It is with great sadness that the California Conference for Equality and Justice announces the passing of Gene Lentzner. For more than four decades, Gene has been a tireless supporter of CCEJ’s work, inspiring thousands of people in Long Beach and Southern California to build truly inclusive and just communities.
Gene’s commitment to the work of eliminating bias, bigotry and oppression grew from his own life experience. Gene grew up in a Jewish family in an Italian and Catholic neighborhood in St. Louis. “At school, I was attacked, cursed and chased by my classmates, who had been taught to hate persons like me,” he shared during his keynote speech at CCEJ’s 21st Annual Interfaith Intercultural Breakfast in 2012. “What sustained me were the lessons I learned at home: that I was worthy, that I also derived from a great tradition, and that with hard work, I could one day prove myself because I lived in America, where anything was possible.”
Gene first connected with CCEJ, then known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ), when he received NCCJ’s 1977 Humanitarian Award for his efforts to improve human relations in Long Beach. In 1980 he was elected to NCCJ’s Long Beach Board and later became Board Chair, a role he held for three terms. He also served as Treasurer for more than 30 years. Gene was a strong proponent of creating a more active human relations program in Long Beach, which led to the first 3-day “Building Bridges” program at Recreation Park. As Gene recounted, “We soon learned that in order to change the way our diverse youth perceived each other, we had to conduct sessions out of town where they had to actually live with each other.” The first out-of-town camp for students from Long Beach high schools was held in 1985, and CCEJ continues to operate 4 camps and youth leadership retreats annually, serving hundreds of students from across Southern California through our Building Bridges for Youth Programs.
With other Board members, Gene was instrumental in developing an Interfaith Intercultural Breakfast in Long Beach, inaugurated in 1991. He viewed the breakfast as a statement of inclusion for a city that has become one of the most diverse in the nation. Gene and his wife Ann have been major sponsors of this program for the past 20 years, and the breakfast now draws more than 800 guests every year.
Gene was also the driving force for Long Beach’s first Citywide Multi-cultural Conference, the Hispanic Leadership Conference, the African American Leadership and Economic Development Conference, and a Southeast Asian Task Force. His work inspired the Gene Lentzner Human Relations Award, which recognizes exceptional people who work at the grassroots level to promote inclusion and equity. The awards have recognized more than 100 people since 1989.
During the late 1990’s, Gene served as Chair of the Long Beach Human Relations Commission. In response to two hate crimes in 1998, Gene led the Commission to create a hate response team in Long Beach to aid victims and a conflict resolution team to respond to disturbances in schools and in the community. CCEJ’s current Restorative Justice programs are rooted in this initial effort to create alternative approaches to conflict resolution.
Gene worked tirelessly to ensure that CCEJ’s work could continue even when external conditions threatened to close our doors. In 2005, when the national NCCJ office closed, Gene was part of a core group of supporters who established the Long Beach chapter as an independent nonprofit organization, the “California Conference for Equality and Justice.” He continued to serve on the Board for 14 more years, eventually moving to CCEJ’s Advisory Committee in 2019.
Gene’s legacy to CCEJ and our work cannot be overstated. Gene believed the United States to be a place where everyone has worth, everyone can contribute, and everyone belongs. He continues to inspire us to work together and build a more unified community, with justice for all. Our thoughts are with Gene’s family, his wife Ann, brother Gordon and sister-in-law Judi, two sons Jay and Alan, daughter-in-law Nancy, grandson David, his extended family, and his entire circle of friends and community.
CCEJ will be collecting memories of Gene for a community celebration later this year. If you would like to share your recollections, please visit https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/GeneMemories.