Friday, December 23, 2016

Remembering Philanthropist Mandell "Bill" Berman

I first heard the name Bill Berman at Camp Tamarack when I spent a week of winter break staying in a cabin at Berman Village during Winter Camp one year in the mid-1980s. I later had a chance to meet the iconic Jewish philanthropist and nationally known home builder at a Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit event when my father served as the CFO.

That was just a handshake however. It wasn't until my first year out of rabbinical school that I actually had the honor of getting to know Mandell "Bill" Berman. I began working at University of Michigan Hillel as the assistant director in the summer of 2004. The Hillel Foundation is named for Bill and his wife in recognition of the decades of support they provided.

My first encounter with Bill Berman was at a Michigan Hillel board meeting that he attended. He usually had his driver bring him to Ann Arbor, but this time he decided to drive himself. He was 86 at the time and arrived to the meeting late. I saw him in the Men's bathroom and he told me got a speeding ticket on the way to Ann Arbor. Mr. Berman told me that calmly explained to the driver that he wasn't even driving his age and shouldn't receive the ticket. He then laughed at his own story with his memorable chuckle.

A few weeks later, Mr. Berman called to say he wanted to take me out to lunch (he had mentioned his intention after the first board meeting, but I was still pleasantly surprised to get the invitation). I offered to meet him in Detroit for lunch, but he said he enjoyed coming to Ann Arbor to see the campus. We had a wonderful lunch meeting in which he dispensed so much sage advice. I listened intently to each word. I had the distinct honor to have more private lunches with him over the next couple of years in which I got to know this legend. At that year's Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Cleveland, Mr. Berman graciously took the time to speak to our student delegation sharing his thoughts on the Jewish community and inspiring these future leaders. Over the next days at the GA, I was amazed that every time someone saw I was from Michigan, they shared their favorite Bill Berman story with me (everyone had at least one).

President Bill Clinton with Bill Berman at a Hillary Clinton Campaign event in 2016 (Rabbi Jason Miller's Blog)
2 Bills: President Bill Clinton with Bill Berman at a Hillary Clinton Campaign event in 2016

In Metro Detroit, Bill Berman's name was everywhere. Each year a Jewish professional in the community was honored with the Berman Award. When I would take Jewish teens to a youth group Shabbaton at Camp Tamarack, I'd be sure to let them know it was subsidized by Bill and Madge Berman. The beautiful Berman theater at the JCC has become a typical place to enjoy a concert, watch a film or be entertained with a musical or play. On a national level, the Berman name is likewise everywhere. He cared passionately about the Jewish future and understood the importance of surveys and statistics about the American Jewish community. Bill Berman was a builder when it came to homes, but he was also a visionary builder when it came to the Jewish community.

His volunteer leadership roles are too many to try to enumerate. Some of the more prominent positions included serving as president of the Council of Jewish Federations of North America, a co-founder of the Jewish Education Service of North America, a board member of the Jewish Agency and of the American Joint Distribution Committee. He also funded fellowships at Brandeis University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He established the Fund for Research on Children with Disabilities at the Myers-JDC-Brooksdale Institute in Israel and chaired the 1990 and 2002 landmark Jewish Population Studies in North America. To further the study of the Jewish Community of North America he was the founder of the Berman Jewish DataBank, now at the Jewish Federations of North America, and of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive, now at Stanford University.

Jewish Philanthropist Bill Berman and Rabbi Jason Miller (Hour Detroit)

Locally, Mr. Berman was president and chair of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, a founder of United Hebrew Schools and a board member of Clover Hill Park Cemetery. Thanks to his generosity, the Hillel at the University of Michigan is named for him. Combining his love of theater and Jewish education, he founded the Berman Theatre at the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit and the Berman Center for Jewish Education at Congregation Shaarey Zedek.

On a personal level, I approached Bill Berman about helping a small, dying Conservative synagogue in Livonia, Michigan. Mr. Berman understood the need to keep this congregation's doors open for as many more years as was viable. He generously commited funds that allowed me to continue to help this congregation and miraculously Congregation Beit Kodesh remained open for another 8 years.

Bill Berman was such a generous philanthropist who cared so deeply about the Jewish community. He certainly ensured the future vitality of American Jewry for future generations. May the legacy of Bill Berman endure and be a beacon of light for all of us.

Yehi zichro baruch. May his memory be for blessings.

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