Former Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Harold Berger, who founded the law firm of Berger & Montague, P.C. and was active in local Jewish philanthropy, died on Aug. 26. He was 98.
Berger was featured on the cover of the Feb. 16 Jewish Exponent and profiled in advance of being honored by Jewish Learning Venture in the spring.
“He always said, ‘Don’t sell America short,’ and his favorite blessing was ‘good health, happiness, mazel and bracha,’” his children Jon Berger and Jill Berger said.
A native of Archibald, Pennsylvania, the University of Pennsylvania Law School graduate began his law career by founding the law firm Berger & Stein and served on the Court of Common Pleas from 1971 to 1972.
Berger and his brother David then formed Berger & Montague, where he served as a senior partner and managing principal. During his career, Berger participated in many complex litigation and class action matters, including the Exxon Valdez oil spill litigation, serving both on the case management team and as co-chair of the national discovery team. He also served as liaison counsel in the Three Mile Island litigation and the nationwide school asbestos property damage class action, according to his family.
Berger was active in the local, federal and American Bar Associations and was the recipient of numerous awards including a Special Service Award of the Pennsylvania Conference of State Trial Judges. He received the FBA’s National Service Award for distinguished service to the federal and state judiciary.
Berger also was an active philanthropist in the Jewish community.
With the help of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Jewish Learning Venture and his late wife Renee Berger, he 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.
Berger helped Germantown Jewish Centre, where he was a longtime member, 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 at the time.
Aside from his work with JLV, Berger served as a trustee of The Federation of Jewish Charities of Greater Philadelphia, was a director of the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History and was a national director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
“He was dedicated to the Jewish organizations and programming he supported, especially helping immigrants through HIAS,” Jon Berger and Jill Berger said.
Berger grew up in Northeast Pennsylvania in an Orthodox family that was the only Jewish one in the small town.
And when he joined the military during World War II, being Jewish wasn’t as easy, he told the Exponent.
“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.”
Recruited three years into his engineering degree at Penn, 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 awoke, 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 service, despite an honorary medical discharge. He 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, testing V-2 rockets at White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico.
Berger was predeceased by his wife Renee; his sister Rose Berger Fink; and his brothers Ellis, Norman, David and Joseph. He is survived by his daughter Jill Berger, his son Jon Berger (Barbara Baskin), three grandchildren, a great-grandson and sister-in-law Francine Berger.