Keith Berman, Educator of Jewish Youth, Dies at 48

Berman cofounded Aardvark Israel, which brings young Jews on gap-year trips to Israel.

Keith Berman, a key figure in organizing and running programs to bring young Jews from around the world to Israel and encourage them to make Aliyah, died on Sunday. He was 48.

Berman suffered a heart attack on Friday in Tel Aviv, where he lived, and passed away two days later, said Debbie Goldsmith, assistant director of Aardvark Israel, a program she cofounded along with Berman to bring high-school graduates and college students to the Jewish state for a gap year and help them learn about the country.

In accordance with Berman's wishes, Goldsmith said, his organs were donated and went on to help six people.

A native of Florida, Berman fell in love with Israel when he took part in the Year Course program of Young Judaea, a youth movement affiliated with Hadassah before the two movements split. He moved to Israel in 1988 and served in the Israel Defense Forces' Nahal infantry unit.

He went on to lead the Year Course program for 11 years, before leaving Young Judaea and founding Aardvark in 2010. At the time, Berman told Haaretz he always encouraged the creation of more long-term Israel programs, as the "resulting competition would require all programs to achieve excellence."

Berman described his career path in his message to prospective parents and students on the Aardvark Israel website. He said he initially thought he would be a dentist or doctor.

"All along this journey of identifying my career path, I did have one constant companion – I had grown up in the Zionist youth movement Young Judaea and many of my part-time or temporary jobs were working for the movement," he wrote. "In each job that I did, I realized two important lessons: I was really good at it and it made me happy to work with Jewish kids."

"He has affected the lives of tens of thousands of people, he dedicated his entire life to Israel and to bringing young Jewish people to Israel," said Simon Cohen, another cofounder of Aardvark. "Today, Israel is a better country thanks to him."

A few hundred people, many of them alumni of the programs he ran, showed up at the Yarkon cemetery near Tel Aviv for Berman's funeral on Monday.

Among them was 22-year-old Alex Moliver, who was among the first to sign up for an Aardvark course four years ago, and then followed it up by moving to Israel.

"The only reason why I am here today is because of [Berman]," Moliver told Haaretz. "He was full of life and full of passion for Israel." The Connecticut native is now in the army, serving in the same Nahal unit as his mentor.

As leader of Young Judaea's Year Course, Berman was widely praised for creating innovative tracks and bringing unprecedented growth to the program. However, he caused a stir among many former colleagues when he left the organization, possibly due to increasing budget cuts, to create his own program, Aardvark.

The program now operates in conjunction with Masa, a joint venture of the government and the Jewish Agency, and offers nine-month and five-month stays which allow youths to study in Israel, volunteer for community service and join internship programs. Goldsmith said 130 students have signed up for the program for this year.

At the funeral, old rivalries were set aside, with friends and family remembering Berman as a man who lived a full – if difficult – life.

His ex-wife, Marta Berman, told mourners that her husband had come out as gay eight years ago, leading to their divorce. She praised him for sacrificing his happiness so that the couple could have their three children.

"He denied himself his own way of life for decades so he could raise these three beautiful children," she said, adding that she was glad that he had had at least a few years to live his life as he wanted. "He died a happy man."

Berman was a guest on TLV1's Journeys Podcast on October 28, 2013. Listen to the podcast here: