Jewish Detroit’s One and Only Mandell “Bill” Berman, 1917 – 2016
By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
February 1, 2017
“A defining member of the Greatest Generation.”
“A champion of Detroit and education.”
“A visionary Jewish communal architect.”
Many words have been written and spoken in memory and tribute to Mandell “Bill” Berman since his passing on December 21, 2016. Given his span of 99 hearty years – a remarkable life and enduring legacy of service to the Jewish community and beyond – the recollections, the stories, the laughter and tears no doubt will continue for many years and generations to come.
To Jewish Detroit, Bill Berman always will be celebrated as a builder, an astute business and communal leader, a philanthropist, a steward of education and a passionate advocate of Jewish and charitable causes around the world. Above all, to those who knew him best, Bill was beloved –a true friend and mentor known and always recalled for his humanity, his genuine kindness, his compassion and caring for an ever-widening circle of people of all ages and walks of life.
What follows are but a few memories and thoughts about Bill, excerpted from various sources, including the pages of The Detroit Jewish News, December 29, 2016, and January 5, 2017.
The legacy of a good life
“Bill Berman brought home from his active service in World War II a deepened determination to live a good life and help others from all walks of life be able to do so. What followed was an incomparable role, with his beloved wife Madge, in assisting and ennobling life in Jewish communities in greater Detroit and far beyond, and in a huge variety of other communities throughout his beloved nation.” – U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak
“Words cannot possibly convey the impact Bill Berman had on our Jewish community or the untold thousands of lives he touched through his generosity, vision and passion for the Jewish people. Whenever he spoke, he conveyed how proud he was of our Detroit community.” – Larry A. Wolfe, President, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit
“From leading important local and national initiatives or organizations to mentoring young Jewish communal professionals and students, Bill was always here for our community. Beyond his generosity and leadership was the incredible positive energy he brought to his philanthropy and involvement.” – Scott Kaufman, Chief Executive Officer, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit
“When one lives the good life for 99 years, he witnesses history as it happens for almost a century. But Bill Berman did not just bear witness to the unfolding of history of the 20th and 21st centuries, he made history happen.” – Judy Cantor, Jewish Historian and member of Shaarey Zedek Synagogue
A visionary and a risk taker
“Bill always had been way ahead of his time; he was always thinking of the future and shaping the community the way it should be years from now.” – Honorable Avern Cohn, U.S. District Court Judge for the Eastern District of Michigan
“Bill was a visionary and a risk taker, but he never walked away from the investment. He invested his soul as well as his money, and you always knew he had your back. Early in my career, Bill said, “Don’t bring me the successes. Those are for sure. Bring me the challenges and the failures, and together we’ll make them right.” – Harlene Appelman, Executive Director of the Covenant Foundation.
“Every once in a while, someone comes along whose legacy is truly transcendental. Bill Berman was such a person.” – Robert Sklar, Contributing Editor, Detroit Jewish News
“One area that stood out for Bill was formal and informal education. 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.” – Dr. Lynda Giles, Community Leader
“Bill was a shul boy . . . [whose father had been involved in Shaarey Zedek since the 1890s.] 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.” – Rabbi Aaron Starr
A “Man for the People”
“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.” – Arthur Horwitz, Publisher/Executive Editor, Detroit Jewish News
“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.” – Keri Guten Cohen, Story Development Editor, Detroit Jewish News
A mentor, a friend
“My first job at University of Michigan Hillel was as a Berman Fellow, which had been modified to have me join the team. It wasn’t until I became Executive Director that I learned it was Bill, himself, who changed the Berman Fellowship to make it possible for our Hillel to invest in its future by bringing on someone who could one day take on a greater leadership role in our organization. He was my first “Michigan Mensch” – my own Michigan mentor guiding me into this leadership role with his knowledge of our Hillel, the Michigan community and the national Jewish landscape. I never tired of his stories about walking a torah across campus (Harvard, not UM), his work with Soviet Jewry, the population surveys, and, of course, building our Mandell L. Berman Hillel Center in the 1980s.” – Tilly Shames, Associate Acting Executive Director, Hillel U of M
“Without Bill Berman, the course of my life would have been radically different. The meaning I found at Hillel as an undergraduate led me to stay for the Berman Fellowship post-college. That, in turn, brought me to rabbinical school equipped with skills and experience I could not have found anywhere else. For all these reasons and more, I will forever be grateful for his leadership, philanthropy and dedication to this community.” – Matt Green. Fellow 2012-13
“I am so thankful for my experience as a Berman Fellow. I was able to grow professionally while being supported in finding the “next-steps” for my career in a warm, fun environment. Bill Berman’s (z”l) love and passion for the Michigan Jewish community became my own as well. My next step brought me to the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit where I continue to feel the impact of Bill Berman’s generosity.” – Judy Lansky, Philanthropic Advancement Associate, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit
“I met Bill through our passion for Jewish Family education, which he funded so generously throughout the years. But I had the privilege of calling him a dear friend to me and my family. When my children were born, he was there. At their b’nai mitzvoth, he came. When my father-in-law died, he checked in. Bill always made me laugh, and what a huge laugh (and smile) he had.” – Lisa Soble Siegmann, Associate Director JFamily, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit
“Bill Berman was the closest individual I had to a grandfather as well as my primary mentor, adviser, supporter, synagogue seat-mate, political guide, philanthropic teacher – and perhaps most importantly of all – friend. Outside of my family, there is no one who knew me better or counseled me more wisely. I cannot think of a major personal or professional decision I made over the past decade for which I did not consult Bill.” – Hy Safran, Associate Director of Philanthropy, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit
“Quick story: When I started working at Federation in 1997, I was asked to staff the JFNA “General Assembly (GA) in Indianapolis. Beyond planning the “Detroit dinner,” we planned an 80th birthday for Bill and invited his friends from several Federations. It was a wonderful evening. Bill was so gracious. It was the first time I met him, and what an honor that was; I was fortunate to work with Bill on other education projects over the years; and I will always remember that he asked the best questions and was curious about everything.” – Dale Rubin, Volunteer Services Manager, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit
“At 99, he lived each day with an inspiring intensity of unparalleled work ethic . . . Bill Berman was a giant among the truly legendary giants in our community and beyond, yet somehow he always seemed to be the youngest and most approachable person in the room.” – Adam Kessler, Attorney at Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss
Mandell L. Bill Berman, 1917—2016. May His Memory Be a Blessing