The board, faculty, and staff of the Shalom Hartman Institute mourn the passing of long time board member Paul Berger, z’l who passed away on January 4, 2023 (11 Tevet 5783) at the age of 90.
I don’t remember the first time I met Paul, but I cannot forget our 30 years of learning and conversations together. Paul was deeply moved by the original idea and mission on which my father founded the institute – to create an Orthodoxy which would be pluralistic and intellectually rigorous, empowering of individual choice, and which integrated tradition with the best of modernity. For him, the Institute was first and foremost the Beit Midrash from which a new 20th century Torah was emerging. Paul believed that this Torah could and would inspire a renaissance in Jewish life.
Also like my father, Paul had no patience for mediocrity. He wanted to be intellectually challenged and was constantly searching to learn and expand his understanding, knowledge, and sensitivity. To teach in the presence of Paul demanded extra rigor and preparation. It was challenging and at the same time exhilarating.
As the Institute grew and expanded, Paul was a constant voice cautioning us not to abandon our original mission, one that he did not want us to forget or neglect. Over the years as the Institute emerged as a multi-denominational center of Torah, and expanded into teacher and leadership training in Israel and North America, he challenged us to never stop developing new, sophisticated, high level Torah. And as we increasingly engaged in dealing with the spiritual, moral, and intellectual challenges of our time, he reminded us that there would be no relationship with Israel and the Jewish people if Jews were not seriously engaged with Judaism itself.
Paul was blessed with a unique mind, but he was an even more unique mensch. The love, care and dedication he bestowed upon his wife Debbie z”l throughout her torturous illness was a model of kindness and goodness. We knew that we were in the presence of greatness.
When Paul spoke, everyone listened. As he watched the Institute develop, he came to appreciate and even embrace new directions, but with the caveat that it be balanced and never neglect the original mission, which he believed was as relevant today as it was decades ago.
A number of years ago at the end of a board meeting in Jerusalem, Paul said to me: “Donniel, your father would be proud of what you are doing.” It was his way of expressing his support. Every year afterwards, those were his parting words to me. With Paul’s blessing, I knew the Institute was on solid ground.
Paul was an individual who made everyone better, and everywhere he was, a better place. He was a blessing in his life. May his name continue to be a blessing.
Read more about Paul Berger in the Washington Jewish Week.