Lanie Berger, 21, is a junior at the University of Maryland double majoring in business management and Jewish studies. Raised in Sandy Springs, Ga., she serves as the gabbai of Neshama, U-Md.’s Conservative-style community, and as the artistic director of Avirah, a student Israeli-dance company.
What’s your family’s background?
My dad’s parents were Holocaust survivors. They actually met in a concentration camp. My grandpa was Ashkenazi from Croatia. He was basically orphaned and on his own during high school. He ended up finding a relative and they made the decision to turn themselves in to the Italians rather than subject themselves to Nazi control in Croatia.
That ended up saving their lives. So they ended up in an Italian-run concentration camp, which was a huge anomaly. My grandmother and her family, Sephardi from Serbia, had done the same thing. My mom converted, so she doesn’t have Jewish family history, but she’s very proud to be Jewish.
So what’s your background?
My brother and I both went to a K-8 Jewish school. The summer between eighth and ninth grade, I went to Duke TIP [Talent Identification Program]. Suddenly I had to explain to random people why I wasn’t eating the bacon. The act of having to explain made me want to be more observant. Then I went to a very Jewish public high school. I realized that being Jewish wasn’t being fed to me like it had been at day school, so I felt the need to do it myself. Around Rosh Hashanah of ninth grade, I started keeping a much stricter level of kosher and I stopped working on Shabbat to a certain extent.
What brought you to the University of Maryland?
I wanted adult Jewish knowledge that I didn’t receive in day school. So I was looking for schools with Jewish studies programs. There were public school Jewish study programs in Georgia and I wanted to go out of state. Mom and I were like, we should just tour Maryland, even if it’s not my first choice, because it’s so well known for having a big Jewish community and being so good to Jewish Studies. So I did, I loved it and my whole perspective changed. Now I’m a Jewish Studies major and very involved with Hillel. Maybe not in the way I thought it would be, but it all worked out.
My favorite Jewish studies class was the first one I took here, about the American Jewish experience. It’s taught by Professor Marsha Rozenblit. It made me realize that I really liked learning history, specifically American Jewish history, and helped me understand why I do what I do as an American Jew.
What’s something interesting you learned about the American Jewish experience?
Many people would assume that because Conservative Judaism is more strict and more traditional than Reform Judaism, it emerged first. But actually, Reform Judaism broke off from Orthodoxy first. It was much less observant than it is now, the men wouldn’t even wear kippahs. From there, a number of people decided Reform Judaism had gone too far and took a step back, hence why it’s conserving Judaism. Conservative Judaism came out of the Reform movement, not Orthodoxy.
You dance and sing. Does Judaism play a role in that?
I love Jewish music, like singing songs on Shabbat, the way Jewish music makes you feel. I have become quite inspired by Israeli dance in recent years. Israeli folk dance is supposed to be shared with people, not just performed. For example, one of the songs I’m using in my choreography this year is “Heaven’s Eyes” from “Prince of Egypt,” which my brother and I watch every year on Passover. It definitely feels like a full-circle moment.