Navy veteran, longtime community volunteer dies at 99

For the past 58 years, if you wanted to find Herb Berkman on a Friday night, it wasn’t hard to do. Just head to Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel-Judea. He’d be there.

Berkman was a dedicated minyanite at the S.F. congregation starting in 1950. “He was never happier than being in shul,” remembered his son, Myron Berkman. “The gleam in his eyes, raising his hands, swaying to the music.”

His long life, dedicated to family, friends and the Jewish people, came to an end March 11 at the Jewish Home of San Francisco. Berkman was 99, just a week shy of his 100th birthday.

Friends and family remember Berkman as a relentlessly upbeat man. Even into his 90s, as a resident at Rhoda Goldman Plaza, he would exhort fellow residents to remember the three A’s: “Attitude, attitude, attitude.”

“The man never complained,” said his son, adding with a laugh, “That’s why I’m not sure he was really Jewish. He had such a positive outlook.”

Herbert Berkman was born in Oklahoma in 1908, the year after the territory became a state. His immigrant family had left New York’s tenements for a better life out West, later relocating to Dallas. There, Berkman grew up in an observant Jewish home (his grandfather was the local shochet, or kosher ritual slaughterer).

When World War II erupted, he enlisted in the Navy, and before shipping out he met a “nice Jewish girl” at the Mare Island Naval base in Vallejo, where he was initially stationed.

San Francisco native Doris Shemano had caught his eye, but Berkman soon was serving as a pharmacist’s mate in the war against Japan. He went from island to island, often playing the role of chaplain, leading Jewish services in the middle of the South Pacific and sometimes settling for warm beer in place of wine for the Kiddush.

Upon his return, Berkman looked up Doris, and the two got hitched. Their marriage lasted 52 years, until her death in 1997.

The newlyweds settled in San Francisco, where Berkman landed a sales job with Max Sobel Wholesale Liquors. He stayed on for 30 years.

“Dad was a shmoozer,” Myron Berkman said. “Many of his clients were the little Arab stores. He became good friends with them, and he even spoke a little Arabic.”

The Berkmans had two children, Myron and Suzanne.

After retiring, Berkman devoted more time to volunteering. He was a helper at Beth Israel-Judea and taught English as a second language at S.F.’s Newcomer High School. And for more than 20 years, he volunteered at the Jewish Home.

Even when he came to live in the Jewish Home himself at nearly 95 years of age, Berkman tried to look on the bright side.

“Dad said, ‘For 20 years I wheeled people around this place,'” recalled Myron Berkman. “‘I did my time; now it’s my time to receive.'”

Even as Berkman approached the century mark, life still held some surprises. At age 98, he became a grandfather for the first time when Myron welcomed little Davin Berkman into the world.

By then, age had begun to catch up with him, and though he had grown quieter, Berkman was still engaged. Recalls his son, “If you had a conversation with him, he would say ‘I love you’ to everyone. He was a model and an example, with not an enemy in the world.”

Herbert Berkman is survived by his children, Myron Berkman of El Cerrito and Suzanne Berkman of San Francisco, and grandson Davin Henry Berkman. Donations can be made to Congregation Beth Israel-Judea of San Francisco.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.