Honoring Our Jewish Legacy

Putting an Interfaith Spin on Real Estate

In the mid-1980s, when Charlie Kahn brokered the sale of the property Gratz College now calls home, he was thinking about more than acreage and appraisals.

The land was owned by the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, an order of Roman Catholic sisters who operated a grammar school on the site and lived in a three-story motherhouse at the back of the property. Kahn, chairman of the real estate firm Kahn & Co., in Fort Washington, Pa., was one of six brokers the nuns interviewed before listing the property.

Kahn, now 94, believes the sisters selected him because of his commitment to find a buyer from another religious order.

“As soon as the Sisters gave me the contract, I went to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and asked if they could use the property,” Kahn said during a recent interview in his home. “It took two or three years for the sale to go through, but they decided to buy it.”

Although the Federation demolished the motherhouse, it kept the auditorium and some of the outbuildings, ultimately transforming the campus into a picturesque setting that caters to a wide range of educational activities. A few years after the sale, Kahn took the Grey Nuns on a tour of the Gratz campus. The sisters were delighted. 

“When we were talking about what they’d like to see on their campus, it was clear that they had some strong ideas about how the property should be used,” Kahn said. “To be able to use the property for another religious order—and a school run by another religious order—that was  important to them.”

Kahn views this exchange as an example of the deep-seated commitment to interfaith relations he has nurtured for decades in both his real estate business and his personal life. Still head of Kahn & Co., though physical limitations keep him homebound much of the time, Kahn looks back at a lifetime tailored to advancing interfaith relations—in both professional and personal roles.

—  JANUARY 2019

Born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Kahn graduated from Cheltenham High School in 1942 and completed much of his bachelor’s degree in economics through correspondence courses while serving in the Marine Corps. When he was stationed at Quantico, Va., Kahn began writing to a Marine buddy’s sister. The two married in 1946.

Kahn joined the family business as a third-generation commercial real estate agent in the late 1940s, just as drive-in movie theaters began gaining popularity. Kahn brought the family business into the brokerage arena and began touring the suburbs and transforming vacant fields into movie theaters. He also made the conscious decision to center the firm around the principles of the Bible and a belief in God.

“Real estate is the only vocation I know of where you deal with two God-given commodities: land and people,” he said. “Getting the right combination of them is a real challenge. Property is where your heart is, where you build your home, the place you mold your whole life around. I decided to take this commitment seriously.”

Early on, Kahn also decided to take an active role in developing interfaith dialogue. He did this by seeking positions on the boards of Catholic institutions.

A former trustee of Saint Joseph’s University and Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, Kahn currently sits on the boards of Holy Redeemer Hospital and Mercy Vocational High School. He is an emeritus board member for the local chapters of the YMCA, the Police Athletic League, and the Big Brothers Association; and, he also served as president of the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors.

“I always felt that there was a certain amount of isolation between Catholics and Jews,” he said. “Right now, I’m on the board of three major Catholic institutions and they all know I’m Jewish. I don’t go around talking about my faith, but I try to live it. There are barriers between Catholics and Jews that aren’t necessary, and, instead of talking about it, I’d rather do something about it.”

Additionally, Kahn sat on the boards of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the American Jewish Committee of Philadelphia. He is a long-time board member of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at Saint Joseph’s University, where he raised funds for a sculpture unveiled on campus and blessed by Pope Francis in 2015 during a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate declaration.

The sculpture, called “Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time,” represents the transformed relationship between the Jewish and Catholic faiths after Nostra Aetate. It depicts two women, one Jewish and one Catholic, wearing long skirts and sitting on a bench. One holds the Bible while the other holds the Torah, and the two women look at the books in each other’s hands.

More than 150 mourners gathered around that same statue in November, following the Oct. 27 shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 people dead and six injured. Kahn, who recently donated $25,000 to Gratz College for use in its Interfaith Leadership and  Holocaust and Genocide Studies programs, said the shooting and the vigil at the statue are a reminder that interfaith dialogue is still desperately needed.

An early influence on Kahn was the story of the four chaplains aboard the U.S.S. Dorchester during World War II. When the ship was torpedoed off the coast of Greenland on February 3, 1943, over 800 people died. As the ship was sinking, the four chaplains on board gave their life jackets to save others. According to the testimonies of the 300 survivors, the chaplains put their arms around one another, got down on their knees, and prayed. Two of the chaplains were Protestant, including one from Philadelphia, one was a Roman Catholic from New York City, and the fourth was a Rabbi from Carlisle, Pa. None of them survived.

The Chapel of Four Chaplains was dedicated by President Harry S. Truman in 1951 at its original site in the basement of Grace Baptist Church of Philadelphia, now part of Temple University. The chapel, now located at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia, was established as a non-sectarian space to honor the memory of these chaplains, and according to Kahn, “with the simple theory that, if we are going to die together we may as well learn to live with one another.”

Kahn has served on the board of the chapel since it was founded.  Each year, during the first week of February, the organization hosts a dinner to commemorate Four Chaplains Memorial Day. Family members travel from across the United States participate. The first ceremony took place at Cheltenham High School shortly after the war ended in 1946.

It is Kahn’s hope that others follow his example of dedicating time and energy to make this a better world. “The only way to make a difference is to become involved,” he said. “There’s no use criticizing other people for what they do or don’t do. We need to become participants in all faiths, in all cultures. It’s no longer enough to talk about things. We need to live the lives we talk about.”

Pope Francis prays before Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time (2015) Saint Joseph's University, Philadelphia, September 27, 2015. Bronze sculpture by Joshua Koffman. Commissioned by Saint Joseph's University to mark the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate (photograph by and courtesy of Melissa Kelly/melissakelly.com).