Michael Kotzin: A mentor for us all

Michael C. Kotzin of Chicago died at age 74 this past weekend. The titles are not what defined him, however. Kotzin’s intellect and his heart did that.

Michael Kotzin (photo credit: Courtesy)
Michael Kotzin
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The world lost one of its finest this past weekend. Michael C. Kotzin of Chicago died at age 74 after a long illness. In Jewish terms, he was a tzadik, a righteous man. In universal terms, he was one of those individuals who positively influenced everyone who ever came into contact with him.
Michael and I were colleagues during the 17 years I ran the Israel Office of the Chicago Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation. He held various positions at the head office, including director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, executive vice president, and most recently as special consultant to the president.
In earlier times, he was the Chicago region director for the Anti-Defamation League. He also lived in Israel for 11 years and was on the faculty of the department of English at Tel Aviv University.
The titles are not what defined him, however.
Kotzin’s intellect and his heart did that.
I never heard him raise his voice except to laugh. His integrity was unparalleled, in terms of both his person and his analyses of the world, and he had a command of details of history, politics, literature, sociology, etc. with which to back up those analyses. He thought large but did not lose track of those details and how they fit together, and he paid attention to detail without losing track of the big picture.
And he did it all with generosity of heart and in his understated manner.
Kotzin was strongly connected both to his Judaism and to Zionism, and while he worked in the Jewish world, he was enlivened by everything. He and his wife, Judy, loved to travel and to explore the world through many prisms, although nature and human endeavor were his favorites. He absorbed it all and vibrantly infused himself with every piece of new-found knowledge.
The first time Michael and I worked together was in April 1995 when he was the lead staff from the Jewish United Fund for a visit to the Holy Land of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago, a visit which included meetings with both then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and with Yasser Arafat in Gaza during the heady days post-Oslo; and a visit which was used as a springboard to develop a Catholic-Jewish lecture series in Chicago which continues to this day. I soon realized that Kotzin’s ability to raise difficult issues and questions in a non-threatening way was a trademark.
Over the years, we worked on many such trips to Israel of influential individuals from the Chicago area, including then-senator Barack Obama and mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago. Kotzin’s talents and abilities were wide-ranging, and he was well-known and well-respected by many in Israel from across the spectrum of professions. He maintained his friendships with Israeli novelists from his days teaching literature, and he made new friendships in many spheres of intellectual pursuit.
One friendship which was sustained from his days teaching English at TAU was with the Abu Toameh family members from Baka al-Gharbiya, a family whose members included a then-mayor of the town, an aide to Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek during the 1970s, and a journalist who is well-known today around the world (The Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh).
In 2014, a collection of Kotzin’s writings was published (On the Front Lines in a Changing Jewish World) covering the 25 years he was actively involved in Jewish communal life. Toward the end of the book’s Introduction, he sums up his approach to that involvement: “So what am I left with looking forward? If the admission that we live in a world of change and uncertainty has taught me anything it is that nothing can be predicted for sure except that change will continue. Still, it is my hope that even in today’s world of change and uncertainty, America’s Jewish community and Jews worldwide will continue to find themselves rooted in contemporary variants of the basic values and principles that have sustained the Jewish people during previous centuries of change, and that we will embrace the new – indeed, will play a leading role in creating what is to come – while holding to aspects of our identity and heritage as touchstones that have kept us what we have been.”
If one is lucky, one encounters an individual of Michael Kotzin’s ilk once in a lifetime. I was one of those lucky ones to have counted him not only as a colleague but as a friend.
The last time we met was over lunch in June when I was visiting Chicago. His laughter was just as pronounced as ever. His voice was somewhat impaired from medication, but he was still enthusiastic about learning and about the people around him.
His loss is profound for all of us.
The writer is a consultant to family philanthropies.