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Legacy of Rabbi Sidney M. Berkowitz, The Rabbi in Mobile Right Before the Second World War

I was looking for information on Rabbi Sidney M. Berkowitz, who led our temple in the late 1930s. He had done a PhD in England in anticipation of teaching at HUC but the College needed to reserve its faculty positions for German Jews who were in great danger.

‘Legacy of Rabbi Sidney M. Berkowitz’ showcased in series

By Linda Linonis | September 3, 2016



Rabbi Sidney M. Berkowitz lived his life following a passage from Micah 6:8, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” He was spiritual leader of Congregation Rodef Sholom and an innovator in interfaith work and social justice.

His son, Roger M. Berkowitz, recently spoke on “The Legacy of Rabbi Sidney M. Berkowitz” as part of a series of speakers leading up to the 150th anniversary of the synagogue in May 2017. Rabbi Berkowitz served the temple from 1947 to 1982; he died a year after retiring.

Berkowitz said returning to Youngstown and the temple where he listened to his father regularly speak was a moving experience. “I can still picture him at the pulpit ... in a long black robe and black and gray morning trousers ... it was more formal then,” Berkowitz recalled.

The audience tallied about 150, a number that surprised Berkowitz, retired director of Toledo Museum of Art. After his talk, he said many who attended told him they knew his father or had heard stories about him. “It was wonderful to see that the congregation is vital,” Berkowitz said.

Rabbi Berkowitz was well-educated, earning a doctorate in medieval history at Cambridge University in England and studying at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the oldest Jewish seminary in the Americas for training in Reform Judaism. His son said it was his father’s “strong work ethic” and commitment to “doing the right thing” that garnered him admiration, allegiance and awards in the Youngstown community at large.

Berkowitz shared that his father had taken oration classes. “He was a wonderful preacher who had a brilliant mind,” he said. On the practical side, Berkowitz said his father kept sermons to 10 to 15 minutes long because the rabbi believed “you can’t save souls after 15 minutes.”

Rabbi Berkowitz, a native of Indiana, was a “credit to Hoosier values,” his son said. As an Army Air Corps chaplain in World War II, Berkowitz said his father suggested to Jewish soldiers to volunteer for duty on Christmas so that Christian soldiers could celebrate. “The story was picked up by the Associated Press,” he recalled.

“He was devoted to community and interfaith activities, where he put much of his energy,” Berkowitz said of his father. Rabbi Berkowitz served as chairman of Youngstown Interracial and Civil Liberties committees, Adult and Children Guidance clinics, Jewish Federation and Family Services. In the city, he served on the charter revue committee and task force on mental health and rehabilitation. He also was a chaplain in the police and fire departments. The rabbi also served the American Red Cross on state and national levels.

Rabbi Berkowitz also had ties to The Vindicator decades ago, when the late columnist Esther Hamilton had her annual Christmas program. The rabbi participated and asked contributors to be generous. The rabbi’s own generosity was questioned in tax audits by the IRS, “because he gave in excess of 20 percent” of his salary to charity, his son said.

The rabbi also collaborated with former Youngstown lawyer, Nathaniel Jones, a retired judge from U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on civil rights issues.

At the synagogue, which then had a membership of 800, Rabbi Berkowitz oversaw the opening of the educational wing and Tamarkin Chapel and refurbishing of the sanctuary.

Berkowitz said a treasured comment made about his father was by the late Jayne Thompson. She told Berkowitz that his father was “not only rabbi to the synagogue but rabbi to all of us.”

When Rabbi Berkowitz died, Bishop James W. Malone of Youngstown delivered the eulogy and clergy representing many religions attended. Youngstown Area Arts Council asked houses of worship to ring their bells in unison at 11 a.m., the time of his funeral.

Berkowitz said he believes his father’s life stands as an example of “finding one’s own faith and path.” Rabbi Berkowitz’s devotion to faith, commitment to causes, generosity and “doing the right thing” stands as an example to follow.

Rabbi Franklin Muller said the synagogue plans the 150th milestone event with special speakers and music. The anniversary is a time of reflecting on the past, appreciating the present and anticipating the future. “As we enter into a new era of time, let it be marked not only by celebration, but by a rededication on our part to the values and ideals of our faith,” Rabbi Muller wrote for the anniversary commemorative book.

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