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A Life Spent Improving Lot of the Needy

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After loading about 250 bagels into his van, Herman Berman smiles and waves goodbye to Kimberly Martin, manager of the Manhattan Bagel shop in Sherman Oaks.

“She’s very rare,” said Berman, 75, of Van Nuys. “How many people actually go out of their way to help someone else?”

A few weeks ago, Berman came into Martin’s shop wearing his volunteering pin for Encino B’nai B’rith. A casual inquiry about donating that day’s unsold bagels started a collection effort that since January has involved other Valley Manhattan Bagel stores. More than 20,000 bagels have been picked up by Berman and 16 other volunteers.

“Think about it,” Berman said as he backed out of the parking space. “Think about the people you know. How many of them actually do something?”

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Berman, a past president of Encino B’nai B’rith, owns the Herman Berman Co., a manufacturer of award products in Van Nuys, from which he retired in 1983. His smile and genial manner belie some fierce convictions.

As he drives off with bagels that will later go to the Jewish Homes for the Aging and the Women’s Care Cottage, he speaks with passion about helping people. It comes from his childhood in Brooklyn.

“I know there were many occasions when my mother and father didn’t eat, when the children did eat,” said Berman. “When I think about it now, I find it very painful. But what was I--10, 12 years old at the time? I just didn’t know. And had I known, what could I do?”

At 14, Berman began a lifetime of social activism collecting money on street corners for victims of the Spanish Civil War. When he followed the rest of his family to Los Angeles shortly before World War II, he helped organize relief efforts for struggling farmers.

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Later, prompted by a call from the consul general of Israel--he was Israel chairman for the Western United States B’nai B’rith--Berman was a major fund-raiser for Israel in the days before the 1967 war.

“I guess some people are just born with a social conscience,” said Tom Cooney of Fullerton, a friend for nearly 60 years. “They’re concerned about injustice in the world. He’s been on a campaign to do what he could.”

Even though Berman had an early understanding of the atrocities committed by the Nazis as World War II approached, he declared himself a conscientious objector. Killing was incompatible to his desire to help people, he said.

“I couldn’t contribute to the bloodshed,” Berman said. He had planned to join a group called the American Field Service to drive an ambulance in war zones as a civilian, but the draft board rejected that option.

Some friends who had worked with him in peace groups before the war then fell away, he said. Nasty phone calls and letters came. He was jailed for 17 days, but was released on appeal. The appeals process continued throughout the war, and he was pardoned after the war ended, he said.

“He’s always had the courage to stand up and state his opinion whether it was popular or not,” said Cooney.

“He was always very highly principled,” said Pearl Paull, another friend who supported him during that era and now lives in Palm Springs.

But Berman is also modest. Many of the awards he has been given for his work over the years are not on display at his home. “I’m not the important issue,” he said. “My feeling, ever since my early youth, is just that people in need should be looked after.”

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Personal Best is a weekly profile of an ordinary person who does extraordinary things. Please send suggestions on prospective candidates to Personal Best, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth 91311.


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