ALTOONA — Rabbi M. Herbert Berger was a friend and a religious authority to the Jewish community.
He also was well known in the community at large for his ecumenical outreach, kindness and concern for others.
Berger, who served as spiritual leader at Agudath Achim Synagogue, from 1977 to 1997, died last Tuesday in New Jersey.
Although he left Altoona 13 years ago to serve B’nai Jacob Congregation in Jersey City, N.J., and subsequently retired in Elizabeth, N.J., he never forgot his many friends here and continued to stay in touch with them until his death.
“I spoke with him frequently by phone,” said Judi Sue Meisner of Hollidaysburg. “Any theological question I had, I consulted him. He was like a walking encyclopedia. He was an extremely brilliant and learned man. He was a source of information and inspiration.”
“He loved Judaism,” said Bill Wallen, executive director of the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation. “He got so much joy out of it that he needed to share that joy with others. He just bubbled over with knowledge of Judaism, its beliefs and practices. His goal was to share this with as many people as he could.”
Berger earned a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina in educational psychology and counseling in 1978. He also received a honorary doctor of divinity degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1980. He was believed to be the only rabbi in the nation to have ordinations to the rabbinate from Yeshiva University (Orthodox) and the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative). He graduated from both with highest honors.
“People don’t do that,” said Joel Hollander of Altoona. “It is either one or the other. He had such a quest for knowledge.”
“He was a wonderful friend and great teacher.
He taught us to enjoy our Judaism,” Hollander said.
“Personally what I will miss the most is our friendship,” said Hollander’s wife, Barbara. “He would help our kids with homework. He was like a grandfather figure to them.”
She also remembers him as a man who stood firm in his beliefs. She remembers inviting the rabbi to their home 31 years ago, when she and Joel were newlyweds.
He accepted the invitation but would not eat, she said, until she assured him it was a kosher home.
“He didn’t want to be rude and ask, but he wasn’t going to compromise his principles, either,” she said.
Berger was raised in Cleveland, one of seven children. His grandfather and father were rabbis, and his father ordained him as an Orthodox rabbi, Meisner said.
Before coming to Altoona, he served Beth El Congregation in Durham, N.C., for 15 years and was adviser to Jewish students through Hillel at Duke University. He also served as rabbi in Georgia and as a military chaplain with the First Infantry Division in Germany after World War II.
He was adviser to the Jewish students at Penn State Altoona as well as a servant to the community in many ways.
“He was a fixture in the community at large,” said Dr. Jack Schocker.
He said the rabbi was involved in the ecumenical movement.
“He was open and inclusive to everybody,” Schocker said.
Berger was president of the Altoona Area Clergy Association from 1982 to 1984 and was chaplain at the Van Zandt VA Medical Center, the Altoona Mental Retardation Center and the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon.
He also was an active member of Rotary.
But his community duties did not diminish his care and involvement in the lives of his congregants.
“He participated and shared in many life-cycle events,” said Phyllis Port of Altoona.
Wallen remembers Berger attending his children’s b’nai mitzva and his daughter’s wedding even though he was not the officiating rabbi.
“He was so happy to be part of our family’s lives,” he said.
Members of Agudath Achim recalled the way he nurtured and guided their children.
“He instilled values in them [our children],” Schocker said. “He was a parent and religion leader to them.”
Meisner said Berger officiated at her sons’ bar mitzvas and traveled to Virginia to officiate at her son’s wedding. She said all his students were well-prepared.
“They all shone on bar mitzva day,” she said.
Port recalled that her son Adam was the first to have a bar mitzva under
Berger’s guidance at Agudath Achim.
“He was very kind and very gentle and very generous with his time and energy,” she said.
She said one of his specialties was writing letters of recommendations for students seeking summer jobs, career positions or entering college.
Port noted that Berger was given the distinction of rabbi laureate by Agudath Achim Congregation in 1997, the first time the congregation bestowed such an honor on its spiritual leader.
“He was a remarkable guy,” Schocker said.
Berger is survived by two sons, Joseph in Arizona and Michael in California; a brother, Ralph; and a grandchild. He was interred at Berger’s Shul Cemetery in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Contributions may be sent to Congregation Ahavath Israel, 1700 S. Taylor Road, Cleveland Heights, OH 44118.
(This story first appeared in the Altoona Mirror.)