Profile of Rabbi Berman Taking Over OU Israel Center as War Breaks Out

25 Oct 2006




The following is a full-sized profile of Rabbi Avi Berman, the new Director General of the Orthodox Union in Israel, who was propelled into action on his fourth day on the job, when war broke out in Israel. His exciting story shows the leadership he provided, with the full backing and financial support of the OU, to aid Israelis in distress.

We recommend it to you, especially for your weekend magazines or for your websites.

Rabbi Berman can be reached at the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem at 566-7787, or

When Rabbi Avi Berman began his new job in mid-July as Director General of the Orthodox Union in Israel, having just returned to Israel where he grew up following five years in Vancouver, Canada, he didn’t have the traditional period of several weeks to adjust to his position, meet his staff, settle in to his new home, plan activities and programs, and just catch his breath after moving a family of seven thousands of miles. Just four days after he started on the job, Israel’s war against Hezbollah began.

“My original plan was to take my first two months and visit all the OU programs in Israel. That idea did not last more than four days,” he declared.

Talk about on the job training!

What have I gotten myself into?” he thought. “The northern cities are not at all prepared for this! What do we have to do now? Provide food? Games? Shelter? Help get the population out of there?” Immediately, Rabbi Berman geared up the OU’s Seymour J. Abrams Jerusalem World Center, where OU Israel is based, for war. Working with Israel Center President Yitzchak Fund, Rabbi Berman instituted a series of programs to bring aid and comfort to the beleaguered people in bomb shelters, or who were forced to leave their homes and proceed south.

That was not all Rabbi Berman had to do. The OU’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) had several summer groups in Israel, with their activities revolving around the Israel Center. He also had to return to Vancouver for the Maccabi Games being held there. Many days, he worked literally around the clock. “Sleep? What is that?” Rabbi Berman wondered. “A good night was about three hours. Between the war, NCSY summer programs, settling in, moving, getting the kids into schools, buying furniture, the Vancouver Maccabi Games, starting a new job…I really had no time to think.”

Rabbi Berman’s results showed that even with little time to reflect, he was prepared for action. He sent an email to OU offices in New York. OU President Stephen J. Savitsky, Executive Vice President Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, and Eliezer Edelman, Executive Director of Operations and Management, “responded so fast and started putting funds together so efficiently that I realized that I was dealing with a true leader of the Jewish people. That is the biggest advantage of an international organization, such as the OU.”

Rabbi Berman’s Background:

Rabbi Berman had served the OU for the previous five years in Vancouver, British Columbia, on the West Coast of Canada, having been hired based on his reputation for youth work. Born in Brooklyn, NY, Avi Berman and his family made aliyah when he was nine years old, living in Kedumim, Maaleh Adumim, and Har Nof. He went to high school in Ohr Etzion and Hesder Yeshiva in Shilo. After finishing his army service, he went back to Yeshivat Shilo and studied for semicha for four years. For 12 years, his personal Rav was Israel’s then-Chief Rabbi, Mordechai Eliyahu.

While in Shilo, Avi Berman ran the Bnei Akiva post-high school Midrash Torah and Avodah program – taking annual recruiting trips to South Africa and Australia. These trips “went very well,” Rabbi Berman recalls, “and the program reached its full capacity.”

Rabbi Berman’s reputation for youth work at Bnei Akiva preceded him, leading to the offer to come to Vancouver. He left with Rabbi Eliyahu’s blessing to stay for two years, which was extended to three and then eventually to five. Rabbi Steven Burg, National Director of NCSY, was so impressed with Rabbi Berman that he hired him based only on a phone interview. Rabbi Burg’s judgment proved to be right on the mark.
“Avi Berman is a powerhouse,” declared Rabbi Burg. “In five years in Vancouver he took a chapter of 30 and built it into a chapter of 500.” The chapter became a Region, expanding from Vancouver to American cities in the Pacific Northwest such as Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon and to the Western Canadian cities of Edmonton and Calgary.

The “Powerhouse” Returns to Israel:

Fortunately for the OU, the Vancouver powerhouse was on the scene in Israel when hostilities began; he demonstrated the same energy and resourcefulness in war as in peace.

After touring the North, Rabbi Berman wrote: “Major cities like Haifa, Tiberias, Tzefat and Nahariya were shocked into paralysis for fear of a deadly strike. We walked through the cities during the day and noticed that no stores were open for almost the entire month. Where were the kids playing? Where was the hustle and bustle of thriving city centers? The answer was that many families had fled southwards; others, less fortunate, were stuck in public shelters for most of the war.”

Rabbi Berman and his staff quickly recruited 700 volunteers who went north to the bomb shelters, bringing entertainment for the kids and food and other supplies as well as entertainment for the adults. “During the war itself, the OU joined many organizations which provided the basics for those who could not afford to buy them, or for those who could not leave their shelters to purchase things on their own,” he wrote following the war. The Israel Center in Jerusalem itself became a gathering place for refugees, and brought in volunteers to assemble packages and to perform other activities to assist the people of the North.

After the Missiles Stopped Falling:

When the missiles stopped falling and other organizations went home, the Israel Center adjusted its programming to meet post-war needs. Rabbi Berman had asked himself throughout the hostilities, “Who will be there to help these stricken communities recover after the war? The question occupied my mind during these fateful days. At that point, I decided that the OU’s involvement in the North was not going to be fleeting, that we would find money, invest in each community, and not leave, at least until we saw that every child was receiving proper attention, proper care.”

“Baruch Hashem, our initial plans came through and the Israel Center has already started implementing its many programs throughout the North during the past month; we expect to exponentially increase them in the months and years to come. We call these programs Project Tzafona (To the North),” Rabbi Berman said.

The programs emphasize healing, particularly for the children. OU psychological teams are working in schools throughout the North using the sophisticated techniques of their profession to provide counseling in larger and then in smaller groups. In addition, the OU, with its partner, United Jewish Communities, is creating centers for children and adults offering psychological support and comfort. Another program, Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) is setting up facilities in six cities in the North to function as walk-in centers for adults, providing them with places to learn and to engage in discussions and Jewish activities.

“We’re Going to Be There”:

“OU Israel was there from the start, and we are going to be there day in and day out during the foreseeable future,” Rabbi Berman declared. He expresses great pride about “the caring and love that our staff and volunteers give to the people of the North.”

Now, in addition to his relief work in the North and day-by-day programming at the Israel Center, Rabbi Berman is preparing to welcome hundreds of North Americans to the OU Biennial National Convention, to be held in Jerusalem, November 22-26, Thanksgiving Weekend in the United States. The Israel Center will play a major role in Convention programming. He sends this message to those who will be coming:

“As your family in Israel, the people of the Israel Center will do whatever it takes to make sure you get a chance to see some of our accomplishments as well as to have a great and inspiring time. We look forward to seeing you in November.”