A Visionary Jewish Communal Architect
Mandell “Bill” Berman of Franklin was a visionary businessman and philanthropist who devoted much of his leadership to shaping the future of the Jewish community.
Bill Berman passed away at his home in Long Boat Key, Fla., on Dec. 21 at age 99.
“Philanthropy and education are my passion,” Bill observed in a JN story commemorating his 90th birthday. “I’m now what amounts to a full-time volunteer in the Jewish community, and my biggest challenge is finding enough time to do everything.”
Looking and sounding spry almost 10 years later, he still spent much time attending educational events, talking to students, teachers and parents, and getting a feel for the future needs of the community.
In the meantime, many of the educational innovations he started and funded have evolved and grown.
“One area that stood out for Bill was formal and informal Jewish education,” said Dr. Lynda Giles of Bloomfield Hills. “This was where Bill and I shared common philanthropic goals.
“His concern for Jewish congregational life and keeping families connected led to the creation of Jewish Experience for Families (JEFF). JEFF’s impact on family education was enormous, changing how we defined traditional Jewish education. Bill’s concern for Jewish education was limitless.”
On the national level, he was a co-founder of Jewish Educational Services of North America (JESNA). This think tank was created to serve the educational needs of our national Jewish community.
Former JESNA president Jonathan Woocher said, “Bill was the rare combination of a far-seeing visionary and a down-to-earth mentsh. He understood the central importance of Jewish education long before many of his peers in communal leadership, and his commitment to research and evaluation as tools to strengthen Jewish life was unmatched among Jewish philanthropists.
“But, it’s his personal qualities those of us privileged to know and work with him will remember most. He was warm, he was enthusiastic, he cared not just about causes, but about people.
“When we look back on the last 50 years in American Jewish life, I’m confident we’ll see Bill was one of the prime architects of so many of the things we have come to value.”
Bill also cared deeply about Jewish life on college campuses, providing generous funding to the University of Michigan Hillel, which bears his name. He served as its honorary chairperson, mentoring a succession of board chairs, Berman Fellows and students.
“The Berman Fellowship was a transformative experience for me as a Jewish educator and leader,” Allie Conn Kanter (2010-2012) posted on the U-M Hillel website.
“The fellowship provided me with Jewish learning, mentorship and a foundation in the Jewish communal field I would not have been able to access in other entry level positions.
“I was fortunate to have spent time with Bill Berman, and it was always clear that he felt personally invested in my success, both while I was a Berman Fellow and in the years since.”
Other educational projects include founding the now-defunct United Hebrew Schools in Detroit, creating the innovative Berman Center for Jewish Education at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in 2014 and Crossing the Line scholarships at Wayne State University and Eastern Michigan University.
To train the next generation of Jewish sociologists, Berman established the Mandell Berman Fellowship Program, which supports two to three doctoral students working with Len Saxe at Brandeis University in the social scientific study of the contemporary American Jewish community.
He also funded fellowships at U-M and through the Association for Jewish Studies.
“If someone asked me to invent a major donor who understands fully what we are trying to accomplish for Jewish education, I would invent Bill Berman,” Dr. Donald Sylvan, former JESNA president, said in a previous JN story, speaking about Bill’s dedication to education.
“What he gives is so much more than money; he is fighting along with us. Bill believes in what we do so completely. He is a booster, a problem solver and participant extraordinaire.”
Evolution Of Bill Berman
Bill Berman was born in Detroit in 1917, one of four children of Julius and Esther Anna Berman. With a first name like Mandell, a person needed to have a nickname and his became “Billy,” after an Uncle Bill who died around the time he was born.
Berman attended Doty Elementary, Hutchins Inter-mediate and Central High School, graduating in 1936.
“My father came from old Russia and met my mother here; she was born in Toledo,” Bill told the late Bill Carroll for a previous JN story. “He did well in real estate, and we had a maid and a chauffeur living in our large house. They didn’t get paid anything, but they got free room and board.
