Paul Berger, a ‘Founding Father’ of D.C. Jewish community, dies at 90

Paul S. Berger. Courtesy Jewish Federation of Greater Washington

Paul S. Berger, an attorney who used his expertise in tax law to build and strengthen the Jewish community of Greater Washington, and who played an influential role in steering community affairs, died on Jan. 4 in North Bethesda. He was 90.

“He was one of the founding fathers of the local Jewish community,” said Michael Gelman, a former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, a position also held by Berger.

Berger was a tough boss in the tax department of what is today Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLC. But he was self-effacing when receiving accolades from the Jewish community.

At his funeral, Meryl Berger Rosenberg, one of his two daughters, demonstrated how he lowered his head and shielded his eyes when receiving an award.

He so often turned the conversation away from himself that those close to him were surprised when he mentioned tidbits of his life, such as the fact that he was on the planning committee of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington.

A longtime member, with his late wife, Debra, of Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Berger was involved in a host of Jewish organizations, in particular The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, where he was president in the 1970s. He moved on to the executive committee and provided pro bono legal services for decades until shortly before his death. He was also a past chair and trustee emeritus of Federation’s Jewish Community Foundation.

“Paul continued to serve Federation as counsel in a pro bono basis, and stayed involved and active in day-to-day work of Federation through that position,” said David Butler, a former Federation president. “Most former presidents were less involved after their presidencies. Paul was an exception in that regard.”

“He didn’t just give legal counsel; he gave mentor and friend counsel and advice,” added Stuart Kurlander, a former Federation president.

Berger was the first board president of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and was later the chairman emeritus of the school’s board of governors.

He also served the broader Jewish community as national vice-chairman and trustee of United Jewish Appeal (now Jewish Federations of North America), and board and executive committee member of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).

“He wasn’t the kind of leader who imposed his views,” said Susie Gelman, a former Federation president. “He was always willing to listen to other people and take into account the views of others.”

(Susie Gelman, Michael Gelman, David Butler and Stuart Kurlander are members of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, publisher of Washington Jewish Week.)

Berger was a proud Zionist and rubbed elbows with and provided guidance to Israel’s government and to some of the state’s early leaders. In an interview with WJW last September, he recalled playing tennis and drinking beer with Israel’s then-ambassador to Washington, Yitzhak Rabin, who served two stints as prime minister until he was assassinated in 1995.

According to Gil Preuss, CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Berger’s legacy extends beyond his professional accomplishments to “the impact that he had on so many lives, not just kind of the impact that he had in his work, but the one-on-one, the kindness that he showed, the way that he made people feel better about themselves, and both challenged them to do and be better and supported them in that process.”

“He was the smartest guy in the room,” said Federation President Samuel Kaplan who, like Berger, is an Ohr Kodesh congregant.

As the “sage of the Jewish community, he knew everything that was happening and had an uncanny ability to put it into historical context,” Kaplan said. “There was nothing new under the sun to Paul.”

That deep knowledge of the community aided Kaplan as head of Federation. He said Berger conveyed a sense of “controlled urgency,” the sign of a man who wasn’t slowing down and was still interested in getting things done.

“I’d call him and ask for the name of an attorney for something we were working on,” Kaplan said. “Ten minutes later I’d get a call — ‘Paul told me to call you right away.’ And then Paul would follow up with me.”

‘Keep the shul open’

Paul Berger was born in 1932 in Dickson City, Pennsylvania, a coal mining town near Scranton with few Jews. Before the Great Depression, his father had been the head of the town bank. One of Berger’s favorite stories was of his father saying he had only one request of him, “to keep the shul open.”

Throughout his life, whatever that “shul” might have been, Berger strived to keep it open.

“And I attribute that to what I’ve been doing in the Jewish world here and overseas,” he told WJW. “It’s my effort to keep my father’s request.”

After winning a debate competition in high school, Berger was granted a scholarship to Scranton University, where he studied philosophy before moving to New York to attend New York University Law School. Berger moved to Washington in 1957.

In Washington, he became part of the establishment of the tax department of what was then Arnold, Fortes & Porter. He retired as a senior partner in 1997.

A year after arriving in Washington, Berger married Debra Joyce, who in 1982 founded Project Interchange, which arranged educational seminars and visits to Israel for American and international leaders. The couple were married for 49 years until Debra’s death in 2010.

Their marriage was Berger’s proudest achievement, said his son, Louis Berger. Berger would often beam and say, “I married my girlfriend!”

Berger invested deeply in time with his family, though he sometimes had trouble detaching from work. His children recall him bringing a portable fax machine with him on family vacations to plug in at their destination.

“He always felt he could do more, and should do more and he wished he had done more,” said daughter Jessica Berger Weiss.


Serious study

Berger was “a model Zionist,” Ohr Kodesh’s Rabbi Emeritus Lyle Fishman said at the funeral. “His support for the state of Israel did not waver from 1948 until today.”

Fishman was not only Berger’s rabbi — he was his study partner as the two wrestled over Jewish texts together, and Berger wrestled with the challenges of living as a believing Jew.

“Paul fought against lashon hara — speaking against other people,” Fishman said. Berger quoted Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the charismatic and prolific Chabad scholar, who called the sin “Telling the truth unnecessarily.”

Steinsaltz was only one of Berger’s teachers. Another was David Hartman, the liberal Orthodox founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Berger “studied seriously in Israel in 1980-1981” when the family took a sabbatical to Jerusalem, Fishman said.

Though sometimes a sore loser at backgammon, a game he long enjoyed, Berger had a good sense of humor. He loved chocolate and loved meat even more, arranging for pick-ups at kosher butchers wherever he traveled. In spots without a kosher butcher, Berger would bring his own meat on the plane, which would, at times inevitably, thaw on the flight.

Berger is survived by his children, Meryl Berger Rosenberg (Sam), Dr. Jessica Berger Weiss (Jeffrey) and Louis Berger (Mindy); grandchildren, Zachary (Carrie), Rebecca (Chad), Arielle, Joshua, Talia, Benjamin, Jacob, Nathan and Lila; and great-grandchildren, Darren, Lainey and Annie.

Donations may be made to The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington (, the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School ( or Project Interchange (

“In more recent years, I enjoyed visiting Paul, whether at his office, where he would host me for a delicious lunch, or at his apartment in North Bethesda,” Susie Gelman said. “What struck me about those meetings was Paul’s prodigious memory — he could recount every conversation, every meeting — and he had such a long and interesting life in which he engaged with so many notable people. He was quite the raconteur, and I will treasure the memory of those conversations.”

In one of their later sessions together, Berger asked Fishman who he thought would be the recognized Jewish leaders of the next generation.

Even this late in life, Berger was trying to push ahead with a sense of controlled urgency. As Fishman said at the funeral, “He asked that those leaders be recognized rabbinic scholars who are open to the world in the 21st century.” ■

WJW Editor David Holzel contributed to this story.

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