My father’s parents were Russian immigrants who had arrived in Chicago by boat in the early 20th century. Even though they were not religious, my father began his schooling in a religious day school in the 1940s. It was there, as a six or seven-year-old, that he developed a great love for learning and Judaism.
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When it was time to start regular schooling, he wanted to continue learning in a yeshivah out of town, in Montreal or New York, but being too young, he went on to public school. One time in sixth grade, his class had a cooking activity. My father refused to taste the non-kosher food, and my grandparents got a call from the principal: “What are these problems we’re having with your son?”
After that incident, he went off to attend the Lubavitcher high school in Pittsburgh, followed by the legendary one in Crown Heights, on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Dean Street. Later, he would go off to the yeshivah in Montreal. During those years he became very attached to the Rebbe.
When my father finished yeshivah, he and his parents wanted him to start college, and he wrote to the Rebbe about his plans. The Rebbe replied, by letter, that college was no place for a yeshivah student like him, and he also wrote a separate letter to my grandparents explaining why their son should not go to college. Still, they insisted that he go, and my father even had an hour-long meeting with the Rebbe to discuss the matter.
“Are intellectual pursuits your aim, or do you want to study in college in order to make a living?” the Rebbe asked him.
My father indicated that it was the latter: Earning a college degree would enable him to secure a better job and a stable livelihood.
Although the Rebbe was very clear that he was opposed to it, my father still wanted to go. Finally the Rebbe gave his limited approval.
“If you want to go, then you need to ensure that you have some protection from the college environment,” the Rebbe stipulated. “Every morning, before you go to school, you must have a session in the study of Chasidut.”
My father agreed to the Rebbe’s condition, and he kept up that daily regimen until the end of his life. When I was growing up, he would learn Chasidut every morning, pray for a long time, and only then make the hour-long commute to work from our home in Baltimore.
After earning a Master’s degree in electrical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1966, my father went on to work at the Harry Diamond Laboratory, also known as Army Research Labs, a prestigious government research and development facility run by the Pentagon. Later, he went back to school, to the University of Maryland, for a Ph.D. in electrophysics.
When he originally began working at the lab, it was the only place he could successfully land a job; equal opportunity employment was enforced in the government, but there was no other place that would hire a religious Jew with a beard. “The only reason we’re hiring you is because we have to,” one official bluntly told him, “but you’re not going to get anywhere.” However, over the course of his twenty-five-year employment there, my father rose in the ranks and ended up working with the highest levels of government. We would later learn that he worked on making the US military’s Patriot missile system in the ‘70s, along with many other so-called “black projects” that he wasn’t allowed to speak about. When his division needed special funding for a project, it was my father they would send to the Pentagon to speak to the generals there.
There were many times that he received offers to work for the private sector, and also had an opportunity to do some US government work in Israel, together with the government there. However, he would always ask the Rebbe before making any decision, big or small, and every time he asked about one of these offers, the Rebbe said no. He told him that as a religious Jew holding a prestigious government position in America, he would have a greater influence – both on Jews who were making their way to Judaism as well as non-Jews – than in any other place. “If there is one doctor in a city,” the Rebbe reasoned, “he shouldn’t leave.”
Years later, the refusenik scientist Professor Herman Branover – whom my father helped to leave Russia in the ‘70s – would write of the time he once overheard a couple of Jewish teenagers talking excitedly about a great Jewish scientist who wore a full beard and tzitzit at the Pentagon. “If he can do it at the Pentagon,” they concluded, “then no Jew should be ashamed of being different anywhere.”
At a certain point, he was approached by a few Israelis to secretly hand over some information about particular US defense technologies. Again, he consulted with the Rebbe, who strongly advised him against even speaking with them, let alone engaging in any criminal activity. Later, when Jonathan Pollard was caught selling secrets to Israel, the government began looking very closely at my father. For a period of time, they would test him – often with a lie-detector machine – keeping him on his toes, examining his allegiances, and seeing if anything was being leaked to Israel. I had a sister who was then in school in Israel, and my father had to stop calling her because making phone calls to Israel might look suspicious. For a few weeks, I even remember seeing some people sitting in a car across the street, watching our house; my father told me that they were from the government. But of course, they didn’t find anything out of order.
On one of my father’s visits to the Rebbe, he brought a gift with him. It was a very early edition of the Tanya, which the Rebbe did not have in his library. The Rebbe took the Tanya and thanked my father.
“When are you going to write something like this?” the Rebbe asked him, referring to matters of Torah. My father smiled and shrugged at the suggestion, but the Rebbe emphasized that he meant it seriously. Later on, my father worked with the Professor Branover on making the B’or Ha’Torah journal on Torah and science, and he contributed many articles to it. He also wrote on other subjects, like a scholarly essay about fasting in Jewish law. The next time they met, the Rebbe expressed his appreciation for writing the Torah article, “a real dvar Torah,” as he called it.
“I didn’t think anybody else had read that article,” my father remarked to a friend.
During the time of my father’s illness, one of my sisters went to the Rebbe when he was giving out dollars for charity. When she asked the Rebbe for a blessing for our father, the Rebbe asked, “Is he working on his inventions?”
My sister was taken aback by this and explained that he was in intensive care, incapable of working. The Rebbe remarked that he probably was in the midst of unfinished business and told her to remind him that “he must recover soon to continue his work.” In other words, the Rebbe made a connection between his blessings for my father’s recovery and his work.
Although originally – and as a general matter – the Rebbe was opposed to my father, a yeshivah student, going to college, once he had gotten to his position, the Rebbe was strongly in favor of him continuing what he was doing, and having success in it.
Mr. Bentsion Berg is an IT Professional currently living in South Florida with his family. He was interviewed in August 2013.