“My father also ran the old Eckert and Becker Brewery. Then came the 1929 stock market crash and he went bankrupt. But he picked up the pieces, and my brother, two sisters and I were able to attend college.”
Berman obtained two degrees from Harvard: a BA degree, magna cum laude, and an MBA from Harvard’s Business School.
“I lived next door to John F. Kennedy in Cambridge, but only really knew him enough to say ‘hello’ every day,” Bill had said.
“When I graduated, World War II was well under way, and I received a letter from the government informing me I could enter the Navy as an ensign, so I spent four years there as an officer.”
He became an expert in underwater ordnance and mines by taking training at Dartmouth University and in Maryland and Florida.
“I spent 48 months in the Navy, dodging Japanese Zeroes and Kamikaze pilots,” he told reporter Carroll. “I even landed with the Marines on Okinawa, which was one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific [12,513 American deaths over 82 days].
“I thought, ‘I’m a Jewish naval officer. What the heck am I doing here on the beach with the Marines.’
“One night in the rain and cold, I ended up sleeping right next to a 500-pound bomb that didn’t detonate. I woke up staring at the bomb and I figured I must be mishugah (crazy).”
The post-war building business was tame by comparison as Berman and his brother-in-law, Bert L. Smokler, built more than 20,000 homes and condominiums in Michigan alone between 1946-1975.
Many of the homes were in Royal Oak, Clawson and metro Washington, D.C., then their building empire spread to western Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota and New York. Berman was president of Smokler and Dreyfus Development Corp. from 1969-1975.
He also served on the board of Guardian Industries, as chairman of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and as president of the Southeastern Michigan Builders Association.
One of Bill’s longtime friends, Mort Harris of West Bloomfield, recalls being involved with him in one of his more unusual business ventures.
“He called me and said, ‘We’re going to buy a fleet of 500 trucks in Poland!’ And we did. It turned out to be a pretty good deal. The trucks delivered merchandise throughout Europe — from France to Russia. Then we sold them; that was an even better deal.”
Last week, Harris, 96, talked about his best friend and business partner for more than 35 years.
“Bill was one of the finest people I’ve ever met,” Harris said. “We never had an angry word pass between us. Working with Bill has been a wonderful experience. He loved to laugh, and we always had some humor pass between us, and we never took anything too seriously. We spoke every day, first regarding business and then to discuss our aches and pains.”
Harris spoke to Bill the night before he died. Bill had invited him to join him in Florida, and he was planning to do so.
Shaarey Zedek Ties
“Bill was a shul boy,” Congregation Shaarey Zedek Rabbi Aaron Starr said of the longtime synagogue member.
Bill said his father had been involved in Shaarey Zedek since the 1890s. Bill has kept the strong connection.
Starr said, “Bill held nearly every leadership position at Shaarey Zedek, except president, because he left the board early to become president of the Jewish Federation. Several years ago, CSZ made Bill ‘honorary president for life.’
“Bill would often add there was one more position denied to him at Shaarey Zedek, but he couldn’t understand why. Apparently, despite the volume of his singing, no one ever invited Bill to be part of the Shaarey Zedek choir.
“When Rabbi Morris Adler asked Bill to lead the construction of the new synagogue building in Southfield, Bill, of course, agreed,” Starr said. “However, Bill made sure to tell the rabbi he built a trap door into the bimah. If Rabbi Adler’s sermons ever crossed the 18-minute mark, the trap doors would open and he would fall in.”
Starr also talked about why there was stained glass at the top of the back of the sanctuary. The rabbi asked Bill to place it there. “Everyone else gets this beautiful view,” Rabbi Adler chided Bill, “shouldn’t I have one, too?”
Bill’s passion for Shaarey Zedek continued throughout his lifetime. In 2004, he was the honoree for the synagogue’s inaugural Annual Dinner. Bill was a regular at Shabbat services, and every year he asked to speak on the Shabbat nearest his birthday, as he did recently for his 99th birthday.
