Interview with Rabbi Harold Berman of Congregation Tifereth Israel on May 4,
1993 by Shirley Ann Jeffrey. This interview is a part of the Oral History
Project of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.

I’m glad to tell you a little about myself and I don’t know entirely how
relevant all of it is to Columbus Jewish history but I’ll say a little bit. I am
a native of Paterson, New Jersey. Both of my parents were born in Paterson, New
Jersey, as well, and were active in the local community. As you can tell, in my
office, I have pictures of both of my parents with information about them and
about their activities in the Jewish community as well as a sculpture that we
presented to my father for his service as President of the Jewish Community
Council, which was the forerunner of the Federation of what is now known as the
Jewish Federation of North Jersey.

My father was an active Federation leader and also served as President of the
Jewish Family Service and a variety of other agencies as well as being the
trustee of our congregation, the Conservative synagogue in which I grew up for
many years. My mother also was very active. She was much more active in
committee work than in holding top offices of things but was also a very active
community worker and she was particularly committed to education in general and
also to Jewish education, in particular.

I take the influence of caring about working for the Jewish community from my
parents, if not the religious inspiration. I did not grow up in a home that was
oriented around synagogue services or particular rituals of observance but I did
grow up in a home that took its Jewishness and its obligations to the Jewish
community very seriously. In some measure, I have to give credit for my
involvement in the activities that led most directly to the rabbinate, to my
older sister, who was the one who first became involved in the United Synagogue
Youth, the Conservative Movement youth group. She was an officer of our chapter
and introduced me to a lot of people in our northern New Jersey region. She
graduated from high school about the time I was really getting started and she
inspired me to keep on going. I became President of our chapter when very young
and moved on to become quite active in regional activities, to be a regional
officer, to visit Israel with United Synagogue Youths when I was sixteen and to
take from my United Synagogue Youth experiences, a strong desire not only to put
a great deal of Jewish observance in my life but also a strong desire to study
more and be a more knowledgeable Jew.

I moved from there to being involved in Hillel on my college campus where I
became very involved in Hillel campus activities. I served as President of
Hillel as a senior and took courses in Jewish studies. My sister also had been a
Hillel President but by that time, I wasn’t using her as a model anymore. I was
charging ahead on my own and somewhere around my junior year of college, after
many years of assuming that I was going to become a lawyer, which was what my
father was, and what I always seemed to be heading toward, I decided I really
was more interested in studying advanced Jewish studies and from some good role
models that I had, I decided that I was interested in the rabbinate. I applied
to the Jewish Theological Seminary, at the end of my junior year at college, was
accepted and after I graduated from Rutgers University, I attended the Jewish
Theological Seminary beginning in the summer of 1969 and I graduated in 1975.

I should also mention one very important formative bit of experience during
my seminary years, that was actually at the end of my fourth year in the
seminary. The opportunity became available to participate in a rather unique
experimental program of training a group of rabbinical students from various
seminaries together with clergy students from other religions in an interfaith
experience based, actually church or synagogue based, training program that was
just getting started in Washington, D.C., a program called Internet. I took the
opportunity to participate for a year. The seminary did not see it as a
multi-year program although other seminaries did. To the seminary, it was an
opportunity for one year and I took that opportunity for one year which was my
fifth year of seminary study.

I worked full-time as an assistant rabbi at a congregation which by
coincidence, was named Tifereth Israel, in Washington, D.C. I also participated
one day a week in a series of seminars and discussion programs with all of the
other student rabbis and clergy people from all of the different denominations
who were together as part of this InterMet program. What was so very significant
about that is that it really changed the focus of a lot of what I was doing. I
had previously been interested mostly in the organizational world and a lot of
student work that I had done for the United Synagogue was pushing me toward
organizational kinds of professional work. It was the year in Washington, D.C.,
my fifth year of rabbinical school, that really convinced me where the action
that I wanted would be found was in congregational life.

I came back after that year in Washington, D.C. and I served during my sixth
year at the seminary which was my last year. I also had a part-time pulpit in
which I served, in residence, as the Rabbi of Temple Emmanuel of Richfield Park,
New Jersey. When I finished that year and graduated from the seminary, I knew
that I wanted to be a pulpit Rabbi. I also knew that I wanted to get out of the
greater New York metropolitan region where I had spent most of my life prior to

My wife – we were married in 1973 – is also a native of Paterson, New Jersey.
We had known each other for many years standing, growing up. Our parents and
grandparents knew each other as well. We had both always lived in northern New
Jersey and had gone to school in New Jersey and New York and we decided to look
for something else. We were somewhat wined and dined and recruited by a
congregation in Benton Harbor, Michigan, southwestern Michigan. We decided to go
to Michigan for a first pulpit experience. We lived there from 1975 (right after
the seminary) for four years, through 1979.

Columbus has been a wonderful community for us. Congregation Tifereth Israel
has been a warm, gracious, welcoming place. The community has been one that has
been very receptive to me as Rabbi, as teacher and also involved in the

At different times, I’ve taken different opportunities to be involved. I
served for ten years on the Board of Trustees of the Columbus Jewish Federation.
I served three years, at different times, as President of the Columbus Board of
Rabbis. I served a little more than a year as chairman of the Community
Relations Committee of the Columbus Jewish Federation. I served in a number of
different offices and ultimately as President of Jewish Family Service. I have
also been involved in a variety of interfaith activities. I have been
specifically involved in a series of interfaith things that our congregation has
done with the black community, as part of a series of musical programs and in a
special relationship with the St. Paul A.M.E. Church which approached us about
two years ago because they were renovating their church and they were looking
for a place to hold their Sunday services. We worked an arrangement that they
held their Sunday services here and that began a very special friendship with
Pastor Michael Bean of the church and with a number of other people in the

We also have a special relationship on an ongoing series of programs – one of
which took place last week – with our neighbors, the Islamic Center of the
Islamic Foundation of Central Ohio and I have developed a very special, personal
relationship with Dr.Mazhar Jalil, who, for many years has been one of the
leading, active members of the Islamic Center.

