A Man For The People
You could find Bill getting dirty with preschool children and their parents partaking in hands-on Jewish family education programs that he pioneered with Harlene Appelman at his beloved Congregation Shaarey Zedek.
You could find Bill engaged in animated conversation over lunch with a group of Wayne State University students who, short on funds and just a handful of credits shy of graduation, received a quiet financial boost from him to complete their studies.
You could find Bill — in an earlier era — leading volunteers at a converted Velvet peanut butter facility as they sorted mounds of donated clothing intended for World War II refugees. This, mind you, from a man who had recently completed his service to America as a naval officer stationed at Okinawa.
Wherever people gathered, if the cause was worthy, odds are you would find Bill.
But because of his unique blend of intelligence, humor, candor, Jewish communal perspective and wisdom, you would also seek Bill. His door was always open to those in search of guidance, validation of an idea (and if it was a good one, he might write you a check as well), a dose of history and a good story about some of the community’s more colorful personalities.
A visit to Bill was essential prior to starting many Jewish News initiatives, including the launch of the independent nonprofit Detroit Jewish News Foundation.
Bill was uniquely capable of connecting our Jewish community’s past and present to its future. He was a 99-year-old visionary, always attuned to demographic trends and changing needs — challenging existing organizations to re-invent themselves and encouraging new entities to fill the voids he detected. For Bill, investing in various models of formal and informal Jewish education was the best way to assure the continuance of a vibrant and vital American Jewish community.
In the June 15, 1945, edition of the Jewish News, a letter Bill sent to his parents was published under the headline “Lt. Berman Sees Jewish Faith High on Okinawa.” In the letter, Bill noted the pessimism that existed back home about the future of Jewry in America. After observing the religious spirit of his fellow Jews, who had braved a rainstorm to cram into a small tent for the Shabbat Shavouth services, he said:
“The men by their attitude and demeanor charged that tent with a religious spirit that I have never seen in civilian life. These men didn’t have to walk, hitch or ride a boat to that tent in the rain. No one urged them to come.
“If ever I believed that Judaism would die with this second and third generation in the U.S., I was wrong. Right now, in their hearts these men are better Jews than 50 percent of the Jews (older men) I know at home …
“I’m going to write Rabbi Hershman soon and … show him that his faith in the staying power of Judaism is at least justified out here.”
We have Bill Berman to thank for a lifetime dedicated to enhancing the “staying power” of American Jewry for future generations. Rabbi Hershman would be proud.