Back in the States after serving in Italy during World War II, Ash Gerecht went about the business of becoming a writer. He traveled around the country, writing short stories and submitting them to magazines. His story “Lives of Quiet Desperation” appeared in the October 1946 issue of Esquire.
“When he’s at the breaking point, you’ve got to treat a man with both wisdom and firmness,” the magazine teased at the top of the page.
There were more. Harpers and Antioch Review also published Gerecht’s fiction.
His career as a magazine writer was brief and Gerecht went on to be a Washington-based newsletter publisher and a philanthropist. Gerecht died at his home in Silver Spring of natural causes on Nov. 18, at age 97.
Michael Gerecht said his father never made much about his early accomplishments and kept the magazines his work appeared in out of sight.
“He was pretty modest about it, so we didn’t even discover he had them published until we were kids and we found them in the basement,” said Michael Gerecht.
In 1961, Gerecht started a weekly newsletter, Housing Affairs Letter, with 11 subscribers. He turned his newsletter into a business called CD Publications with 100 employees and more than 25 newsletters. In 1962, he helped found the Independent Newsletter Association in Washington.
At CD Publications, Jim Rogers was the managing editor and assistant publisher for many years, and he saw Gerecht as a mentor and father figure.
“I always loved hearing his stories and loved listening to him, because I felt like, gosh, this guy can teach me so much more,” Rogers said.
In 1971, Gerecht hired a First Amendment lawyer to challenge the rule that press members permitted in the Congressional Periodical Gallery had to be supported by advertising.
He argued that the rule infringed on freedom of the press. He said he would take the fight to the Supreme Court, but the advertising requirement was dropped two years later without any court proceedings.
In 1985, Gerecht founded the National Center to Encourage Judaism (NCEJ). The center gives grants to organizations worldwide to introduce people to Judaism. The Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College includes the Gerecht Family Institute for Outreach, which trains clergy to welcome newcomers to Judaism.
“He was taking what he knew about running a business and said, ‘Why should Judaism be any different?’” Michael Gerecht said. “’They’re not gonna succeed if they don’t advertise themselves.’”
Gerecht wrote a newsletter called The Jewish Proclaimer about the National Center to Encourage Judaism, where he highlighted notable rabbis, educators and communities.
“It was never him talking about himself, it was always him saying, ‘Here’s another opportunity to welcome people. Let me help you do it,’” said Rabbi Elliot Kleinman, the chief engagement officer at Hebrew Union College.
Kleinman met Gerecht when the former worked at the Union for Reform Judaism and it received some grants through the NCEJ. Kleinman traveled to Washington a couple times a year to have lunch with Gerecht so they could discuss new ideas for Jewish outreach.
“I always left lunch with him inspired. And with a list the length of my arm with things to do,” Kleinman said.
Asher Gerecht was born in Kansas City, Mo., graduated from Kansas City Junior College, Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Chicago.
During World War II, he served in the Army’s 34th Infantry Division in Italy. He was awarded a Bronze Star for bravery for stringing communication lines while under fire.
An avid reader from an early age, Gerecht wrote during the war.
“He wrote his entire life, one way or another,” Michael Gerecht said.
In addition to writing fiction, Gerecht pursued journalism after the war, reporting from Chicago, Savannah, Washington and New Mexico.
He even tried working on a novel or two, but realized writing was a hard way to make a living. He already had a full-time job in Chicago and got married. By the time he settled down in his late 20s, he more or less stopped doing creative writing.
His daughter, Ellen Gerecht, now heads the National Center to Encourage Judaism. She says that, along with his family, Judaism was the center of her father’s life.
“I’m very grateful that I can carry on his legacy,” she says.
Ash Gerecht was preceded in death by his wife, Gloria. He is survived by his children, Ellen (Joe Rosenberg) and Mike (Susan), of Kensington, and Dan (Cindy) of Ashton, Md.; six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.