With an annual budget of approximately $750 million, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) is certainly one of the major players in the Jewish world. However, with a significant portion of their budget coming from the government of the Federal Republic of Germany, the organization is mainly off the radar screen of all but their service partners and program recipients. Since 1952, and as a result of negotiations with the Claims Conference, the German government has paid more than $60 billion in indemnification for suffering and losses resulting from Nazi persecution. The organization is the largest provider of services to Holocaust survivors worldwide. Today, approximately $100 million is allocated through the JDC’s Hessed program to provide services for victims of Nazi persecution living in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
One of the key players at the Claims Conference is their chairman Julius Berman.
Berman, along with his wife Dorothy, was recently honored by the Rabbi Isaac ElchananTheological Seminary (RIETS), an affiliate of Yeshiva University (YU), for 50 years of affiliation with YU and Jewish communal service. Berman is also the Chairman of RIETS. During a recent visit to Israel, eJP had the opportunity to sit with the Bermans.
What comes across first when speaking with Berman, is that he is a fascinating story teller – and after 50 years of living what he describes as “a fishbowl life” – you can imagine what he has observed!
Catching up first on his background, Berman told us he received his bachelor’s degree from YU, semichah from RIETS and his JD from New York University, where he graduated first in his class. It turns out Berman was a confidant of Rabbi Soloveitchik and, as such, was instrumental in publishing the Rav’s works. Currently, he serves as the chairman of the Claims Conference and honorary president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America; Berman practices law with a New York City based firm. Previously, he was the first Orthodox lay-person to head the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
The Claims Conference, supported as it is by the German government, is not out in the trenches raising money from friends and funders. Yet, over his decades of service, Berman has certainly had experiences with fundraising. And one of his most astute observations is that “there is a negative part of raising funds – and that is looking at people as dollar signs and not as people.”
One of Berman’s biggest concerns is with, what he calls, the “transfer generation,” those, the age of his children, who are inheriting significant wealth and whose philanthropic values often differ from their parents. This is a concern not unknown to most of our readers. Berman, like others, expresses some anxiousness for many of our communal organizations as he feels they are ill equipped to meet the needed adjustments.
We couldn’t help but touch on the fraud investigation involving the Claims Conference and Berman, ever the lawyer, was careful with his response. He stresses, which has been independently confirmed, that the Conference was itself a victim – a fact also investigated by the German government – having been duped by skillful fraudsters and unfortunately some insiders as well. Since the arrest in the case, which, Berman points out, the Claims Conference itself detected and brought to the attention of the authorities, the German government has committed hundreds of millions of additional dollars to the Claims Conference. The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, one of the larger Jewish foundations in the world, is comfortable (following their own due diligence) in having the Claims Conference administer a new $10 million fund for emergency needs for North American Shoah survivors.
While most of our conversation was “off the record” the one thing that was clear was the Bermans’ deep support for the Jewish community. Kol HaKavod to them for this recent honor.
For more, read Loving Your Neighbor about the work of Hessed – with Claims Conference support – in Odessa, Ukriane. I was also priviledged to be part of the described visits and witness the on-the-ground support taking place for these Nazi victims.