December 10, 2019

A Life of Community Service

Jean Katz' Photo by Devadatta Best

Jean Katz, 87

Jean Katz is an educator, planner and organizer. She is the co-founder of the Very Special Arts Festival, which showcases the talents of people with special needs, at the Music Center downtown. 

A speech pathologist who worked for the Los Angeles Office of Education for 20 years (and later as a consultant in organizational development and leadership), Katz instituted new methods that benefited nonverbal children with cerebral palsy. 

As an active member and past president of the Ahavat Torah congregation in West Los Angeles, she organized and coordinated a six-part lecture series about Israel with the Shalom Hartman Institute last year. With many congregants divided on Israel’s policies, the lectures “made it possible for our members to talk to each other in a civilized way,” Katz said. 

At Ahavat Torah, which shares rented space with Lutheran and Sufi Muslim congregations, Katz has organized interfaith events and co-founded a Jewish-Muslim women’s discussion group that’s been going strong for 16 years. Besides attending Shabbat services, she participates in a weekly Torah study group. “I’m very interested in Jewish literature and writings about Jewish culture and find myself drawn to prayer,” she said. “Jewish values are very important to me. Seeing what improvements you can make in the world — tikun olam — is really important to me.”

“I like to observe small, amazing, beautiful details in life.”

Of Polish and Russian descent, Katz grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Fond du Lac, Wis., where she and her mother lived with her mother’s Orthodox parents after her parents split up. Dealing with the divorce, her mother’s worsening mental illness in its aftermath, and “living in a small town where I didn’t fit in” were difficult, Katz said. But life got better when she left for college and met her husband, Norman, marrying in 1954. They relocated 14 times for his work before settling in Los Angeles. “I had to start over in a new community, too,” she said. “The benefit is I have friends all over the country.”

Widowed since 2008, the mother of two and grandmother of three is a published poet, attends a weekly poetry class, a monthly book club and loves going to the theater, movies, concerts and lectures. She cherishes the conversations she has with her loved ones. “I’m more of an extrovert than an introvert, but I’m a poet and need alone time to write,” Katz said, noting that she hopes to publish her third collection of poems. She finds inspiration in her surroundings.

“Nature fills me in an extraordinary way and I think it connects with the poet in me,” she said. “I like to observe small, amazing, beautiful details in life. I have a deep appreciation for beauty and the extraordinary moments I share with people. I feel blessed.”

When she turned 60, Katz threw herself a simchat chochmah (joy of wisdom) party to celebrate becoming a senior. In the years since, “I have liked myself better,” she said. “I’m more comfortable in my own skin.”