This Sunday, Yeshiva University is honoring Rabbi Julius Berman for 50 years of community service. Currently the chairman of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, honorary president of the Orthodox Union, and chairman of the board of trustees of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school (RIETS), Rabbi Berman has headed a dozen Jewish organizations over the last five decades while also working in the law firm of Kaye Scholer, where he has been a partner since 1967.
Aside from being the first Orthodox Jewish layman to head the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (1982-1984), Rabbi Berman is also well known for the close relationship he shared with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (popularly called “the Rav”), who ordained him in 1959.
The Jewish Press: How did you wind up in Rav Soloveitchik’s shiur in Yeshiva University?
Rabbi Berman: On the eve of my bar mitzvah, my father got a letter from his uncle in Israel, Rav Avraham Bender [whose grandson, Rav Yaakov Bender, currently heads Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway]. In the letter, he wrote two things: a) “I’m sending some sefarim for Yudl” – which is my Yiddish name – and b) “I’m making a commitment that when he gets into Rav Chazzan’s shiur [in Torah Vodaath] or Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik’s shiur [in RIETS], I’m going to send him a Shas.”
Well, I had never heard of the name Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik at that time, but sure enough, I went to Torah Vodaath for high school, to college in YU, and eventually ended up in the Rav’s shiur.
And you immediately developed a relationship with Rav Soloveitchik?
Well, I got into the Rav’s shiur when I was going for semicha. The class was overflowing because everybody wanted to get into the shiur. So a bunch of us – the ones who came for the first time – were sitting all the way in the back because you couldn’t get to the front. It probably was good because everybody was so frightened that if they would say something stupid, the Rav would tell them it was stupid.
After the first year, though, a whole group left the shiur because they were getting semicha. So we, the ones in the back, moved all the way up. I recall distinctly that we were all sitting there, waiting for the Rav to walk in for the first day of shiur. He walks in, we of course jump up, he sits down at a table, and almost the first thing he says is, “Ver vill sagen? – Who wants to say?”
Suddenly everyone put their heads down, avoiding eye contact, because they were so nervous about saying [the Gemara]. Rav Soloveitchik repeated, “Ver vill sagen?” Again, no contact at all. He started getting a little frustrated and started looking on his desk for the list of names of the people in the class. He couldn’t find it, and I felt for him, so I pointed to where the roll book was. He misunderstood me, though, and said, “Oh, du vill sagen? Sag! – You want to say? Say!” And day after day, since I was the only name he knew, he said, “Berman sag – Berman say.” So that was my “initiation” into the shiur.
Earlier this year, some Jewish Press readers – reacting to an article by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin – criticized Rav Soloveitchik for being so harsh and forbidding in the classroom. Others readers countered that Rav Soloveitchik’s shiur was a form of intellectual boot camp and that his harshness was designed to inspire excellence from his students. What’s your take on the issue?