Even at age 105, Cantor Julius Blackman was not done living.
In the days before he passed away at that ripe old age, Blackman rode his exercise bike, watched a televised ballgame with his daughter and, as he did his entire life, sang. Rare was the day Julius Blackman did not sing a song of joy and thanksgiving.
Longtime executive director of Hebrew Free Loan, and a steady presence as a cantor and guest cantor at multiple Bay Area Jewish institutions, Blackman died April 22 in San Francisco.
“Up until the day he died he was so full of life and joy,” said Cindy Rogoway, current executive director of Hebrew Free Loan. “He didn’t want to go. He really wanted to keep on living. He just enjoyed people.”
He devoted his professional life to helping others. At Hebrew Free Loan, which he led from 1963 to 1990, Blackman instituted a student loan program that today makes up 65 percent of the agency’s loan portfolio. In 1982, he co-founded the International Association of Jewish Free Loans and served as its first president.
“That culture of caring permeated the agency when I started there,” remembered Ed Cushman, who served as HFL executive director just prior to Rogoway. “I’m sure that was because of Julie.”
“He would take the ball and he would run with things,” said daughter Beth Blackman. “What he believed in he did with all his heart and mind and passion.”
Born in 1913 in Chicago, Julius Blackman was the son of Eastern European immigrants. Though the Blackmans were Orthodox Jews, Julius showed a real aptitude for sports as a lad, especially baseball. As a teen, he even had a tryout with the Chicago Cubs farm system.
But Blackman had another talent: music. Not only did he sing as a young man with the Chicago Opera Chorus, he also studied to become a cantor.
During the Depression, he worked as a machinist, a union organizer and as a community activist before the term had been coined. Though he tried to enlist during World War II, the military wouldn’t take him because of his poor eyesight.
After he married his wife, Phyllis, the couple and their growing family moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1940s. Blackman worked as a cantor at several L.A.-area shuls, including Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He also served as president of the West Coast region of the Cantors Assembly.
In 1960, the family moved to San Francisco, where Blackman became cantor at Congregation Ner Tamid. Three years later, he received an offer to head the Hebrew Free Loan Association, and though he hadn’t had executive experience, he had plenty of the required rachmones (compassion).
“He would interview people, call the cosigners, do the mimeographing of notes to bring to board meetings,” said daughter Beth. “He was just really proud of what he was doing.”
Under his leadership, HFLA grew exponentially. The staff expanded from the original two (Blackman and an assistant), and today the organization oversees a portfolio topping $12 million.
In 1982, Blackman and several colleagues from similar agencies around the country formed the International Association of Hebrew Free Loans. By 1990, there were 28 member organizations, including agencies in Canada and Israel.
“Julie was a real mensch,” remembered former HFL board member Stu Pollak. “Always a smile, always a positive outlook. He had a warm heart that reached out to everybody. You could see that in the fact that he ran the organization as long as he did.”
“The values he embodied all his life were the ones he brought to Hebrew Free Loan,” said former employee Jeff Norman. “I could tell his nature was to want to help every person who walked in the door.”
Even in retirement, Blackman took great interest in the agency, attending events and schmoozing with his former colleagues. Friends say his memory was razor sharp, to the point of remembering minute details about loan recipients years later.
He never stopped cantorial work. Blackman was a regular substitute cantor and High Holy Day guest cantor at synagogues across the region, from Salinas to Walnut Creek.
Life got harder after his beloved wife Phyllis passed away in 2007. But his singing spirit never flagged.
“I was fortunate enough to have visited him the day before he passed away,” said Jeff Norman, who remained close to his former boss. “At some point, he suddenly broke into song, a Hebrew song I didn’t recognize. His voice was softer than I had ever heard it. It was almost as if he was singing for himself.”
Summed up his friend, Stu Pollak: “I’ve known Julie for 50 years. I don’t think I ever saw a day he wasn’t smiling.”