Fred Kirschner, survivor and congregation president, dies at 86

Fred Kirschner was a pretty serious guy, but it would only take one word to transform him into a grinning, giggling and carefree man: Maxx.

“Whenever you mentioned his little granddaughter’s name, it was just an automatic smile,” recalled longtime friend Suzanne Broad.

Kirschner’s grandchildren — he had seven of them — were a major source of happiness in his life. He died Sunday, May 14 after a brief battle with cancer. The longtime San Rafael resident and two-time president of Congregation Rodef Sholom (and, according to friends, a member of whatever board he was asked to join) was 86.

Kirschner was born in Frankfurt, Germany, the son of a doctor and grandson of a Munich cantor. His family was prosperous, but when Kirschner was 18 he was deported to Buchenwald. He was lucky enough to get out of the camp and, along with his parents and sister, their home country.

The Nazis looted the family’s assets and possessions on their way out of Europe, however, and Kirschner arrived in New York City “with 10 bucks in his pocket,” according to his oldest son, Tom.

Fred Kirschner began working in a large department store and eventually went out into business on his own. Along with his wife, Hilla — the two were married for nearly 60 years — he moved to Illinois and, in the early 1960s, to Marin, where he was a longtime congregant at Rodef Sholom and was also heavily involved with the Marin JCC.

Kirschner found his niche in the collection industry; Nate Thompson, the public relations specialist for ACA International, the association of credit and collection professionals, described Kirschner as a giant in the field and “one of the founding fathers of this industry.”

Even late in his life, Kirschner was one of the most popular and requested lecturers among collection professionals, and ACA International named an educators’ award for him.

“He worked with other business owners to put a human face on the collection business. Everyone occasionally has financial problems and there’s a right way and a wrong way to treat people, even in the collection business,” said his son, Tom.

Added Rabbi Michael Berenbaum, a close friend of Kirschner’s, “He was a very straight arrow and a somewhat politically conservative person who really believed that if you had a debt, you should pay it. But, at the same time, he was passionately human and he wanted no one to suffer for anything he did.”

During his decades at Rodef Sholom, Kirschner became Berenbaum’s spiritual sounding board as well as his friend.

“Being a rabbi is kind of a lonely job, per se, and a rabbi needs someone to talk to, confide in and get support and advice from. Fred was always that person for me,” he said.

Kirschner had been remarkably healthy and vital up until quite recently, when his health took a dramatic turn for the worse.

“Everybody dies. And when you think about it, he was a teen in Buchenwald and so many people who went that route died alone and never had anyone to grieve them,” said Berenbaum.

“Here is someone who made a success of his life and had this wonderful family and they were all around him at the end of his life.”

Fred Kirschner is survived by his wife, Hilla; four children; Tom of San Rafael, David of Los Angeles, Jon of Honolulu and Judy of Petaluma and, of course, those seven grandchildren.

Donations in Kirschner’s memory can be sent to the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, 3330 Geary Blvd., Third Floor West, S.F., CA 94118 or to the Family Service Agency of Marin, 555 Northgate Drive, San Rafael, CA 94903.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.