The Heart of The Covenant Foundation

Awards Program

2003 Covenant Award Recipient

William C. Berk

Rabbi William C. Berk was born in the desert town of San Bernardino, CA, in 1948, the same year that Israel became a state. He was raised by two loving parents — Harold and Helen Berk — in a household where there was great concern for civil rights, for helping the poor, and for Israel. His mother had, as a member of Hadassah, smuggled guns to Israel during the War of Independence. Like his parents, he was also oriented towards political activism. Judaism was respected in his family but not especially observed. As a teenager, he worked in his father’s shoe store. His father was active in California state and local politics. In high school he was selected to represent the city of San Bernardino in the Sister City Program with Japan and spent a summer touring Japan and living with a Japanese family.

Following high school, William Berk attended the University of California at Berkeley. From the beginning, he was involved in the anti-war movement, the counter culture, and other political struggles. He studied playwriting and found himself writing Jewish-themed plays. He studied the Holocaust. He participated in the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. His activity in the anti-war movement led to encountering left-wing hatred of Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment. This was a turning point for Rabbi Berk. At Berkeley, he began the long search for his Jewish roots and identity and for some sense of a Jewish future.

After college, he taught at Wells Intermediate School in Dublin, CA, for three years and then went to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) for rabbinical school. Studying in Israel for his first year at HUC-JIR was the most powerful experience of his life. Living the rhythms of life in Jerusalem, learning the language of the Jewish people, pouring over the sacred texts — these experiences changed him forever. At HUC-JIR, he won the Skirball Award for Social Action and the Mrs. Arthur Hays Sulzberger Prize in Homiletics.

When Rabbi Berk came to Temple Chai in Phoenix, AZ, in the summer of 1983, there were fifty member families in the congregation. Today it boasts 1,150 families. As the temple’s leader, he has spearheaded the creation of many innovative and far-reaching programs, including the largest synagogue retreat program nationwide; a family school where parents and students learn together and separately; a learning minyan board of directors; advanced studies courses; a healing center; a Tikun Midot for the entire student body of the Jewish High School; and a CD to prepare congregants to experience the fullness of Shabbat.

Rabbi Berk’s family has played an enormous role in his development as a rabbi and a human being. From his wife Susan he has learned the wonder of partnership and the healing power of love. From his five children, Sam, Joe, Isaac, Ruth, and Gavriella, he has learned to pay attention to the miracles that surround him.

Rabbi Berk continues to transform himself and his community. He feels blessed that his family and community support his efforts so enthusiastically.

“I was raised with a good deal of optimism and idealism. My mother, Helen Berk, had suffered with polio as a child and had managed to transform her pain into compassion. She taught me her take on Jewish responsibility, ‘Your job as a Jew is to go out into the world and struggle to find out what is right and what is wrong and then to do the right.’ My father, Harold Berk, taught me to celebrate life and to be honest.

“I left for college with this good ethical training but with not much grounding in Jewish life and texts. I could have used more grounding because I was caught in a whirlwind of difficult challenges — the unexpected early death of my mother, the anti-war movement, and the flowering of a ‘counter-culture.’ At some point in my identity struggles I bumped into Judaism. One of my teachers taught me Genesis 32 about Jacob becoming Israel. This was the first time I saw my own story in the Torah. I could relate to Jacob’s identity struggle. My interest in Torah was kindled. For me, Torah was intimately tied to the healing and transformation that I was undergoing at that point in my life.

“During rabbinical school, on my two sabbaticals, and during summer study in Israel, I have had the privilege of learning from some of the greatest teachers alive today. In particular, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, and Rabbi David Hartman have had a great influence on me.

“Rabbi David Hartman has taught me about the opportunities and challenges that Israel brings to the Jewish world — especially the necessity to re-envision the covenant…. In fact, it was studying at the Hartman Institute that made me realize that my core identity as a rabbi must not be as community organizer, or social action facilitator, or doer of pastoral work. The need of the hour calls for rabbis who see themselves first and foremost as community educators.

“I yearn for as many Jews as possible to join in the journey of Jewish learning. One verse I take very seriously is from Exodus 19:6, ‘…you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ I imagine not a kingdom of priests but a synagogue of rabbis, a whole community of rabbis — lawyer rabbis, doctor rabbis, homemaker rabbis, teacher rabbis, real estate rabbis — everyone involved in recovering learning as the central passion of our culture. With learning at the core we can address the three great challenges we face: struggling towards Jewish identity, building community, and assimilating the Zionist revolution in Jewish life.

“The mystics tell us that there is deep Torah and deeper Torah and deeper Torah and that the deepest Torah of all is our own personal experience. We discover that the ambiguities in Torah match the ambiguities of real life. Torah is therefore the perfect practice for life. Or better yet, maybe Torah really can become a way of life. I am trying to nurture in my students better and better questions that will help them frame and answer the identity crises they face.

“It turns out that of all the ways to bring people together to forge community the strongest is to get them to learn together. The success of the Temple Chai community is tied directly to these endeavors. My dream has been to help create a model community that people could point to and say, ‘That’s how it could be done!’ To the extent that we have succeeded we have the learning to thank.”

“Rabbi Berk has changed many lives through the Torah he teaches and models. He seizes every opportunity to make Torah come alive for the community. If you attend the Temple Chai Board of Directors meeting you will find that at least one third of the meeting is spent learning! Rabbi Berk really believes that the texts of our people are important and that if we study them it will help us understand and make responsible decisions in governing the synagogue.”

Marlyne J. Freedman

Director, The Jewish Community Relations Council, and Member, Temple Chai

“Students have embraced his teaching, been inspired by his wisdom, and been drawn to his openness and sincerity. Rabbi Berk lives his passion for Jewish education. He has been a Fellow of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem for the past two years and infuses his teaching (and his life) with his love of learning. Rabbi Berk walks the walk with integrity and leadership. He truly deserves to be recognized for his lifelong contribution to Jewish education and for inspiring our students, his congregation, and the entire Phoenix Jewish Community to reach out for their spiritual fulfillment.”

Jay M. Schechter

Headmaster, The Jess Schwartz Jewish Community High School

“Bill is so very authentic and genuine. He brings his full presence to his learners, replete with sensitivity, inquisitiveness, humility, modesty, vulnerability, and questions. His interest, focus, and attention is, at all times and in every way, on his learners as evidenced by the respect and unconditional positive regard he holds for them. One student describes his classroom as ‘a no-lose place.’ He engages with students as both learner and teacher and demystifies the learning experience. Bill’s educational philosophy rests on a vision of synagogue and community as a seamless organic whole.”

Dr. Lois J. Zachary

President, Leadership Development Services, LLC, and Member, Temple Chai

“Bill is a humble go-getter. He has a deep humility leading him to appreciate all the wisdom in life, in Torah, and in organizational ideas — whether from teachers, colleagues, or, most important, congregants and fellow staff members. He creates and invites true collaboration. He models the ability to learn without shame, and to take leadership roles in Judaism even without being an expert. His ego is never the force behind his projects. Yet he is a go-getter who learns of a good idea or invents one and implements it immediately. Bill Berk keeps creating and recreating the synagogue as a learning community.”

Noam Zion

Faculty, Center for Rabbinic Enrichment, Shalom Hartman Institute