For those who have followed the war in Iraq closely, one haunting specter remains sharply etched in memory: the grainy image of Nicholas Berg, a young Jew, captured by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and his terrorist mob, seated on the floor moments before his life was fiendishly extinguished by the black-hooded, knife-wielding figure hovering over him.
The cruel and bitter malice of the scene, graphically depicted on the Internet and in the press, still makes one’s blood run cold. The reports evoked a variety of reactions about the brutality of the bloodthirsty assailants, about the depravity of a culture that could elicit such demonic savagery, and about the wisdom of a war to prevent such atrocities.

Largely missing from those assessments, however, was any sustained and revealing attention to the victim himself. The media failed to grasp an essential core element in the life of Nicholas Berg. That core ingredient was overlooked because it was unknown even to most of Nick’s family and friends who provided the media with background information.

The fact is that Nicholas Berg was an extraordinary Jew in the fullest sense of the term, a 26-year-old ba’al teshuva both in principle and in practice, who made heroic efforts to comply with the dictates of his emerging faith. Most remarkable is that the impulse to embrace normative Judaism came to him entirely from within – a spontaneous but measured response of an exceptional heart and mind.


This account, appearing as it does just before the second yahrzeit of Nicholas Berg on 16 Iyar (corresponding to May 14 this year), is an attempt to articulate the missing Jewish perspective on his life. From any vantage point, his short life was distinguished by unusual accomplishment; from a purely Jewish point of view, the course of his life was meteoric. Nicholas Berg lived and died in a trajectory that originated in the saga of Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac on the altar as a sacrifice. He belonged to the lustrous chain of Jewish martyrdom over the ages, of mekadshei Hashem who sanctified God’s name by maintaining their faith even while surrendering their souls.

The facts of Nicholas Berg’s personal development are well documented. Born in 1978, he grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania. His father, Michael, a retired high school instructor (now running as a Green party candidate for Congress from Delaware), and his mother, Suzanne, a craftswoman, were liberal humanitarians who cared about the disenfranchised but whose secular home was devoid of religious content.

Nick was given no Hebrew name; he was called Nicholas in honor of a deceased grandfather, Nachum. Providentially, Nicholas was circumcised – sans brit milah – after Michael concluded that it was medically desirable.

Nicholas was blessed with rare intelligence, versatility, and athleticism. In college, he embarked on bodybuilding to the point where he became, in the words of one friend, a “solid slab of muscle” who “could not flex his arm without ripping his shirt.”

Another companion testified that “Nick was more than brilliant; he could make something out of nothing.” Improvisation became his forte. The ingenious electronic and mechanical devices he invented were astonishing. Nick’s father recalls Nick creating a prefabricated radio tower made of interlocking concrete blocks that reached a height of 190 feet. He wanted to name the product after the Tower of Babel. They found the Hebrew word, sounding out the letters b-b-l-(bet-vet-lamed) and, in the patent application, designated the name of the tower as BOVL.

In the spring of 1998 Nick traveled to Uganda as part of a student exchange program. Working in an impoverished village, he invented a brick-making machine. Soon the villagers moved from their grass huts into brick homes. By the time he left, he had literally created an industry – the villagers were selling bricks to other villages.


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Rabbi Dr. Don Well is president of Jewell Institute educational consultants and teaches at Touro College. A respected educator, lecturer and author, he has served as dean of undergraduate Jewish studies at Yeshiva University, executive vice-president of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York and president of the Hebrew Theological College of Skokie, Illinois.