“His remarks were a highlight every year, and we looked on with awe as he bounded up the steps to ascend the bimah that he built,” Starr said.
“We will all remember his stories, his wit and his wisdom. We will also remember the joy he exhibited in living life to its fullest, in caring for others, and in sustaining and strengthening the Jewish people.”
Bill Berman had a unique interest in data. The hard information he gleaned informed his decisions, drove his philanthropy and helped him play a major role in shaping the future of the Jewish community locally and nationally.
“I’m the only Jewish philanthropist who has a real interest in Jewish data, and the storage, dissemination and preservation of that data,” Bill told the New York Jewish Week in 2009. “I’m particularly interested in the mining of data. How do you make policy for a community if you don’t know what’s happening?”
During his term as president of the Council of Jewish Federations (now Jewish Federations of North America) from 1987-1990, Bill helped to fund the landmark 1990 National Jewish Population Survey; he later funded the 2000-2001 survey as well.
In 1987, he founded the Mandell L. Berman Institute North American Jewish DataBank housed at JFNA, which stores the Jewish population studies as well as approximately 200 local Jewish community studies, including the two Detroit studies done in 1989 and 2005.
In 2009, he founded the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University Wagner; the archive now is housed at Stanford University. Bjpa.org, its online portal, offers free access to a library of policy-relevant publications from leading Jewish journals and organizations.
This archive goes hand in hand with the Berman Jewish DataBank, a repository for raw data funded largely by the Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Foundation as well as the Charles H. Revson Foundation.
“Bill Berman was a philanthropic visionary and genius who recognized needs and filled them,” Lynda Giles said.
“In a time when data was lacking, Bill created the Jewish DataBank. This data gave credibility and validity to our national and local efforts at fundraising within the Jewish community as well as highlighting areas of need.”
Leadership And More
Bill Berman was the type of leader who mentored others out of genuine interest and to enhance the future of the Jewish community. Though he did not seek recognition, it still found him.
Internationally and nationally, he served as a board member of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Joint Distribution Committee. He also established the Fund for Research on Children with Disabilities at the Myers-JDC-Brooksdale Institute in Israel.
Additionally, he served on the boards of Clover Hill Cemetery, Shaarey Zedek, Aish HaTorah, the Michigan Humane Society, the Detroit Zoological Society, among others, and as president of the Southeastern Michigan Builders Association. He was also the first chairman of Detroit’s Skillman Foundation.
His top honors include Federation’s Butzel Award, the Israeli Peace Medal (he went to Israel 20 times) and awards from the American Jewish Committee, the Interfaith Round Table, JESNA, Boston Hebrew College, Michigan State Association of Home Builders, Hillel Day School, Yeshiva Beth Yehudah and the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, among many others.
But his interests and honors also extended far beyond the Jewish community. He received an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Wayne State University at age 94, and he was made a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2013.
Many other local institutions, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, the College for Creative Studies, Wayne State University, American Promise Schools, Beaumont and Ford hospitals, Forgotten Harvest, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Michigan Opera Theatre and Gleaners benefited greatly from the Bermans’ interest and generosity.
And, combining their love of
theater and Jewish education, Madge and Bill founded the Berman Center for the Performing Arts at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield.
“Bill always has been way ahead of his time; he’s always thinking of the future and of shaping the community the way it should be years from now,” declared Federal Judge Avern Cohn in a previous JN story. Cohn has known Bill since the early 1950s.
“Bill is unique in the Jewish community. He’s thoughtful and insightful; he’s charity-plus. He thinks and acts like the man who could live to be the proverbial 120.”
Family And Friends
Although he was 99 when he died, a general feeling seemed to exist that Bill Berman would live forever. A regular exerciser, napper and healthy eater, his son, Jon, said he still had that bounce in his step until his death.
“When one lives the good life for 99 years, he witnesses history as it happens for almost a century,” said Jewish historian and Shaarey Zedek member Judy Cantor of Bloomfield Hills. “But Bill Berman did not just bear witness to the unfolding history of the 20th and 21st centuries, he made history happen.
