Once victimized, new ADL director works to fight hate

Growing up in Hartford, Conn., when few Jews lived there, Barbara Bergen remembers being beaten up by a group of catechism students who had just learned the Jews killed Jesus. And she remembers being allowed to play with the neighborhood kids, but not being allowed into their homes.

"The memories are as if it happened yesterday," says the new regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in San Francisco. "I've spoken to enough survivors of hate crimes to know the sensations never leave you."

It was the anti-Semitism of her childhood, in part, that first drew Bergen to the ADL, where she previously worked as associate Western states counsel in Los Angeles.

"The feeling that no one should be made to feel inferior because of some immutable quality…that's what the ADL stands for," says Bergen, who has moved to the San Francisco office to replace Anastasia Steinberg, an attorney who has gone into private practice.

The 57-year-old Bergen is also an attorney, and on this Monday afternoon, her tailored blue blazer, silk scarf and monogrammed gold pin perfectly fit the image of a lawyer who's got it all in control.

Bergen, in fact, has a litany of legal experience under her proverbial belt. She worked as a deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County and later went into civil litigation, specializing in real estate. She worked as general counsel for a bank. And she served as a judge pro tempore in the L.A. municipal court.

It was during her many years practicing law that Bergen first came in contact with the ADL. Doing pro bono work for a variety of organizations, a number of them Jewish, she got to know the ADL and its work.

"The same motivation for becoming an attorney directed me to the ADL," she says. "That is an unwillingness to be a victim and the pursuit of justice." And, she adds, "I've always felt a strong connection to Jewish work."

As ADL's associate Western counsel, a position she held for four years, Bergen worked on a range of civil rights issues, writing amicus briefs for cases that touched on such areas as the separation of church and state.

In her new position, Bergen looks forward to broadening the scope of her ADL work — to intergroup relations, Mideast issues, developing young leadership in the organization, and educating law enforcement and the public on hate crimes and other issues of concern to the ADL.

Upcoming educational forums will include a Friday, May 10 program exploring hate messages on the Internet and a Wednesday, May 22 panel that will focus on extremism on both ends of the political spectrum. "I believe there are more similarities than differences between extremists on either end," Bergen asserts.

Along those lines, Bergen is currently focusing her attention on issues from the proliferation of militia groups to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, whose recent meetings with such Mideast despots as Libya's Moammar Khadafy has sparked U.S. criticism.

For now, her new job demands 14-hour days. But once she gets settled, this mother of two grown children hopes to delve into her non-work interests — attending the theater, kicking up her heels in Israeli folk dancing and teaching aerobics.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.