Rabbi William Berkowitz, a longtime spiritual leader of a major New York City synagogue, died February 3. He was 83.
Berkowitz served as senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun between 1950 and 1984.
He was also well-known for creating the Dialogue Forum, an innovative series of public conversations with such figures as Martin Luther King, Jr., Isaac Bashevis Singer and Golda Meir.
Berkowitz was born in 1924 in Philadelphia. After serving in the United States Navy during World War II, he attended Gratz College and Temple University in Philadelphia and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
His tenure at B’nai Jeshurun, which is located on New York’s Upper West Side and during his tenure was affiliated with the Conservative movement, included a tumultuous period in American urban life during the 1950s and 1960s, when many Jewish families left the cities for the suburbs.
“He chose to stay in the neighborhood and have the congregation stay and maintain itself,” Berkowitz’s son, Rabbi Perry Berkowitz, told the Forward. “At a time when people were afraid to leave their homes, he had them out on the streets.”
Perry Berkowitz noted that his father’s strategy for keeping the New York Jewish community vibrant was to “pack in more and more programs.” Besides the Dialogue Forum, Berkowitz’s initiatives included the first Conservative Jewish day school in Manhattan and the Institute of Adult Jewish Studies. Berkowitz also served as president of the New York Board of Rabbis in the early 1970s.
One of the rabbi’s longtime friends was Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who spoke at Berkowitz’s funeral. He credited Berkowitz with inventing “the ‘dialogue’ concept.” Berkowitz is survived by his wife, Florence Berkowitz; children Perry, Leah and Adena; and five grandchildren.