He closed a 2016 column with a deceptively simple sentence that in retrospect seems to sum up an entire lifetime of his thought: “If you are going to open your mouth, make sure you also open your ears.”
“I think it’s pretty easy for me to tell you what Marvin did,” said Alvin Sugarman, senior rabbi at The Temple for 30 years and now rabbi emeritus.
“His job on earth was to help fellow human beings. When I think of Marvin I think of a line in one of my favorite Dan Fogelberg songs [‘Leader of the Band’]: “He earned his love through discipline, a thundering velvet hand/His gentle means of sculpting souls took me years to understand.’ “
Marvin Zachariah Botnick — his Jewish name: Mordechai Zalman ben Herschel v’Malka ha-Levi — died at home from complications from prostate cancer Jan. 17. He was 85, and a service was held earlier this week at The Temple.
His parents were born in Belarus, eventually making their way to Hattiesburg, Miss., where they operated a dry goods store.
Raised in a Kosher household he learned early the subtle, unwritten rules regarding Jews in the deep South.
“People were respectful,” Botnick said during a 2018 oral history given to the Breman Museum, “but there was definitely a social line … Jews were not allowed in high school fraternities or sororities. We weren’t allowed in the country club … The Ku Klux Klan, the headquarters in that area was in Laurel, Miss., about 25 miles away … I don’t recall anything other than on Halloween they used to soap the windows on my dad’s store with anti-Semitic sayings. Other than that … there was there was no physical threat that I’m aware of.”
His parents sent Botnick, 13, and his older brother to Exeter Academy in New Hampshire for grades 9 through 12. He went on to Duke University, majoring in business administration and playing four years of lacrosse. He told one interviewer, that “I was so good I’m in the Mississippi Jewish Lacrosse Hall of Fame.”
Botnick moved to his banking job in Atlanta in 1956 and later became chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the Mercantile National Bank. In 1959 he married Miriam Alicia Pass — her father was vice president at Rich’s Department Store — and they had three children.
He served as president of The Temple from 1983 to 1986, where he conceived and opened one of Atlanta’s first homeless shelters for couples, now the Zaban-Paradies Center for Homeless Couples.
“From the time he got the idea it took nine days to open,” Sugarman said. “We opened in Feb. 1984, a snowing, freezing night, and we picked up our first residents who were huddling up at The Varsity.
“Among other things this is one of example of Marvin as a teacher,” he added. “It was a chance to put words into action — it taught our young people how to make words real.”
Peter Berg remembers first meeting him in July 2008, when Berg became only the fifth senior rabbi of The Temple since 1895. Botnick handed him a keychain with this verse from the Talumd: “The work is not for you to finish, nor are you free to desist from it.”
“Foremost,” said Berg, “he wanted me to understand that The Temple has always had a role in the larger community. But also he was saying, you’re not going to solve world peace, and you’re not going to finish everything you start. But you have the obligation to do your part.”
In 1992 Botnick became involved with the two-year-old bimonthly, the Jewish Georgian, eventually becoming publisher and writing a column. It was an unlikely venture because as Botnick once said, when he was “bar mitzvahed, my mother wouldn’t let me write my thank you notes. She wrote them for me. That tells you how adequate I am with the English language.”
With a volunteer staff of writers, the Jewish Georgian covers current events, arts and culture, business, education, sports and recreation.
“He really wrestled with what he put into those columns,” good friend Jim Hoover said. “It only dawned on me recently that column of his was an ethical will, it’s sort of a legacy of values of what you want your children and grandchildren to have.”
Botnick is survived by his wife of 60 years Miriam Pass Botnick, his children Karen Paz (Roy Cranman), Beth Ann Rosenberg (I.J.) and Harris Botnick (Geri), seven grandchildren and his brother Dr. Robert Botnick (Lelia) of Augusta, Ga.