Lessons from a mentor

Never label anyone. Every word matters. Engagement usually yields better results than confrontation. Those three precepts characterized Michael Kotzin, my supervisor and mentor for 17 years, who died October 18.

Kotzin was Senior Consultant and formerly Executive Vice President of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. During his long and distinguished career in public affairs, Kotzin stood for principles, ideas and a sadly endangered concept called progress. He believed the situation of Israel, the Jewish people, and the societies in which Jews live could be safeguarded and improved through effective relationship-building and communication in the marketplace of ideas.

To call someone a “leftist,” a “rightist” or most any other “ist” in Kotzin’s presence was to invite a challenge: “What position does this person take? Let’s talk about that and not obfuscate with labels,” he would say. An ardent believer in Jewish sovereignty and one of the first to identify new forms of anti-Semitism taking hold in parts of the world, Kotzin even was queasy about labeling anti-Zionists, preferring to specify their rejection of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

Even when exposing the anti-Semitism of Louis Farrakhan Kotzin preferred not to label him, but rather to describe his self-aggrandizing, messianic hatred.

Kotzin’s aversion to labels was the flip side of his devotion to words and their meaning. He was careful in his speech and in his prodigious writing to plot explicit pathways to understanding, lest the listener or the reader leap to conclusions. He had his linguistic pet peeves, chief among them the word, “proactive.” He saw no value in using the word to label action, preferring instead to describe the action itself, because therein lay the power of what was being done.

Kotzin was militant in his commitment to fairness and decency. He would not tolerate bad behavior in the public affairs and communications arenas, which he led at JUF.

In the early 2000s, during the Palestinian terror war against Israeli civilians, many in our community called for boycott of one of Chicago’s leading newspapers, finding its coverage unbalanced. Rather than quixotically mounting the barricades against a prominent news organization, Kotzin conducted an independent editorial review and then engaged the newspaper’s editorial board in substantive discussions about headline writing, photo selection, and captioning—the elements the study found most problematic.

The result was enhanced relationships with key editors based on mutual respect, which led to significant improvements in the newspaper’s copy. The boycotters would have burned their bridges, and thus never secured a positive result.

Now I beg forbearance from my late and much beloved boss, because I want to talk about myself. (When it came to work Kotzin preferred to focus on events and ideas rather than personal feelings.)

Michael, you hired me to do a job at JUF, and taught me how you wanted it done. In doing so you transformed my life. After 21 years here, I value the lessons you imparted and cherish our times together one-on-one, enjoying jokes and puns, stories and assessments. I’m proud to be among your mentees.

Your memory is a blessing; your legacy lives on.


About the Author
Aaron is Vice President at Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
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