*Editor’s note: The following speech was delivered at the funeral of Leon Berger by his middle son Hart Berger.*
My father was blessed with a long life, and what a life it has been.
Born in pre-world war two Poland, my father attended a Tarbut school where he began a lifelong love of the Hebrew language. His education was disrupted by the outbreak of the war. After spending the war years in Siberia, my father returned to Germany where he finished his education and began work as a teacher.
He told me many times he wanted to teach the young people after the war because he did not want them to lose their education. He told me that he was in a public square in Germany when the loudspeakers announced on May 14, 1948 the establishment of the state of Israel. He said that was such a happy day for him with people singing and dancing. I mention that memory because it is an example of how far back his life covered.
Coming to Canada in 1949 and getting married, my father began a teaching career that was the longest in the history of the Jewish school system. My father loved teaching because he was very good at it. He had a complete command of the subject matter. He taught thousands of students until 1996. When in Winnipeg, my father learned to read the Torah melodies. He practiced those Torah notes until he mastered them. My father would continue to prepare hundreds of boys for bar mitzvah. He was considered the top bar mitzvah teacher of his time. He prepared me and he got me to read the entire parashah. He was very happy that bar mitzvah day.
Being a Hebrew teacher did not pay that great in the 1950’s, so my father became head of the teachers union to try to improve work conditions. In the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s he would work 3 jobs, Talmud Torah day school, night school and private lessons for bar mitzvah preparation. And then in 1981, Rabbi Neal Rose heard my father read the Torah at the Beth Israel Synagogue and was so impressed, he asked my father if he would like to become the regular Torah reader at Beth Israel Synagogue. That began a 33-year Torah reading career that continued until my father’s 2014 year retirement. He was considered the top Torah reader that anyone has seen in Winnipeg. Not only knowing the notes, but knowing the entire content of what he was reading. He could stop and discuss what was the weekly parashah effortlessly and he did so whenever he filled in for the rabbi on vacation.
My father was honoured in June 2012 by this synagogue with the wonderful title of Moreh Le Dorot, Teacher to the Generations. When we were present at the synagogue on Sep. 10 for Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Kliel was so kind to refer to my father from the Bimah as the legendary teacher, and he was. His accomplishments will never be matched; my father was the last of his kind. The training and history and culture of the Old World Europe brought to New World Canada. He used to remark to me that he began by seeing horse and carriage travel in his childhood, and when he retired, he was in the digital age having me send emails and reading newspaper stories online.
My father loved teaching, loved reading Torah, loved the synagogue. He was respected as a leader and elder of the synagogue community. He loved his house on Forest Park, with its forest of lilac trees in the backyard, the true forest of forest park. He loved his daily walks, and when he could not walk anymore, then he loved his wheelchair ride around Forest Park, as recently as Nov. 5 when it got too cold outside.
And he LOVED his annual vacation to Miami Beach. As a teacher you get two weeks break before New Year’s, so as a family we would go to Miami Beach every year for two weeks. After he retired from teaching, the two weeks became two months. In Miami Beach, the Winnipeg winter was forgotten and my father could socialize with lots of American Jews his age who were also spending the winter away from the cold.
In Miami Beach in Jan. 2013, at age 90, we came to synagogue on Shabbat Tu Bishvat morning. Kliel was the Rabbi and my father walked up the steps to the bimah and sang the most beautiful rendition of Tu Bishvat Higia for his birthday. It was his favorite song because Tu Bishvat is his birthday. Whenever we wanted to cheer him up, we would ask him to sing it. He knew all the words. So in his honour, I will sing the opening verse. Tu Bishvat Higia…….
Finally, he loved his family and wanted them to be safe and healthy. Every Sep., he filled out and mailed Rosh Hashanah cards to his family and he looked forward to leading the Passover Seder every year. My father was a very independent man and wanted to live his life at home, not go to a nursing home. So I promised him that I would look after him and not abandon him after my mother died. I kept my promise and became his caregiver. It was an honour. We kept as active as possible. We went to see his favorite singer Tony Bennett when he came to Winnipeg in 2014. My father even voted on Oct. 24 for mayor. The Jewish election workers at the high school polling station were amazed to see “the MR. BERGER” still actively voting. We never missed a High Holiday service and he was provided with all he needed to still live at home.
He and I received wonderful help from a team of Filipina caregivers. They treated my father like their own family and called him LOLO, which means grandpa in their language. My father and I thank so much Emelita Marasigan, Carolyne Urbiztondo, Sheila La Rosa, Benilda Leonor, Lovely Agbay, Elizabeth Garcia, Arlene Alvarez,, Bella Reyes, Marietta Ocampo, Ivan Kunets, and Lita. You made it possible to live at home and enjoy a good quality life.
My father had an incredible life. He had a vast amount of knowledge to bring to teaching, the synagogue and to his community. He cannot be replaced, he was one of a kind.
Moreh le Dorot
You wanted to come home. You are home now. See you in heaven one day.
I love you