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leon bergerBy BERNIE BELLAN
To his thousands of students who either had him as a teacher at the Talmud Torah on Matheson Avenue or whom he helped prepare for their bar mitzvahs, he will always be remembered as “Mr. Berger”.

 

Leon Berger, who was born in the town of Radivil in eastern Poland, and who came to Winnipeg in 1949, taught for over 47 years (until 1996), first at the old Talmud Torah on Flora, then at the school on Matheson Avenue. (He also taught night school at the Herzlia Academy.) Berger retired just before the Talmud Torah moved south to become part of the new Gray Academy in 1997.
At a special Shabbat service held in 2014 to honour Berger as he retired from his more recent role as the Torah reader for Congregation Etz Chayim, Rabbi Alan Green, who had been the rabbi at Beth Israel Synagogue on Sinclair Street when Berger was also a member there, commented that Berger “left an indelible impression.”
Leon,” he said, “was the quiet but pre-eminent figure among the colourful group of East European Jews who made up the backbone of Beth Israel Synagogue. He is one of the last links in that community’s roots in Eastern Europe’s Jewish culture.
“Leon Berger was always a man of few words. But he always made the most of those words, making every one of them count.”

Leon Berger’s father owned a flour mill in Poland. When the Red Army marched into Poland in 1939, Berger’s father was arrested; Leon never saw him again.
After spending the war years in Siberia with his mother and one of his brothers, Leon Berger returned to Germany where he finished his education in Munich (where the Hebrew University had opened a satellite branch) and began working as a teacher, teaching refugee children.
In his eulogy at his father’s funeral, Hart Berger (the middle son of the three Berger boys, which also includes Max, the oldest, and Jack, the youngest), noted that his father had “attended a Tarbut school (in Poland) where he began a lifelong love of the Hebrew language. His education was disrupted by the outbreak of the war.” While in Munich, a visiting rabbi encouraged him to come to Canada.

Following the war, Berger moved to New York City along with the rest of his family. But, he had met a young woman named Ann Mazurek in the old country, and he ended up following her to Winnipeg and marrying her in 1950.
Max  Berger explained how his father ended up teaching at the Talmud Torah which, at that time, was situated on Flora Avenue: “Once in Winnipeg my father needed a job. The options were limited. But my mother had a cousin already established in Winnipeg. You might remember him – George Skulsky who used to own Canada Photo on Edmonton Street. George helped my father get a teaching job at the old Talmud Torah on Flora Ave.”
Among his many accomplishments, according to Max, his father played an integral role in the formation of the Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble, although somewhat inadvertently. Here is how Max explained his father’s role during his  eulogy at his father’s funeral:
“My dad enjoyed having his students put on plays. There was a Purim play every year. One year, in 1964 my dad thought he could upgrade his Purim play with some real choreography. There was in Winnipeg a talented and vivacious young choreographer named Sarah Sommer. My father brought her in to teach dance routines to the girls in my Grade 4 class. The play was a hit and over the years the girls stayed in touch with Sarah and that is how the Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble was born.”
Leon Berger also took a leadership role in improving working conditions in terms of wages and benefits for the teachers working in the Jewish school system.
According to Hart Berger, “being a Hebrew teacher did not pay that great in the 1950s, so my father became head of the teachers’ union to try to improve work conditions. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s he would in those days work three jobs: Talmud Torah day school, night school (at the Herzlia Academy in the south end) and private lessons for bar mitzvah preparation.”
In an article written by Myron Love about Leon Berger, he noted that “one of his proudest achievements was earning a Masters Degree in Education from the University of Manitoba” in the 1980s.

Another famous aspect to Leon Berger’s career was as the longtime leader of the junior congregation at the Talmud Torah. Here is how Max Berger described junior congregation: “My father invented something called junior congregation in the 60s where elementary school students would conduct a Shabbat service in one of the Talmud Torah classrooms. There was a president and vice president elected every month and at the end of the service my dad would tell a story then command – “ bring in the drinks “ and there would be orange crush and chocolates for everyone.
My own fond memories of junior congregation bring to mind Saturday mornings where young pre-bar mitzvah children (of both genders) would be sitting at desks in a classroom with Mr. Berger leading us in somewhat perfunctory prayers, but with the ultimate prize being his telling a “Chelm” story (about the classically stupid residents of the fictitious town of Chelm in Poland). Finally, as Max noted, the kids were treated to a one-cent chocolate and a bottle of pop. Many of those same students went on to fashion successful careers, but ask them about junior congregation with Mr. Berger and the stories will come flooding out!
In 1981, Berger entered into a new career as the regular Torah reader at what was then the Beth Israel Synagogue. According to Hart Berger, it was in that year that Rabbi Neal Rose (who was filling in as rabbi at the Beth Israel) heard his father read the Torah (at a bar mitzvah at another synagogue) and was so impressed he asked him if he would like to become the regular Torah reader at Beth Israel Synagogue.
“That began a 33-year Torah-reading career that continued until my father’s 2014 retirement,” Hart said. “He was considered the top Torah reader that anyone has ever seen in Winnipeg… not only knowing the notes, but knowing the entire content of what he was reading. He could stop and discuss  what was the weekly parsha effortlessly and he did so whenever he filled in for the rabbi on vacation.”

In 2012 Berger was honoured by Congregation Etz Chayim. According to Hart Berger, his father was given the “wonderful title of ‘Moreh L’ Dorot’ - ‘Teacher to the Generations’.”
This past September, Hart Berger noted, when he and his father were at Etz Chayim for High Holiday services, Rabbi Kliel Rose “was so kind as to refer to my father from the Bimah as the legendary teacher, and he was. His accomplishments will never be matched. My father was the last of his kind… the training and history and culture of Old World Europe brought to New World Canada. He used to remark to me that he began by seeing horse and carriage travel in his childhood and when he retired, he was in the digital age having me send emails and reading aloud to him newspaper stories that were online.”
Just this past October, Hart noted, his father insisted on going to Garden City Collegiate (which is not far from the Berger family home on Forest Park Drive, where Leon lived to the end) to vote in the municipal election.
As Hart wheeled his father into the school in his wheelchair, he said, “the Jewish election workers at the high school polling station were amazed to see “the MR. BERGER” still actively voting.”
Of course, what Hart didn’t say was what those polling station workers were probably thinking was: “Mr. Berger - who can forget the line for which he became famous, and which must have been told to hundreds of misbehaving students over the years: ‘Take your shmattes and get out!’ ”