In the early 1970s, Paul S. Berger shared a good friendship with the Israeli ambassador, Yitzhak Rabin. They played tennis together — an encased Uzi on the court, no guards — then drank beers at Berger’s.
Berger, now a retired senior law partner and pro bono counsel to The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, has continued to sit on executive committees serving at the highest levels in the Jewish organizational world. He has represented the government of Israel on its economic relationship with the United States.
He just turned 90 and he’s not one to speak about his long string of contributions. Nor does he like to get recognized for them, which he has often. He finds it “embarrassing,” and has even planted his forehead on the board room table, not looking up until the praises subside.
His father, Louis Berger, motivated him to give his all to the Jewish community. He grew up modern Orthodox in the small town of Dickson City, Pa., near Scranton. His father was a bank head before the Depression, then turned grocer.
“We had a small beit knesset [synagogue] and my father asked one thing of me in his life and that was to keep the shul open. And I attribute that to what I’ve been doing in the Jewish world here and overseas. It’s my effort to keep my father’s request.”
Those who know him well say there is much more to his desire to help the Jewish people, but Berger insisted that his father, whose early death brought pain and sadness, was his inspiration. “Fulfilling my dad’s request. I adored my father. That’s enough.”
The North Bethesda resident was married 49 years to Debra J. Berger, who died in 2010. They have three children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Berger is proud of his wife’s work as founder of Project Interchange.
“They take up and coming leaders to Israel, primarily from the United States, but also from abroad. I’m still involved with that as a member of the board. It’s a great legacy that she left.”
Berger gets involved in “those things that I think are important.” He was the first board president of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and now chairman emeritus of school’s board of governors. “I believed so much and I still believe in the importance of day school education.
“I invited community leaders to a dinner with Ambassador Rabin where he told them, without Jewish education, there would be no support for Israel and the United States. The only one there who was attracted to that message was Charles E. Smith of the Smith Company and from that time on, he became involved.”
Berger also served as chairman of the budget finance committee of the Jewish Agency when Russian and Ethiopian Jews poured in as new olim.
He advised the Israeli government in a legal capacity and every living prime minister of Israel paid tribute to him at a meeting in Israel, thanking him for his behind-the-scenes work.
Berger came to Washington D.C., after law school at New York University, where he still sits on the board. He started as a tax lawyer and moved on to international law. He was the 19th lawyer to join Arnold & Porter, which now employs over 1,000 attorneys with offices around the world.
What does his knowledge of law bring to Jewish communal work? “There’s the development of analytical capacity which allows me to understand things. That understanding helps me do what I need to do. You’ve got to do the best you can and give the best advice you can to be truthful.”
There has been a vast improvement in professional and lay Jewish leadership since he started volunteering in the 1970s, he said. “The current leadership has been very strong which is an improvement over what it had been early in my time in the 70s. The lay leadership then was weak. It was difficult to get people involved. It was a different ball game.”
Berger joined the Conservative Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase more than 40 years ago. “It’s a very friendly, collegial warm environment.” He still studies with Rabbi Emeritus Lyle Fishman.
Of his long dedication to the Jewish community, he says “It’s been a wonderful continuing experience. I’ve always tried to do something in which I thought I had an interest and this could make a difference.”