Charles Krauthammer’s announcement Friday that he has just weeks to live sent shock waves through the Washington Jewish community, which the longtime conservative pundit has called home for decades.
In a note to Washington Post readers, Krauthammer, 68, explained that he underwent surgery last August to remove a tumor, and that despite recent progress, tests revealed that the cancer had spread. Doctors gave him a grim prognosis.
“There was no sign of it as recently as a month ago,” Krauthammer wrote, “which means it is aggressive and spreading rapidly. My doctors tell me their best estimate is that I have only a few weeks left to live. This is the final verdict.
“My fight is over.”
In his Washington Post column and regular Fox News appearances, Krauthammer cultivated the image of a serious conservative intellectual, but in the Washington Jewish community, he’s also known for his generosity and commitment to Jewish life.
Krauthammer helped to found the Shoresh Hebrew High School, for students attending public high schools.
As in his political writing, Krauthammer sought to convey a serious, text-based Jewish education for those who wanted it, said Rabbi Marc Israel, who taught at the program from 1999 to 2003 and later worked as an educator at Ohr Kodesh Congregation, the Conservative synagogue where Krauthammer is a member.
“He found the study of Torah, when it was done in a deeply intellectual way, to be very educational,” Israel said. “He was personally engaged in the study and he wanted our kids to understand that it’s not wishy-washy, it’s not just the opinion of one person. This is a school of thought that has developed over thousands of years.
“It was like everything he does, deeply intellectual.”
But Israel said that Krauthammer is also warm and magnanimous. “That was something that I didn’t know prior to meeting him because his writing can sometimes have pretty sharp elbows.”
Krauthammer has regularly made himself and his home available for fundraisers and open houses. He even invited Shoresh educators and administrators to stay at his beach house while he was out of town, Israel said. When he was healthy, he attended services every week, according to Israel, unless he was joining his mother for Shabbat.
Krauthammer was born in New York City, but spent much of his upbringing in Montreal, graduating from McGill University in 1970. During the summer of his first year at Harvard Medical School, Krauthammer suffered a diving board accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He’s been confined to a wheelchair since, but continued on to graduate from medical school in 1975 and complete his residency in psychiatry in 1978.
It was psychiatry that led him to the world of political writing he’s now known for when, after his residency, he joined the Carter administration to work on psychiatric research before taking a speechwriting job for Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign. At the time, he was submitting essays to magazines like The New Republic and Time. His weekly column in The Post appeared in 1985 and won him a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1987.
Krauthammer developed a reputation as staunchly pro-Israel and hawkish on foreign policy, favoring the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq in his columns. He supports a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but opposed the Oslo Accords reached by the two sides during the Clinton years. Matthew Continetti, the editor-in-chief of the conservative Washington Free Beacon, said reading Krauthammer’s columns as a teenager helped to shape his own political outlook.
“Charles’ support for Israel is a piece of not only himself, but also his broader outlook on foreign policy, which never changed even though his partisan allegiances did,” Continetti said. “He’s a big believer in the defense of democracies, the defense of human rights and the defense of the American experiment.
“He [is] a Zionist, but his Zionism [is] a part of his broader outlook on the world.”
That support for Israel was one of the first things that drew Estelle Deutsch Abraham, the host of a Sunday morning program, “Jewish Community Radio,” to Krauthammer’s writing. They first met 20 years ago, when both served on a board trying to save the Isaac Frank Jewish Public Library in Rockville. But still, she was nervous when he called in to her show to discuss a concert he was holding.
“The phones went out and I was so apologetic, I knew I was taking up so much of his precious time,” Abraham said.
But she was relieved when the line came back on and on the other end she heard a faint chuckle. “He said, ‘No problem. No problem.’ And he put me at ease.
“It was one of the easiest interviews I’ve ever done.”
Krauthammer was on Abraham’s show to discuss Pro Musica Hebraica, a concert series of Jewish classical music that he and his wife, Robyn, started in 2008 at the Kennedy Center for the Preforming Arts.
From 2008 to 2016, there were at least two concerts a year, some featuring pre-Holocaust compositions from Eastern Europe.
“It’s been a gift to our community: this treasure of a neglected, rich, cultural genre — much forgotten and maybe destined for oblivion,” Abraham said. “A lot of the pre-Holocaust artists, their music would not have been heard.”
Krauthammer in his note to readers said he had no regrets.
“It was a wonderful life — full and complete with the great loves and great endeavors that make it worth living,” he said.
“I am sad to leave, but I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended.”