A Tribute to Herbert Krasnow

My wonderful stepfather Herbert Krasnow passed away peacefully last week at the age of 99. I want to honor his memory by sharing a few words with you here.

My mother was widowed in 1979, and bravely set about creating her life as a newly single person while now being the sole parent of three young adult sons. Just a couple of years later, to her utter surprise, a lovely man came courting her. Herb lived just a few blocks away. His wife Fran had passed after a long struggle with cancer, and he was eager for companionship. My mother set her fears aside, and she and Herb merged their lives and their families into an incredibly life-affirming second act that lasted more than three decades.

Herb and Debby made each other better people, and their generosity and love to all of their blended family was truly extraordinary. Their 17 grandchildren (now with numerous great-grandchildren), despite originating in separate families, are all cousins whose easy attachment to one another is a testament to the loving tribe that their grandparents created.

Herb was the most optimistic, resilient, and steady person I have ever met. So much of Herb’s life experience could have led him to bitterness, but nothing could break him. He grew up in the Bronx to an impoverished immigrant family. He worked from the age of 9. He graduated from tuition-free City College at age 19, and was immediately drafted to fight in World War Number Two, as he always called it. Herb witnessed the horrors of that war, including the liberated concentration camps, and he also experienced vicious antisemitism within his own ranks.

Those experiences only made him more determined to live fully. Even as he and Fran grew a family and were blessed with children, one of their daughters died in her crib. He lost his father and his brother at young ages. Herb worked tirelessly to provide for his family, and prospered. But death and loss were never far away. Perhaps the worst was when his son Marc passed at age 40 in 1995. Herb’s oldest son Jesse, whom I am honored to now call my brother, said that “of all the tragedies my father endured, Marc’s cruel death came closest to defeating him.” But Herb would only look forward, and as his flock of grandchildren burgeoned, he found a way to carry on with his remarkable brand of gusto and gratitude.

One of Herb’s greatest sources of joy and purpose was supporting and serving the people and causes he loved. He was all in. I will only cite here my own good fortune as one out of countless examples. When I decided to attend rabbinical school, Herb and Debby offered me invaluable and ongoing financial and emotional support. But Herb went farther: he joined the Board of Governors of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. The college was on tenuous financial footing, and Herb threw himself into strengthening the finances of the entire institution. He continued serving on the Board for more than 30 years, and made a substantial bequest upon his retirement. Who does that for a step-kid?

Herb and Debby were members of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation ever since I started working here, even though they already belonged to their own synagogue in White Plains. They thought so highly of the fit between me and the WJC that early on, when my position here was part-time, they supplemented my income so that Ellen and I could make the move to Woodstock.

Over the years, whenever I was faced with an ethical dilemma or a professional decision, I would sit with my parents and listen to their counsel. I came to look to Herb as my model for the kind of man I wanted to be. He was steadfast, generous, and ethical, but he also was a master at enjoying life. He didn’t sweat the small stuff, or waste time worrying about problems that were beyond his capacity to solve. He always looked for the best in people and in situations, and yet he had no illusions about the human capacity for evil. He was a straight shooter, and called it like he saw it.

Of course nobody’s perfect. Just ask his grandkids to imitate one of Herb’s lectures. But all I can say is, how did I get so lucky as to have this man in my life and in my family’s life? I will forever cherish this good fortune, and try to emulate this fine man as I support and love my family and my community, and as I enjoy life along the way. Herb Krasnow’s memory is a blessing.