“From a personal point of view, Bill Berman was a warmhearted friend to Bernie and to me, never forgetting a hug and a huge smile that brightened the day. His life was a blessing. We are lucky to have known him.”
Lynda Giles said, “He was a fine, generous and caring husband, father and friend. He will be missed by all whom he touched. We are fortunate to have had him in our lives.
“As Chanukah approaches, the lights shining from each candle represent all that he has given to us, one generation to another!”
Her husband, Dr. Conrad Giles, current World ORT president, said, “The Jewish world lost a great leader. Bill Berman was a singular visionary who pioneered so many important initiatives that will continue to impact all of us well after his passing.
“On a personal level, he encouraged younger leadership, supported us and our journey to the national stage and served as an important mentor. He was a sensitive, caring, nurturing leader who never lost his natural humility. To know him as I did was to love and respect him. I will miss him, his smile, his humor and his intellect.”
Joel Tauber of West Bloomfield, former JFNA chair, said, “Bill and I have worked together for over 50 years in the local, national and international Jewish world. What impressed me the most about Bill was his critical, innovative and creative thinking.
“The programs and projects he developed are legendary. In each, he was the founder, motivator and operator. A truly unique and unusual combination for a philanthropist.”
Bill Berman always had a special affinity for Jewish professionals working in the community.
“The tears in the eyes of many of our Federation professionals as they learned of Bill’s passing is evidence of the love and respect that Bill engendered,” said Scott Kaufman, Detroit Federation CEO.
“From leading important local and national initiatives or organizations to mentoring young Jewish communal professionals and students, he was always here for our community.
“Beyond his generosity and leadership was the incredible positive energy he brought to his philanthropy and involvement.
“At dinner last month, Bill told me how excited he was about all of the ‘young people’ he met at our major fundraiser a few weeks before and just how proud he was of our community.”
Ralph Gerson of Bloomfield said, “Bill and Madge Berman have been among my parents’ closest friends my entire life. Our families have enjoyed many happy times together and have also been together at difficult times.
“I have never known anyone except my uncle, Bill Davidson, who was as optimistic and as productive in his life as Bill Berman. He had a great love and devotion to the Jewish community, both in Detroit and around the world, and will leave an enduring legacy from all his accomplishments.
“The Gerson family’s hearts go out to Madge, Ann and Jon and their families at this sad time.”
Speaking for herself and her brother, Jon, Ann Berman Feld had these thoughts about her father: “Dad never had to tell us how to be a good person … he showed us. It was one of his great strengths as a parent.
“From an early age, we understood it was important to give back, to repair the world, to be honest, to follow through on commitments. He made it all seem second nature and easy.
“We will miss his enthusiasm, his smile, his patience, his intellect. He is irreplaceable.”
A devoted husband, father and grandfather, Bill Berman leaves behind his wife of 66 years, Madeleine “Madge” Berman; his children, Ann Berman (Daniel) Feld and Dr. Jon (Nicky) Berman; and three grandchildren, Laurence Freedman, Sara Feld and Max Berman.
He was the beloved son of Julius and Esther Anna Berman; dear brother of the late Sara Pregerson, the late Toba Smokler and the late Irving Berman; cherished brother-in-law of the late Milford Pregerson and the late Bert Smokler.
Contributions may be made to the Congregation Shaarey Zedek Berman Center for Jewish Education, 27375 Bell Road, Southfield, MI 48034 or call (248) 357-5544, or visit shaareyzedek.org; or to the Berman Center for the Performing Arts, Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Road, West Bloomfield, MI 48322, or call (248) 432-5530 or visit www.jccdet.org/donation.
The funeral was held at Shaarey Zedek on Tuesday, Dec. 27. Arrangements by Ira Kaufman Chapel.
Look for video excerpts from a recent interview with Bill Berman, done in preparation for the JN’s upcoming 75th anniversary, at thejewishnews.com. Also, more personal recollections will appear in the June 5 issue.