Harold Berger was used to the questions.
As the only Jewish student in Archbald High School in Lackawanna County, he understood his classmates’ curiosity.
“It was wonderful being the only Jew. I thought it was a great experience,” he said, although he admitted, “we had to go to my grandmother’s house for all the Jewish holidays and to synagogue in a bigger town over.”
A Catholic peer posited a question to the young Berger. “Harold, what do you think about Jesus?” the boy asked. “Jesus? I love Jesus,” was the reply. “He’s one of the greatest Jews ever, Jesus and Moses.”
Berger left the small town for the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, graduating in 1948 before attending Penn’s School of Law.
The former Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge was honored May 12 with the inaugural Lifetime Commitment Award from Penn Law.
“I’ve been active in the law school since the day I graduated,” he remembered with a laugh. “I’ve been the chair of the reunions, I’m on the executive board of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, and I’m a part of the Friends of Biddle Law Library.”
Berger, 92, said that although he always knew he wanted to attend law school, he decided to first get his degree in engineering, not business.
“I had an interest in the technical era we were entering,” he explained. “I thought it would be a good background for law school. It was an interesting educational experience.”
After law school, Berger and his older brother began the law firm that still operates as Berger & Montague, P.C.
“When I got out of law school, there was a bias against Jewish lawyers entering big firms,” he said. “A lot of Jewish lawyers entered small firms or practiced by themselves.”
Berger still works as senior partner and managing principal of Berger & Montague and has offered guidance on a number of high-profile cases. During the aftermath of the Three Mile Island nuclear incident, he worked as a liaison counsel. He also served on the case-management committee after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Outside of the courtroom, Berger takes pride in his philanthropic ventures. He is an honorary trustee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and works with many Jewish charities, including Jewish Learning Venture, the National Museum of American Jewish History, the Anti-Defamation League and HIAS.
He noted such charities, especially the Jewish Federation, “keep the entire Jewish community together, informed and active. It’s important to help needy Jews, elderly Jews, sick Jews, a lot of whom have no other options. HAIS and Jewish Learning Venture are tremendously important to me.”
Berger attends synagogue at Germantown Jewish Centre, where he has belonged since moving to Philadelphia as a young adult.
In addition to the Penn Law award, Berger received the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Legal Intelligencer and the Special Service Award of the Pennsylvania Conference of State Trial Judges.