It was a trip to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic in the early 1980s that sent Rabbi David Berkman on a road he never quite set out to take. But it is one that led him to become a rabbi, and to a Shabbat fete held by the New City Jewish Center, the Conservative congregation he has served for more than two decades. The special Shabbat celebration will be held on Friday, April 26.
Berkman and his friend, Larry Diamond, with whom he shared a blacktop business in Glencoe, Ill., were sent by the Chicago Action Committee for Soviet Jewry on a mission to visit Soviet refusniks – those Jews who sought to leave their country, but whom were denied exit by the government. They brought with them some siddurim, copies of the 1939 novel, “A Driven Leaf” by Milton Steinberg, and expensive cameras they could “lose,” and which were clearly valuable to those who “found” them.
|Rabbi David Berkman will be honored by New City Jewish Center on April 26.|
The group he was with were monitored at all times by Soviet watchdogs, Berkman recalled, making very real for them the oppressiveness of the government.
“You had to be with the group at all times; if we left the room, someone on the floor would make note of it,” he said. “In the hotel lobby, there was disco. We’d go with a group of eight to 10, we’d leave the disco and get on the metro, and we’d visit with a number of people.
“It was a life altering experience for me,” he said. “I felt a calling, – not to be a rabbi, but it tugged at me.”
After that, he and Diamond continued on their way ditching their Eurail passes that should have taken them through Western Europe. Instead, they visited Poland, Germany, and Romania, taking in the sobering remains of concentration camps and experiencing anti-Semitism first hand.
“I came back and felt I wanted to be doing something in the Jewish world, something that would be an expression of my Jewish identity.”
For dedicating himself to NCJC and that path he set off on a quarter-century ago, Berkman will be honored on the culmination of a year and a half of acts of Torah, avodah and gemilut chasidim, or learning, prayer and acts of loving-kindness.
“He really didn’t want just any kind of dinner dance,” said Cathy Distelburger, who is chairing the event. In March, the synagogue held a “Festival of Learning,” the penultimate event after a series of about a dozen since 2011, hosted by various arms of the congregation. “He really wanted something in which there could be shul-wide participation and in which there was a learning piece. First and foremost, he is an educator.”
The evening will begin at 6:15 p.m. with a Kabbalat Shabbat services at the synagogue, 47 Old Schoolhouse Rd., New City. Families, even those with young children, are expressly included, Distelburger said, adding that this was consistent with Berkman’s desire to have the evening as inclusive as possible.
Dinner is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. and will incorporate a presentation to the rabbi. The dinner, which has been subsidized by donors to keep down costs and encourage participation, is $36 for adults, $18 for children and free for children under 5.
Berkman has built a reputation in the county as an easy-going friend and colleague, with little ego or need for political maneuvering. He is a passionate defender of Israel, who, over time, has built his congregation’s participation at the annual AIPAC policy conference to among the larger synagogue delegations from the Northeast.
And he is known for his quiet care during times of crises, as well.
“I use the word indefatigable,” said Rabbi Henry Sosland. “It sounds like a big word, but he is tireless. To make it clear, mileage was never a concern for him. If he had to be someplace for a family, he made it his business to be there.”
Sosland, now NCJC’s rabbi emeritus, was senior rabbi when Berkman was hired as an associate. Berkman hadn’t intended to interview with any large congregations when he graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary, but the way the position was described to him, he felt it had a great deal of latitude for creating programs that would matter.
A family “Make Shabbat Come Alive” dinner and service each month; a pre-b’nei mitzvah program, “Boniyah,” that included parents in their children’s studies; and a monthly congregant-led “chavurah” minyan (that was egalitarian before the main service became so) were among the things he created. Offering an Israel education program, “The David Project,” to college-bound high school students to prepare them for campus encounters with anti-Israel sentiment, is another such program.
But the one of which he is most proud is a rent-a-sukkah project that made putting up the holiday’s huts an easy process.
“I never did the math, but at one point there were at least 200 families that built sukkahs through the program,” he said. “I wanted to make it easy, with members of the youth group helping to put them up. There are kids in college now, who remember making the sukkahs, and that makes a big Jewish impression.”
Jordan Soffer, now a student at rabbinical student at the Modern Orthodox seminary, Chovevi Torah, was one such student, inspired by Berkman’s example.
“Absolutely, he played a tremendous role in it,” said Soffer, of Berkman’s influence in his decision to become a rabbi. Soffer recalled that once, when he was in third or fourth grade at Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School, he called Berkman for help on his Judaics homework. While the busy rabbi wouldn’t give him the answer, he did patiently spend a good 15 minutes on the phone with Soffer, telling him where he might find it.
“His home is where I discovered Shabbos; Carol’s cholent, the sports in the front yard,” said Soffer. “The rabbis house was where we loved Shabbos the most.”
Berkman ended up at the Jewish Theological Seminary after spending a year in Israel polishing his Hebrew at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. While in line to register for the Ulpan language class, he met his wife-to-be, Carol King. They married while he was still in rabbinical school at JTS, and his oldest child, Dov, now 21, was born the day before his graduation. The family moved to New City on the heels of that event, and three other children followed – Meir, 18, Shira, 16 and Chana, 10.
Berkman, who has a degree in art and art education from the Art Institute of Chicago, enjoys working with his hands, and has been known to help congregants with a variety of do-it-yourself construction projects. Sermons that involve lessons learned in the aisles of Home Depot are part of his stock in trade, as are family stories of losing a child on the beach in Israel, bats in the attic, and even on the old Jewish standard, “Hava Nagila.”
While he always manages to bring the stories back to the Torah portion or a halachic point, it gives the rabbi, who won his JTS’ class award for homiletics, a down-to-earth appeal.
“My kids think of the shul as a second home,” said Lou Singer, who grew up at New City Jewish Center after moving from the Bronx in 1969 at age 4. “He’s really helped create that.”
Singer finds Berkman accessible and easy to talk to on just about anything, from Jewish matters to sports to an art exhibit in Manhattan. A creative thinker, Berkman unrolled a paper the length of the sanctuary representing a timeline of the Jewish people, Singer said. At the same time, he is not one with a great need to trumpet himself.
“He’s a very humble, honest person,” Singer said.
Rabbi Paul Kurland of the Conservative Nanuet Hebrew Center agrees. He liked kibitzing in the parking lot with Berkman after the two would wind up teaching Talmud – they split the curriculum for many years – at Gittelman. Berkman, he said, is very focused on his role and measured in his opinions, whether one-on-one or in a more public setting, such as the Rockland County Board of Rabbis.
“He is one of the first rabbis I call when I have a question I need to discuss with a colleague,” said Kurland. “He is my rabbi. That is the number one thing that came to mind….Every rabbi needs one, and it’s great to know I have such a wonderful one nearby.”