Last Word: Jewish Learning Venture Honoree Harold Berger Supports the Next Generation of Jews

Harold Berger is wearing a suit and gesturing as he speaks to someone off camera.
Judge Harold Berger | Courtesy of Jewish Learning Venture

In the early 1920s, Archibald, a town of 5,000 in Northeast Pennsylvania, was home to one Jewish family: the Bergers.

As Harold Berger, now 97 and a Center City resident, grew up in the small town, the experience transformed him, and he relished the unique upbringing. 

However, as decades passed, Berger became enveloped in the Jewish community in Philadelphia. He established himself as a judge of the Court of Common Pleas and co-founded the law firm Berger Montague, where he now serves as of counsel and executive shareholder emeritus.

Through his philanthropic endeavors, Berger — known to many in the community as Judge Berger — wanted to ensure the continuation and growth of vibrant Jewish communities in a time of shrinking synagogue membership, including at Germantown Jewish Centre, where Berger has been a member for decades.

“What could we do to stop loss of membership? That was the first thing,” Berger said. “And then the thought was, What can we do to develop programs which would attract Jewish families?”

Berger, with the help of Philadelphia-based nonprofit Jewish Learning Venture and his late wife Renee Berger, created the Harold & Renee Berger Synagogue Network in 2008. The network allows JLV to help area synagogues develop programs and changes within their organizations to attract young families, ultimately building synagogue membership.

Fifteen years after its founding, the Berger Network continues to help synagogues in the area develop programs, such as Camp Shabbat with jkidphilly at Temple Sholom in Broomall and an MLK Day of Service at Or Hadash. JLV will honor Berger for his continued support and involvement in the network at the nonprofit’s 12th Annual Celebration on April 2.

Berger even helped Germantown Jewish Centre create programs to engage young families; he said that the Berger Network and JLV helped to grow the congregation by 50 families.

“This is what JLV has been doing, not only to stop the drop in membership, but to attempt to bring people closer to the synagogues in the area to make Judaism more meaningful and relevant to their families,” Berger said.

From an early age, Judaism was pivotal in Berger’s life. Raised in an Orthodox household, the family kept kosher and shomer Shabbos. Berger’s father, a store owner, kept his business closed on Saturdays. Despite no other Jews in the town, the family’s neighbors knew to visit the store after the Sabbath. The Bergers spent Jewish holidays at Berger’s grandmother’s house in Olyphant, where the matriarch would cook elaborate meals weeks in advance over a coal stove.

A few times a week, a rabbi from Olyphant would visit the family in Archibald and tutor the four Berger sons in Hebrew at 5 a.m. After their Hebrew lessons, the brothers attended public school. Several times a year, rabbis from Scranton, with a larger Jewish population, visited Archibald to collect funds for yeshivas in New York or Jerusalem. They would always stop by the Bergers’ home for a home-cooked kosher meal.

Despite being one of Archibald’s few Jews, Berger saw his childhood as a chance to grow his worldview.

“You get to understand how to react with all people,” he said.

When he joined the military during World War II, being Jewish wasn’t as easy. 

“In the service, there was a feeling of antisemitism in certain soldiers who had never met a Jew before,” Berger said. “They didn’t know whether the Jews had horns or not-horns, but there was not a feeling of, shall we say, friendship.”

Berger was proud to serve alongside his three brothers in the war, who served as a lieutenant commander on an aircraft carrier, a doctor and in intelligence, respectively. Every brother came home after the war.

Recruited three years into his engineering degree at University of Pennsylvania, Berger was a model soldier during basic training. However, 12 weeks into the 16-week program, Berger suddenly woke up ill. He was rushed to the infirmary before falling into a coma. When he woke up, he found out he had a case of spinal meningococcal meningitis. His doctor told him that while Berger was asleep, his unit was sent overseas to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, almost all of them dying in combat.

Berger begged to remain in the services, despite an honorary medical discharge, and later worked with German aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun, an S.S. officer-turned-U.S. citizen and director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Berger completed his engineering degree, as well as a law degree, at Penn.

Almost a centenarian, Berger’s commitment to causes for which he cares is still apparent: He lays tefillin every day and continues to support JLV, hoping that the organization will continue to support the next generation of Jewish Philadelphians.


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