A Jewish community patriarch, Joe Bettman dies at 92

By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Longtime pharmacist Joe Bettman — a social justice activist and leader of numerous key Jewish community organizations and initiatives over more than five decades — died Dec. 17 at the age of 92.

Bettman, who along with his wife, Elaine, and Sister Dorothy Kammerer founded the House of Bread community kitchen in 1983, served as president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton from 1997 to 1999.

He also chaired Covenant House, the Federation’s nursing home; the Jewish Community Center; the Federation’s annual campaign, soliciting its major gifts; and Federation’s Operation Exodus campaign in 1990-91, which raised close to $2 million and resettled nearly 200 Jews here from the former Soviet Union. He and his wife also played key roles helping those new arrivals acclimate to life in America.

Two decades before, the couple was active in the campaign to desegregate Dayton Public Schools.

Bettman’s leadership of the Federation was the culmination of his hands-on volunteer work stretching back to the 1950s and his hometown of Cincinnati.

“My folks were both immigrants,” he once told The Observer. “My dad was from the Ukraine. He came over when he was 17 or 18. My mother was from Lithuania. She was brought over as a 2-year-old child.”

Bettman loved to sing. As a young man, he joined the choir at Cincinnati’s Lexington Avenue Synagogue, now Adath Israel Congregation. A 1947 graduate of Walnut Hills High School, he received his degree from the Cincinnati College of Pharmacy (now the UC James L. Winkle College of Pharmacy) in 1951 and then went into the army for two years.

He met his future wife at Cincinnati’s JCC. “We corresponded all the time I was in the service, we got engaged, and off we went. We came to Dayton from Cincinnati to buy a small drug store.”

For 56 years — until he was 83 in 2012 — Joe Bettman was behind the counter of Bettman’s Pharmacy, most of those years at its location on Miracle Lane, near Salem Avenue.

When he and Elaine lived in Cincinnati’s Avondale neighborhood before their move to Dayton, they would go door to door for United Jewish Appeal, collecting 50 cents or a dollar from Holocaust survivors who had recently arrived from Europe.

In the 1960s, the couple joined the Dayton Jewish Federation’s young leadership training program. By 1968, Joe and Elaine received the Federation’s young leadership awards, the first time a husband and wife won those awards in the same year in any Jewish community in the United States and Canada.

Joe Bettman often shared the story of how the Jewish Federation’s annual campaign operated when he was first starting out in Dayton. It was a gathering of all the men in the Jewish community.

The campaign chair had a stack of cards with the men’s names in alphabetical order. He would call out each name and ask each man at the gathering how much he was going to give that year.

Joe said that his name came right after that of philanthropist Arthur Beerman, one of the most successful real estate developers and department store owners in Dayton at that time.

Elaine and Joe Bettman receive the Jewish Community Council (now Jewish Federation) 1968 young leadership awards from Harris S. Abrahams (Center). This was the first time a husband and wife won these awards in the same year in any Jewish community in the United States and Canada. Photo: JFGD.

Jewish Federation retired Executive Vice President Peter Wells, who knew Bettman since 1973, remembered him as a salt-of-the-earth leader and donor.

“People felt very comfortable with his leadership style,” Wells said. “He was a hands-on person. He went out across the country doing fundraising for UJA. I remember Joe and members of his family going to the Dayton airport to pick up Russian Jews, and then bringing them back to their fully furnished apartments. The Bettmans had already made all the arrangements.”

The refrigerators were fully stocked with food and there were flowers on the table.

“We needed to raise money immediately for the families who were moving to Dayton,” Bettman told The Observer in an interview about Operation Exodus. “We did not have months, we had weeks, between Pesach and Shavuot. For so many of us, our roots were in Eastern Europe. We felt a kinship to the people who were moving into Dayton because our parents and grandparents had made the same move.”

“Joe was the type of person who thought about others first before he ever thought about himself. He would give you the shirt off of his back,” Mel Caplan, retired JCC director, recalled. “And he was always available. Even with his long hours working in the pharmacy.”

Through every chapter of his life, Joe Bettman continued singing. His rich bass resonated on the bimas (stages) at all of Dayton’s synagogues and at Covenant House, with cantorial solos at community events, with congregational choirs, and with the Dayton Jewish Chorale.

“I’ll never forget our trip to Poland and Israel in the early 1980s,” Wells said. “Under the Communists, during the Lech Walesa Solidarity period, we davened (prayed) at the Great Synagogue in Warsaw. Hearing him daven there, seeing him daven there, with everything that was in him — that’s how I remember Joe Bettman. As a tzadik (a righteous person), as a mensch (a humane person).”

To read the complete January 2022 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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