W hen Howard Berger arrived at The College of Idaho in 1982 to teach history, he admits he was disappointed. The New Jersey native said he expected all of the state to look like Sun Valley.
Despite earning his graduate degree in Washington, Berger said his knowledge of Idaho was limited to the ski resort and potatoes. But by Columbus Day, he said he’d fallen in love with the college, which at that time had just 500 students.
“I’m still in love with the place,” said Berger, who turns 63 this month and recently finished his 30th year as a member of the faculty.
Three years into his C of I career, Berger began filling a void many of his students didn’t recognize was there. He developed courses in Jewish history, beginning with an introductory class on the Holocaust, which he continues to offer every few winter sessions. He introduced Jewish religion and culture to campus and even led groups of students to Israel and Auschwitz in the 1980s and 90s.
Even though Berger’s Jewish history classes may have an enrollment of 50-70, typically none of the students are Jewish. He explained the popularity this way: “There’s a yearning for it ... there is a built-in interest.”
Berger said he wasn’t always “as public about my Jewishness,” but growing up his family observed Yom Kippur and the High Holy Days. Perhaps one of the most lasting impressions was a message his father shared — that Jews should be thankful to live in America, because its treatment of Jews was radically different than that of Europe. Berger said the history of anti-Semitism goes back farther than the Holocaust — to persecution during the Crusades, by Mongols and during the bubonic plague (aka Black Death).
To honor Berger’s 25th year at the College of Idaho, some alumni undertook an ambitious goal: Raise $2.2 million to establish a chair in Judaic Studies to promote a greater understanding of Jewish traditions and culture in the Western U.S. The holder of the chair would develop new courses, arrange trips abroad and host lectures and conferences.
Berger thought it would take at least a decade to raise that much money. The cancer survivor quiped that “I thought what would really get the money going would be my death. ... I never thought we would do it in three years.”