A number of years ago, Julius Berman received a call from a friend offering to send him on a trip to Poland, to visit his birthplace. “Go home,” his friend said.
Berman, a veteran askan who now serves as chairman of the Claims Conference, excitedly called his mother to invite her to join him on a moving “roots” visit: “Mom, we’re going home!”
Her response took him by surprise and gave him an important insight into the plight of Jews who were forced to leave their homes during World War II.
“She asked, ‘Where are we going? To the anti-Semites?’ She made me understand that there was no ‘home’ to go back to. People who ran away [during the war] came back to nothing.”
He’s brought that understanding with him to the Claims Conference, in determining who should be entitled to receive assistance. “Some argue that only those who were actually in the camps should be helped. My approach is that ‘flight victims,’ people who were forced to leave their homes and came back to nothing, are also entitled to assistance.”
Berman, who was in Israel this month to attend meetings of the Claims Conference Executive, is soft-spoken and modest, his words liberally sprinkled with the Torah of his Rebbe, Harav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l. He is a prominent New York attorney who graduated first in his class from New York
University Law School in 1960, a year after receiving semichah from Yeshiva University.
His record of public service is long and diverse. He was president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (UOJCA), the first Orthodox layman to chair the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a founding president of Camps Mogen Avraham, Heller, Sternberg, Inc., and of the Task Force on Missionaries and Cults of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council, and currently sits on the board of trustees of Yeshiva University, the Joint Distribution Committee and the International Society for Yad Vashem. And that’s just a partial listing.
A glance at your CV makes one wonder why you’ve taken on so much. You’re a busy lawyer, you have a personal life – you could have taken on one or two communal roles and then said I’ve done my share. What motivates you?
There has been a progression. I started,way back when, as president of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA), which involved Orthodox Jewish lawyers. Then I spread out a bit and was president of the UOJCA (Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America), which was Orthodox, but not lawyers.
From there I moved on to the general Jewish community, as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and then to the International Claims Conference.
That’s been the theme of my life – taking Orthodoxy to the general Jewish community, on the national and international level.
My Rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik, felt strongly that Orthodoxy has a role to play in overall Jewish life. I was very close to him, and he encouraged me to become a member of the Executive Committee of the Joint Distribution Committee because the Joint had brought people over from Europe.
We have a role to play in such forums; we have something to offer and should be a presence. People shouldn’t be speaking for us, and we should have a say in the overall policy.
My Rebbe would quote Avraham speaking to bnei Ches: Ger vetoshav anochi imachem. I’m both: I’m a ger, and have my private relationship with G-d, and a toshav, a member of the community at large.
How do you balance your responsibilities as a partner in a major law firm with your communal activities?
It’s a long day, but a productive day. I have sipuk hanefesh from my law practice, but even more so from my communal work. Most lawyers, after 10 or 15 years, have middle-age syndrome where they burn out. I’ve never had it.
The Claims Conference is all about negotiating restitution on behalf of Holocaust survivors and distributing funds. With the passage of time, doesn’t that mean that the Claims Conference will be packing up and closing its operations?
Five years ago, when I became chairman of the Claims Conference, I would have said that makes a lot of sense. Now, I say it’s just the opposite.
What’s happened is that survivors are much older, weaker, sicker. There are fewer, but their needs are greater. There is more Alzheimer’s and dementia. We’re spending more on hospitals and old-age homes.
Home care is a big issue. How do you stay home if your spouse has passed away?
What we found is that problems have increased. The amount of money needed is greater, and consequently it’s not winding down.
Also, with the fall of the Iron Curtain, all of Eastern Europe has opened up. I remember visiting
the tiny apartment of an elderly woman in Ukraine and seeing that there was no running water. We have to provide for their social-welfare needs.
The Claims Conference is also active in Holocaust education. There are fewer and fewer witnesses to what happened. Until now, we had a situation of she’al avicha veyagedcha, zekeinecha veyomru lach, especially in the chareidi community, but what do you do when there are no longer zekeinecha?
That’s why we feel so strongly about the need for Holocaust education in this community as well.
Has there been a breakthrough in this area?
Absolutely. We’re invested in curriculum and teacher-training in the chareidi sector. I believe that what Rebbetzin Esther Farbstein has done in Israel and Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein has done in America has been critically important by way of supplying material that is suitable for the chareidi classroom, and we’ve
helped finance it.
What percentage of survivors lives in Israel?
Some 45 to 55 percent.
How do you determine what expenses should be covered by the Israeli government and what should be covered by the Claims Conference?
Obviously, we’re not going to do things the government is already doing. Survivors who are citizens should be receiving from the government what all citizens receive – hospital care, old-age homes and so on.
We focus on ways to supplement and to provide for needs that aren’t being met. We’ll take a wing of a hospital that has six or eight beds in a room, with a bathroom at the end of the corridor, and put in money for renovations that will put two people in a room, with their own bathroom. We sit down with the Health Ministry, the National Insurance Institute, the health funds and work it out. For instance, if the wing is serving 35% survivors, we’ll give a proportionate amount toward the cost of the renovation.
What can you do to help elderly people remain at home?
If someone has reached a certain level of disability, the National Insurance Institute will provide him with 16 hours a week of home care assistance. We’ll add another nine hours. But there comes a point when even that isn’t enough, and we feel a responsibility to help. This may involve Yad Sarah or Beit Levinstein [the rehabilitation hospital], and investing in support or expansion.
Do you feel that the Demjanjuk war crimes trial in Germany is a positive thing in terms of educating the public on the Holocaust?
Yes. When Eichmann was put on trial in Israel almost 50 years ago, there was at least general knowledge about the Holocaust. Today, people know less and need to be reminded. In this case, we have the best of all worlds because Israel is not involved.
The issue of having rachmanus for a sick 89-year-old isn’t our problem, since it’s the Germans who are trying him.
After so many years of community work, what worries you the most about Jewish life in America?
Our biggest problem is freedom. We have never learned to act when we’re free. When the goyim imposed decrees on us, we responded with kiddush Hashem.
The freedom has led to assimilation and intermarriage. True, if you live in Boro Park or Lakewood, you don’t see the problem, but go out to the sticks and you can see that quantitatively we’re losing.
How do you see the situation in Israel?
In September 1982, when I was chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, President [Ronald] Reagan came out with his peace plan.The next morning, then-Secretary of State George Schultz, who I loved, asked me what I thought of it.
I was in a delicate position because they had worked on it all summer. So I said, “Mr. Secretary, there are some valid points.The one major problem is that it changes the role of the United States from being mediator to being one of the players. It’s much more difficult to make peace when there are three parties.”
That’s what has happened now, with the current administration. Once President Obama said no
settlement activity, there was no way that any Palestinian leader could possibly accept less.
Am I optimistic? You have to keep plugging along. …I don’t see peace around the corner, particularly after Hamas took control of Gaza. But I’m more worried about internal strife among the people of Israel.
The above article appeared in the December 9 edition of Hamodia and was authored by Joel Rebibo.