Sam Catton

Imagine a man whose life, accomplishments and legacy were so extraordinary that he was the link to our past, preserving it forever. He was a role model and a guide for all of us to emulate in the present and his achievements will shape the future of the Jewish world for many generations to come. This man was Sam Catton. He was small in stature, but larger than life—a man of mythical proportions.

Sam possessed an abundance of knowledge on many subjects, including Torah, derech eretz (proper behavior), everyday current events, and human relations. He was able to apply all of the wisdom that he accrued over the years in his own life, and he knew how to transfer his thoughts to other people so that he could inspire them with his knowledge. He was very wise in his dealings with his family, friends and anyone he came into contact with over the course of his life. Rabbi Joseph Dweck stated: “This loss is not just a loss of a great man, but a loss of a generation and an approach to Torah and closeness to Hashem.”

His Life
Sam was born on July 15, 1910. In the 1920′s Rabbi Aboud Kilsi A”H, arrived from Turkey and had a very profound effect on Sam. Sam went from almost no knowledge at all, to learning Gemara, Torah and Mishnah. Rabbi Kilsi’s influence would follow Sam for his whole life.

 From the age of 10, in the summer, Sam would go with his father and help him peddle his wares. They went door-to-door to all of the hotels in the area, selling linens, lace, tablecloths, napkins, pillowcases, etc. It was very hard work for very little money.

The family moved to Brooklyn in 1925, and then Sam began to learn Talmud Torah with Rabbi Matloub Abadi A”H. This began a student-teacher relationship that lasted for the next 40 years. The rabbi instilled a love for Torah that lit an eternal flame within Sam.

At 16, Sam began to work in the linen business, but eventually became a salesman with a wholesale infantwear company. In February of 1937, Sam found the love of his life, her name was Rae Saff, and everyone considered them a match made in heaven. They were married in May of 1937 settling on Bay Parkway in Brooklyn.

 Sam and Rae had two children, Harry, born in 1939, and next came Eddie in 1941. Later, when the boys got married, Sam always referred to their wives, Diane and Frieda, as his daughters.

During his life he dedicated enormous amounts of time to community efforts. His wife Rae supported all of his work while she took care of their children and home.

At the end of the 1940s, Isaac Shalom A”H, asked Sam to chair a meeting that facilitated the change from Talmud Torah programs to yeshivah all-day schools. The dream of Magen David Yeshivah began at that time.

Sam eventually opened the firm of Catton Brothers with his brother Joe and his sons Harry and Eddie. He was importing from and manufacturing in the Philippines and sold to department and chain stores. The licensing of Disney characters was one of his best ideas.

 In addition to being a founder of Magen David Yeshivah, Sam was active in many other yeshivahs and organizations.

In 1970, Sam started the Sephardic Heritage Foundation. It was his desire to help the community by keeping them united in prayer. He wanted to preserve the memories of the past to improve the future. With the help of many rabbis, he researched, wrote, edited, compiled and published our daily and holiday prayer books according to the tradition of Aram Soba. Because of the extensive use and success of Sam’s endeavors, half a million books were sold worldwide. Former Chief Rabbi of Israel Mordecai Eliahu would later refer to him as Ba’al Haseferin (Master of the books).

His love for music and history inspired him to create a book that included all of the Pizmonim that were handed down through the generations. He saved over 200 years of poetry with these pizmonim.

Men of Faith and Vision Volumes 1 & 2 record the community’s transition from immigrant life through the present time. They highlight rabbis, notable individuals, organizations, synagogues, yeshivahs and documented sephardic history in New York.

Concerned with the behavior and midot of our youth, Sam’s next project was to publish a book on Pirkei Avot and distribute them to all yeshivah students.

There are many important qualities and beliefs that Sam possessed that would be beneficial for us to emulate and learn from. Among them are:

• Strong belief in God
• Unity among family members and community. Perhaps the greatest honor we can bestow upon his memory is to unify our own families and the whole Jewish world. It was his philosophy that united we are one people with one heart, and divided we destroy ourselves
• A person must learn to count their blessings and be happy. You can overcome difficult and heart breaking situations
• The importance of finding value in every person and treating them with the utmost respect at all times
• Work with energy to help others. You can have significance and be important even in old age.
• His family: His children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who had close personal relationships with him, have learned his ways and will perpetuate his philosophies. By their doing so, his accomplishments will forever live on
• Jewish education: His belief in procuring a fine Jewish education for all children led him to establish, support and promote the many yeshivahs our children attend. The seeds he planted will bloom into flowers as the future generations are educated according to our religious traditions. Sam said that the biggest problem that we have is the Jewish education of our children. The tuition for most parents is beyond comprehension, and space is becoming more limited as our community, thank Hashem, increases everyday. Parents are being forced to use the public school system. Sam’s hope is that the future generation will find a solution for this problem
• Books: The products of the Sephardic Heritage Foundation—the books he diligently worked on, which are used daily all over the globe—are his eternal connection to the Jewish world
• The Impact One Person Can Make: “One of the things that Sam pondered was what the future would bring to the Syrian Jewish community by the year 2100 and what we would have to show for ourselves in this world. Sam wanted to teach the world that a regular, ordinary person does have a big impact on this world. He has created the means for others in our community to stand up, take charge, and do something that they believe in,” said Rabbi Harold Sutton.

In conclusion, we wanted to include the following remarks made by Sam’s family as they are a true reflection of his essence.

David, his grandson, said “We lost a diamond. His involvement in world Jewry was regal, caring, sensitive, loving, selfless and respected. He was a tzadik, and a founder and supporter of the Jewish world.”