I have been called upon to do a variety of civic things in terms of programs
for the city of Columbus and for the State of Ohio, prayers for a variety of
different occasions and I have tried to make myself available to do those
things. I think it is important, whenever possible, for the Jewish community to
show itself as an interested member and participant in a variety of things that
the non-Jewish community is doing.

Our congregation also has developed something of a relationship with our
neighborhood. I actually wish it was more of a relationship. Part of that
involves constraints of time and part of that involves a variety of different
issues that keep going by, some of which are clearly more important to some than
to others but we have, at times, tried to keep in touch with the Near East Area
Commission and involve ourselves as a part of our neighborhood. We’re proud of
the fact that our congregation has been in this location for more than
sixty-five years. We are, by far, the oldest, continuously, occupied and used
synagogue building in Columbus. We’re proud of our commitment to our location
and our commitment to the City of Columbus.

The commitment that our congregation has to the city of Columbus, includes
our building program several years ago. When I first came in 1979, the
congregation had not fully resolved its sense of whether we were permanently to
stay at this location. There were people who felt that we should and people who
strongly felt that we shouldn’t. One of my concerns was not making the final
decision and being committed to a final decision, had led to a hesitation in
making some necessary repairs, not to mention improvements in the building, yet
no real commitment to do anything else either. We held a series of meetings and
brought groups of people together and finally made a serious commitment and
reaffirmed a commitment to stay in the neighborhood. Once we did that, we made a
commitment to the fact that we needed to do both, necessary reaffirmed a
commitment to stay in the neighborhood. Once we did that, we made a commitment
to the fact that we needed to do both necessary improvements, enhancements and
enlargements of the building.

Ultimately, over the course of a few years, we raised over $3 million. We
spent about $3 1/2 million. We still have a bit of a mortgage but we’ve really done very
well. We rather dramatically expanded the synagogue building both to make it a
much more attractive place, to make it a much more functional building and also
to make a more dramatic commitment to our neighborhood and to the City of
Columbus. But of that acquisition of additional land which enabled us to expand
our building but also to expand our parking facility, and, at the same time, we
somewhat invisibly did some significant upgrading of the physical plant. The
invisible things were the heating, the air conditioning – the things one doesn’t
see that were clearly necessities after the building had been standing for well
over sixty years.

At this point, I’ve now been Rabbi of the congregation for almost a full 14
years. The congregation, six years ago, voted to extend a permanent contract
which runs until I reach the age of 65. The contract is scheduled to reach its
conclusion on my 65th birthday which is June 8, 2013. I have every intention of
celebrating when that day comes and look forward to, hopefully, sharing a lot of
things with the congregation. All things being equal, my plan certainly is to
continue living in Columbus and be Rabbi of the congregation for now almost 20
to go.

My children are very much a part of the congregation. As I mentioned, my
oldest was three when we moved to Columbus and my youngest was born here. My
oldest, by coincidence, is seventeen years old today, is now completing his
junior year of high school, and is beginning to look at colleges. He has been,
himself, very active in United Synagogue Youth which was my original influence
toward Jewish activity and Jewish study. He has had many other different kinds
of opportunities. We did take a sabbatical and lived in Israel for six months in
1988. My oldest three sons at that time, attended an Israeli school. My oldest,
Micah, has been very active in United Synagogue Youth and recently was elected
to serve as Executive Vice President of the central region which encompasses six
states with Ohio sort of in the middle. Micah is also an active Torah reader and
Bar Mitzvah teacher and is active in a variety of other ways.

David, who is our second oldest, wi11 be 15 next month. He is a student in
our Hebrew High School, is also involved in United Synagogue Youth and is
involved in a number of other Jewish community activities including the B’nai
Brith Youth Organization. Jordan, who is 12 years old, will become a Bar Mitzvah

Next February 19, 1994, Our youngest, Adam, was born in December of 1989.
He’s almost 3 1/2 years old and though he has not been involved in major Jewish
youth organizations and Jewish community activities, so far, he has a lot of it
in his upbringing and a lot of it surrounding him. We look forward to his
involvement in many of the same things that have been special to his older

My wife, Beth, has been involved in a number of Columbus community activities
and organizations, particularly the Tifereth Israel Sisterhood and Hadassah. She
has also been involved in a number of Federation activities and recently has
returned more actively to her professional work. She is, by training, a nurse
and a nurse educator. During the past several years, Beth has worked continously
as a nurse in various units of Children’s Hospital and recently accepted a
part-time job, working in the Employee Health Department at Children’s Hospital.

The family has become very much a Columbus family and we are very proud to
be. I am very proud to say that some of our best friends and some of our most
precious memories are in Columbus.

Last fall, the Sisterhood of the congregation held a special dinner to raise
money for the Torah Fund for the Jewish Theological Seminary but also to honor
my 13th year with the congregation. It was a very special and warm celebration
with friends and members of the community.

I think, as a practical matter, that’s most of the story that
we have to tell. We started off very much as Easterners and made our way to the
Midwest. The Midwest has become home and we look forward to Columbus and the
Midwest being home for a long time.

Interviewer: Thank you, rabbi Berman, for sharing your personal life
experiences with the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.