Jewish Journal

Berg Memorial Rites Celebrate His Life

by Bryan Schwartzman

Posted on May. 20, 2004 at 8:00 pm

Nicholas Berg. Photo by Tom Mihalek/EPA

Nicholas Berg. Photo by Tom Mihalek/EPA

The family of Nicholas Evan Berg, known to most as Nick, chose to have their 26-year-old son eulogized in a guarded memorial service at Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester, Pa., on May 14, as a large cluster of reporters, camera people and photographers lingered off synagogue property behind yellow police tape about 200 yards away.

The onlookers stood on the grassy side, waiting for something to happen.

At 3:30 p.m., after nearly two hours of continuous car-parking -- many vehicles displayed out-of-state license plates -- about 500 people gathered inside the auditorium at Kesher Israel to celebrate the life of a man whose beheading at the hands of Islamic extremists in Iraq shocked and outraged the nation.

"This was not a time to reflect on the war in Iraq or global terrorism. This was the time to mourn the loss of an extraordinary young man," said Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin, the synagogue's religious leader, who presided over Berg's burial and the memorial service that followed it.

Berg's body was found in Baghdad on May 8; his family was notified of his death the following day. He had been missing since April 10, after telling family members that he was headed home. A video of Berg's execution surfaced on May 11 on a Web site with links to Al Qaeda.

Moments of laughter broke up tears at the Kesher Israel auditorium during the memorial service, according to Glanzberg-Kranin. Among those sharing humorous and poignant stories about Berg's life were his father, Michael, and his brother and sister, David and Sara.

Michael Berg even managed to draw a few chuckles, according to the rabbi, when he removed his suit jacket to show a kelly-green T-shirt, the same type that his son wore to scale telecommunications towers.

Glanzberg-Krainin also read remarks that Berg's mother, Suzanne, prepared for the service.

The family left the synagogue shortly after the service. But dozens of friends and relatives lingered in the parking lot, embracing each other beneath the late-afternoon sun.

A community of neatly trimmed gardens and quiet streets, the area around Estate Drive in West Whiteland Township, just outside the Chester County seat of West Chester, became a media village last week as reporters from national and local outlets descended upon the house that Berg called home since he was a toddler.

A floral arrangement in the shape of a Star of David rested on the Berg's front lawn. Nearby, the ubiquitous photograph of Berg in a signature, sleeveless T-shirt is taped to the next-door neighbor's mailbox.

"We are stunned," said John Trama, who lives down the road. "He was a very courteous, respectful kid."

Trama recalled Nick as a wide-eyed grade-schooler, who walked past his house every day on the way to the school bus with a bunch of local kids. He described him as a bright, highly energetic child, and noted that his daughter used to babysit for Berg.

Berg received his early education in the West Chester Area School District, where his father taught for more than 20 years. He attended Fern Hill Elementary School before moving on to Peirce Middle School. There, he joined the Science Olympiad Competition, in which he competed in a series of projects and experiments that tested mathematical and scientific know-how.

He attended Henderson High School, where former teachers described the 1996 graduate as a "renaissance man," whose interests included science, art, music, fitness and, above all, people.

While at Henderson Berg continued his involvement with science competitions. During his high school years his team placed first in the state and sixth in the nation.

"He was not the kind of science student that a lot of people think of," said Harry Best, who teaches science and technology at Henderson. "He was a global-type of thinker."

Berg was also a member of the school's marching band, where he played saxophone and, later, the tuba. In 1996, he earned the John Philip Sousa Award, given to a top band student for musicianship, leadership and dedication.

"He was just a terrific kid, very dedicated and always willing to help," said Jim Morrison, who runs the school's marching band.

By all accounts, Berg was a compassionate person who possessed a bit of wanderlust. He attended several institutions of higher education, including Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and the University of Oklahoma.

Best said that Berg's favorite place to hang out in Ithaca, N.Y., home of Cornell, was the campus power plant, where he observed the workers there.

"He spent his free time with the maintenance guys -- and they loved him," Best recalled. "They had never seen another student inside there."

Berg left Cornell before graduating to do telecommunications work in Texas. In the spring of 1998, he took undergraduate physics courses at Drexel, but stayed just a semester. Drexel has created a scholarship in his name to be used by a Henderson High graduate.

Berg's interest in the developing world took him to Africa, namely to Ghana and Uganda. According to Best and Morrison, Berg recounted stories of traveling alone, without a translator, from village to village.

Best recalled a story Berg told him, in which he visited a remote village that offered him free hospitality in a mud hut. Before leaving, Berg told the villagers about a better way to build a home, then showed them how to make bricks.

In recent years, Berg ran Prometheus Methods Tower Services Inc., a small telecommunications business, and was apparently searching for business opportunities in Iraq before he was captured.

Said Morrison, his former music teacher: "I know he was in Iraq to help. He was a humanitarian well beyond his years. Knowing that, it just added that much more to the horrific nature of it all."

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