Rabbi William Berkowitz, a longtime pulpit rabbi and communal leader here, and founder of a popular dialogue series that featured public interviews with hundreds of major politicians and other prominent figures, died in his Manhattan home on Feb. 3 of natural causes. He was 83.
Rabbi Berkowitz, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun for more than three decades, until his retirement in 1984, founded the Dialogue Forum Series, which sponsored discussions between the rabbi and some 500 individuals who ranged from Menachem Begin and Elie Wiesel to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rev. Jerry Falwell.
The dialogue series, which began in 1951 and quickly outgrew B’nai Jeshurun, later met in such locations as Lincoln Center, Town Hall and the Beacon Theatre, drawing crowds of 4,000-5,000 people.
The dialogues, which always touched on aspects of Jewish life, “enabled people who were working [outside Jewish circles] to appreciate the richness of Jewish life,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, which Rabbi Berkowitz had served as president. “Bill Berkowitz was a great communicator.”
The rabbi’s last guest in the dialogue series, in 2005, was Nobel laureate Shimon Peres, the current president of Israel.
Rabbi Berkowitz ended the dialogues, said his son, Rabbi Perry Berkowitz, in order to work on several writing projects. The author of six previous books, the late rabbi did not complete the other manuscripts before his death said his son, president and founder of the American Jewish Heritage Organization, a New York-based outreach and educational group.
“He was deeply devoted to the issues of the Jewish people, the needs of the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Perry Berkowitz. “He was a Jewish renaissance man.”
The senior Berkowitz served as president of several Jewish organizations, including Bnai Zion, the Jewish National Fund, Histadrut Ivrit and the New York chapter of Israel Bonds.
“He tried to bring different components of the Jewish people together,” said Rabbi Potasnik. “He was a great proponent of dialogue, on many levels.”
A native of Philadelphia, Rabbi Berkowitz attended Gratz College and Temple University. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he received the Homiletics Prize in his senior year, his son said. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
While working at B’nai Jeshurun, Rabbi Berkowitz helped established the first Solomon Schechter day school in Manhattan, an extensive adult education program at his synagogue, and pre-recorded radio broadcasts of his Friday evening Shabbat services. He and the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach led an annual Purim learning concert that drew large crowds.
“Only at Dad’s B’nai Jeshurun on Purim night would 3,000-5,000 people come to be with him and Reb Shlomo Carlebach and you could see on the pulpit a Squarer chasid and the head of the Reconstructionist movement dancing together while secular Jews clapped and Buddhist Jews kvelled,” Rabbi Perry Berkowitz said in his eulogy. “That was Dad’s vision of Klal Yisrael, the totality of the Jewish people — unity but not uniformity, and the blessing of inclusive diversity.”
Rabbi William Berkowitz served as an adviser to several New York City mayors and archbishops, and as an unofficial intermediary in the 1969 Forest Hills housing controversy.
He accompanied Isaac Bashevis Singer to Stockholm when the Yiddish writer received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. Singer was a frequent guest at Rabbi William Berkowitz’s home for Shabbat meals, said Rabbi Perry Berkowitz. “Singer considered him his rabbi.”
Rabbi Berkowitz was best known for the dialogue series, an independent initiative that drew celebrities who received no fees for their appearances, his son said.
Why did people like Henry Kissinger and Arthur Miller volunteer their time?
“People came because of the reputation of the forum,” because of the rabbis’ probing-but-respectful questions, Rabbi Perry Berkowitz said.
One of his father’s favorite guests was Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and onetime student of Sigmund Freud, who traveled from Vienna just to take part in the dialogue. “Every psychiatrist in New York came” to hear Frankl, founder of the Logotherapy principle of psychiatry.
“He felt it was important for people to hear an explanation of [public figures’] thinking,” Rabbi Perry Berkowitz said of his father’s motivation for establishing the dialogue series.
Rabbi Berkowitz received several awards for his work, including the Jabotinsky Medal from the government of Israel, and an honorary degree from Spertus College.
In addition to Rabbi Perry Berkowitz, Rabbi William Berkowitz’s survivors are his wife, Florence; two daughters, Rabbi Leah Berkowitz and Dr. Adena Berkowitz; and five grandchildren.