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Tribute to Herbert Kurz

(March 16, 1920-November 24, 2014)

delivered at Temple Beth Torah, November 28, 2014


It is an honor and a gift to speak about my friend, Herb Kurz. Let me begin by expressing my deepest sympathy to Ellen and Leonard and Herb’s grandchildren, Sophie and Thomas. I know from our many conversations he loved you very much. I give my deepest admiration to you, Leonard, for your great compassion and care for your father, allowing him to live out his life in the way that was so important to him.

Herb Kurz was tall in stature and tall in spirit. He was a man of grace, compassion, and unparalleled generosity. He believed in education and became a passionate benefactor of student support services at Rockland Community College. His generosity knew no bounds as he assisted individuals, causes and organizations. What he gave was not charity, for he expected those who benefited from his largesse to accomplish something with his gift.

I met Herb more than ten years ago when I first came to Rockland County, and I met him because he was always a good neighbor. In this case, his neighbors and dear friends were Judge Morton and Joan Silberman. When Judge Silberman lost his capacity to use his legs, Herb installed an elevator in the Silberman home so the judge could continue to live there. When Herb read in the Journal News that RCC had lost a $200,000 grant that provided funds to support students with the greatest need, he asked Joan Silberman, a retired RCC Professor of English, if she knew the new president of RCC. Joan said, “Yes, I met him at lunch last week.” And Herb said, “Well, I need to have lunch with this president.”

This was the first of many lunches with Herb, and this WASP from Texas learned to love pastrami with mustard—just as the boy from Brooklyn did. Herb said he would like to help these students with the greatest need, and that he would provide $100,000 if I could match the amount by raising an additional $100,000. Those of you involved in fundraising in Rockland know this is not an easy task. I knew I needed to meet the challenge, and I thought about how Herb started Presidential Life. He asked a number of friends to invest in his company, Presidential Life, a company that gained a national reputation for quality and service. And so, knowing there was no one person I could ask for $100,000—my quest became to find 100 folks who would give a $1000 each. I met the match, and no one was happier than Herb. The next year, he required that I raise only $50,000—and so over these last ten years, Herb’s generosity has helped hundreds of students stay in school. I am sure Herb would be pleased to know that last week, the RCC Board of Trustees named our Student Support Fund in his honor. Leonard and I have a goal that over the next ten years we will endow this fund so that Herb’s goodness will live in perpetuity.

My interactions with Herb over the last ten years taught that while he gave much, he expected much—and that made me a better leader and president. Our lunches began at Herb’s favorite deli in Nyack. After a year or so, we began to have lunch in his office, and we would have a nice two-hour chat about what was important to Herb and how he had lived his life. When Herb could no longer go to the office, I would bring lunch to his home—and of course, it was still pastrami and mustard. Although his body began to fail him, his mind stayed sharp and strong.

As you know from this morning, RCC and students with great need were only a part of Herb’s passion and generosity. I learned of Herb’s uncle, a highly acclaimed professor and historian, Frederick Ewin, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and Herb’s desire to restore his uncle’s good name and have his university create a Center for Academic Freedom.

This morning Rabbi Cohn indicated that at one point Herb considered becoming a rabbi, but the rabbi said he was sure the insurance industry was glad Herb chose to go into business instead. I suspect the rabbinate was also glad that Herb chose not to be a rabbi. While I am a cradle Episcopalian, I strive to live out the principles that are the foundation of Judaism, and while Herb was not an “observant Jew,” he absolutely modeled those principles in the way he lived his life.

As a lifelong educator, I have always embraced the tagline of the United Negro College Fund, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but a wonderful thing to invest in.” Herb lived that phrase in spirit and in deed.

Those who knew Herb well knew that he could be demanding and often expected as much from others as he expected from himself. And because he was Herb, it is important that he have the last word. I am able to help him do that this morning because of what I personally call “a God moment.”

Leonard asked me to help him find an article from the Business section of the Journal News dated April 4th, 1985, entitled “Building a Billion, Herb Kurz Molds Presidential Life into More Than Just a Money-Maker.” The article describes Herb’s brilliance as a businessman and how he created this extraordinary insurance company. There is a sidebar that one does not often find in an article in the Business section. The title and the words are Herb’s, and the headline is a quote from Herb: “My faith is in human beings.” Herb further states, “I have made a lot of commitments in my lifetime. You have got to have a commitment to your principles. How can we have a viable society if a large portion of the population can never achieve a decent standard of life? There is no way we can have that on a local or national level and expect to survive.”

Herb, my dear good, kind and decent man, your wisdom still rings true this morning as we say goodbye.

Herb Kurz with students
Herb Kurz meets with students who benefited from the Student Support Fund he established.


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