The Jewish community has lost a gentle giant with the passing of Mordecai Katz, of blessed memory. Better known among both colleagues and friends as Morty, he was a lifelong champion of Jewish education, working alongside his wife, Dr. Monique (Nicky) Katz, may she be blessed with a long life, to support key institutions in today’s Jewish world. Morty was a visionary of exceptional intelligence, someone who knew how to think strategically and turn dreams into reality. An engineer in the aerospace industry, Morty understood that the task of the Jewish people is to link heaven and earth. He was remarkably modest, especially considering both his tremendous professional accomplishments and his enormous impact on the global Jewish community.
Morty and Dr. Katz (a distinguished radiologist and lecturer) are best known for their leadership within numerous Jewish communal institutions, including Ohr Torah Stone, Yeshiva University, Nishmat, The Frisch School, Bar-Ilan University, Shaare Zedek Medical Center, NCSY, UJA-Federation and so many more. At many of these institutions, he spent years as either a member or chairman of the board of trustees, actively involved in crafting and supporting the vision of each institution.
I had the good fortune of benefitting from Morty’s guidance and mentorship. Morty was deeply committed to making the highest levels of Torah and general education accessible to all who sought them. He was insistent upon exploring new ways to make Yeshiva University a place where all Jewish students could find their path. During my tenure as vice president at YU, Morty and I worked together with President Joel, Provost Botman and Dean Russo to create the associate degree program at the Katz School of Science and Health (at the time, the Katz School of Graduate and Professional Studies). Recognizing that a bachelor’s degree may not be the appropriate path for all students, he and Dr. Katz ensured that Yeshiva University could offer a two-year degree program, as well. At all times, he served as a model of what can be achieved when there are strong, collaborative partnerships between professionals and lay leaders in making shared visions an actuality.
Morty and Dr. Katz maintained a longstanding relationship with Ohr Torah Stone, a network of 30 Jewish educational, leadership and community-building institutions. In addition to their support for our Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership and the newly founded Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity, they spearheaded the Monique & Mordecai Katz Academic Studies Program, housed at the Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva. Thanks to their leadership, Machanaim became the first hesder yeshiva to include serious academic courses for several hours a month as an essential part of the yeshiva’s curriculum. The courses expand students’ intellectual horizons and enhance their Torah study. In recent years, students at the yeshiva have studied the history of Islam, introductory economics, modern Jewish history and other academic disciplines with leading visiting scholars. They apply this knowledge to their study of Talmud, Jewish law and philosophy, to their leadership roles as soldiers and commanders in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and to their professional lives after their time in yeshiva. While initially this approach was met with resistance by the greater yeshivat hesder community, Morty remained steadfast in his vision of interdisciplinary learning. In recent years, Morty and Dr. Katz’s vision has inspired other yeshivot hesder as well, introducing academic courses to strengthen and integrate with the formal limudei kodesh program.
Morty believed deeply in the need for synthesis and synergy as the tools through which the Torah can best play its pivotal role in shaping our lives and our values. He committed his life to bringing the Jewish tradition into meaningful engagement with academic research, modern medicine, information technology and emerging markets. Ohr Torah Stone founder and President Emeritus Rabbi Shlomo Riskin shared that Morty Katz strived to bridge the gap between the holy and the mundane, to elevate the world, and with it all of us, through the guiding light of the Torah.
Perhaps the most magnificent example that Morty set for me was his modeling of a strong marriage. His love and partnership with Dr. Katz cannot be described in words. To watch them was to witness true romance and respect. That lesson was only matched by his capacity to balance work, community, his love for the Jewish people and a passionate desire to spend time with his children and grandchildren. At every available opportunity, Mordy spoke glowingly about his grandchildren and their accomplishments.
Mordecai ben Binyamin will live on through his children, grandchildren and his eshet chayil, Nicky. His influence in the Jewish world will continue to be felt by thousands who unknowingly live enriched lives thanks to his hard work and successful initiatives. His guidance and teachings will continue to influence my stewardship of Ohr Torah Stone and our commitment to transform the global Jewish community. May his smile continue to shine upon us and may his memory be a blessing.
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is the president and rosh yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, a Modern Orthodox network of 30 institutions and programs transforming Jewish life, learning and leadership in Israel and throughout the world.