Reflections on the Passing of Donald Butler of Pittsburgh

24 Apr 2013


By Yocheved Goldberg

Yocheved Goldberg is Copyeditor, OU Press and Assistant to the Executive Vice President, Emeritus, of the OU

An ish shalom. A patriot. A passionate Religious Zionist. A gentle, kind soul. A raconteur storyteller.

These descriptions just barely scratch the surface of what a special person Donald Butler, z”l, of Pittsburgh, was.

Donald Butler was quite extraordinary. He was a respectful person who never engaged in controversy. Warm and engaging, he was able to relate to anyone. Those who were connected with him, and there were hundreds, felt immediately convinced that he could relate to them individually, no matter the circumstance or background.

His father, Frank Butler, z”l, was one of the first Orthodox Union mashgichim at Heinz, the very first company to bear the OU Kosher symbol. Donald himself was on the OU Board since the early 1950s for more than a decade and was an integral part of revitalizing the organization. He was Vice President of the Orthodox Union’s Central East Region from the early 1950s to the mid-60s; he became Vice President of the OU in 1964 rising in the early 1970s to Senior Vice President. He became Honorary Vice President in the early 1980s until 2002, when he retired and was on the Board of Governors until his death.

A patriot, Mr. Butler served in the United States Army during World War II, in North Africa and in Italy. Predictably, even in that setting, he found a way to serve the Jewish community by becoming a chaplain to help his fellow Jews. After finishing his service, he returned to his native Pittsburgh and met his wife, Chantze (Bard) Butler.

He was a brilliant, talented visionary who, together with Chantze, began serving the needs of the Jewish community very early in life, while still in his 20s. Quite remarkably, he was able to envision the broader Jewish community and what was essential to keep it flourishing. During years when observant Jews had little to do with Federation, he was the leader of Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, as well as the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services (JBFCS) in Pittsburgh, for many years. He established a kollel in Pittsburgh when kollel wasn’t at all the norm. Pillars of the Jewish community, he and Chantze were a couple who truly manifested kiruv long before kiruv was prevalent. Before they had children, they formed a board and established the Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, remarkably during a time where people were not concerned about providing a Jewish education for their children.

Mr. Butler was a model parent, to which his four exceptional children bear witness. Along with Chantze, he is survived by:

Dr. Giti (and Jack) Bendheim, a psychologist in private practice in New York;

David J. (and Sharon) Butler, an attorney at Bingham McCutchen in Washington, DC, and a founder of the Kemp Mill Synagogue. He is active in the Greater Washington Jewish community, past president of the Washington Federation, past president of the United Jewish Endowment Fund, past president of the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, and currently the chairman of the Global Planning Table of the Jewish Federations of North America and chairman of the Constitution and Bylaws Committee;

Rabbi Raphael (and Pessy) Butler, who was the National Director of NCSY from 1981 to 1994 and the Executive Vice President of the OU until 2000. He is currently the president of The Afikim Foundation, an innovative incubator and implementer of Jewish educational, cultural and values-oriented programs that span the globe and which has distinguished itself as a resource of creativity and content for Jewish communities worldwide;

Lani (and Dr. David) Pelcovitz, an attorney and counsel at Vornado Realty Trust and active in the Great Neck Jewish community.

In Mr. Butler’s family influence, he has 20 grandchildren and 45 great-grandchildren who have each taken an active leadership role in their own Jewish community. As well, his nieces and nephews benefited from his impact and went on to attend major Jewish institutions and yeshivot all over the world, and to take significant places in communities all over the world, including Israel. He so obviously passed down his penchant for Jewish outreach and charity.

The Butler home was the citadel of hachnosas orchim in North America. Thousands worldwide can recall the beauty and warmth of their Shabbos table, where they provided an embracing and religiously genuine experience. Pittsburgh was the original center for liver transplants. Anyone who came to Pittsburgh, whether to deal with unfortunate sickness or just to visit, stayed at their home. Not only that, they would actively search for people to stay at their home, much like Avraham Avinu.

The epitome of mentschlechkeit, diginity and grace, Donald Butler truly was an ish shalom. May his memory be a blessing.

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