace and conversation, his gentle rapport, demeanor and smile, to his acceptance of all.  The home that he and Chantze made was open to so many.

“Oh sure, I was there for Shabbos.”

“Oh yes, I stayed for 2 weeks until I found a place to live.”

“I stayed for 4 months while convalescing from surgery.”

Who did not feel his warmth and compassion?  The Shabbos table he presided over and that Chantze set was a model of warmth, dignity, sophistication, kindness, delicacy and pure love.  Just to see the two of them was enough to revive one’s faith in all that is good in the world.  Their 67 year  relationship exuded pure love.  Theirs was a marriage that, had I not seen it first-hand, seemed only to exist in romantic poetry.

Their warmth was apparent to everyone.  One of my daughters, who was only a young child when we left Pittsburgh, told me when she heard of Uncle Donald’s passing that being with the Butlers made you feel love and warmth all around you.

So true.

I cannot recall Donald ever being negative in his tone or his approach.  During the countless meetings I attended with him, I never heard him berate or demean anyone for their views.  His manner was always pleasant, understanding and positive.  That did not mean that he did not have passionately held views and beliefs.   He did.  But he respected and valued every one of God’s creatures, and his manner made his respect clear.

He was the epitome of Kiddush haShem.  A man of genuine goodwill, he was looked up to in all Jewish circles and beyond as a model of how an observant Jew should behave.

While all of us who knew him and met him felt the warmth of his kindness and were made to feel we were part of his family his deepest love was showered on his mishpocha – his love for his four children and twenty grandchildren and forty-five great-grandchildren knew no bounds.  All that he deemed valuable and precious, he gave to them.  And they accepted his gifts gladly, as evidenced by their own love and commitment to the things that were important to him.

He was the best kind of parent, one who parented by example.

But even his love for his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren burned less brightly than his love for Chantze.  As his across the street neighbor, I often noted that Donald would not leave for “work’ until well after the majority of people had already put in a good few hours at their place of employ.  But he never rushed to work.  He knew all too well that there were more important things in life, like the special time he shared with his Chantze over a beautiful breakfast.  That, to him, was much more valuable than getting to work “early”.  Or the time he devoted to long chats with his brother Abraham, who lived downstairs in the “big house”.

Happy is the man who knows what is important.  And Donald knew what was important.

Reflecting upon his passing, I realize that beyond the rebbeim, teachers and masters from whom I learned  Torah, chesed and more, I was also privileged to learn and absorb so many lessons from my unforgettable,  devoted and generous friend Donald z”l.

The world is a lesser place for his absence.  But we are all enlarged if we can simply embrace the fundamental lessons of Donald’s life and incorporate them into our own existence.

May his memory be a blessing for all of us.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.