Those high schools throughout the nation that offer Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps — or JROTC — programming adhere to a core code of ethics and values that they instill in participating students. Typically JROTC programs are federally sponsored elective courses run by retired officers of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Recently the Barnegat High School Navy JROTC's curriculum focused on World War II studies. Program director Jim Mackey, a Brigantine resident, reached out to Don Berkman to see if he might be interested in being a guest speaker at one of the Barnegat NJROTC classes.
“A lot of our studies focus on World War II and the Greatest Generation (a reference to those who grew up during the Great Depression and fought in World War II),” said Mackey, a retired U.S. Coast Guard chief warrant officer. “Our cadets always do a Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day color guard, and part of our curriculum, of course, covers the Holocaust.”
Berkman, 80, a Margate resident and owner of Surf Sundries in Brigantine since 1970, is a Holocaust survivor. As a child, he escaped Nazi persecution by hiding out with his mother after Germany invaded his native Poland, which was a major catalyst to World War II. Both immigrated to America when Berkman was 9.
“At some point I said, 'Let me stop into Mr. Berkman's store and ask him if he wouldn't mind being a guest speaker in our class,'” Mackey said. “He asked me how many students I have, and I said I have a total of 80 cadets. He said 'How about if I sponsor a bus trip for you down to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum?'
“When he said that, I was just floored,” Mackey said. “I couldn't believe it. Once it sunk in what he was offering, I said 'Do you know how much those buses would cost to Washington, D.C. and back?' He said 'I know. I've done it for other schools.'”
Mackey asked Berkman if he had a preference as to which day they made the trip. He did not, so Mackey timed the trip to coincide with Wreaths Across America Day on Dec. 14.
“Among the top objectives of a Junior ROTC program is promoting patriotism, citizenship and leadership potential in young people,” Mackey said. “Before you start in on anything that has to do with military protocol, you have to give them a sense of patriotism and what it means to be an American.
“And what better way to promote patriotism than to go down to D.C. and lay wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery for the Wreaths Across America Program?”
Berkman served as the group's tour guide when they visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum (see USHMM.org), and helped the cadets lay wreaths on the grave sites of deceased soldiers at Arlington. The group also visited the Lincoln Memorial, the Eternal Flame at the grave site of President John F. Kennedy, and witnessed the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“This was all to build patriotism, and most of these kids had never been down there before,” Mackey said. “Mr. Berkman has been down there many times, and gave us a personal tour. He's very passionate, and wants the story of what happened during the Holocaust to be continually told and never forgotten.
“He considers this his way of trying to ensure that horrible acts like that never happen again, and that the best way is to help educate young Americans at the high-school level.”
At least one of the Barnegat cadets had been to Arlington National Cemetery before, years previously.
“One of our cadets' grandfathers is buried there, and he had not been there since they buried him several years ago,” Mackey said. “So we asked his father — whose father it is who's buried there — if he'd like to join us so that they could visit the gravesite together. So we brought the father along too.”
Berkman — who donates a substantial sum annually to a deserving student in the Master of Arts in Holocaust and Genocide Studies program at Stockton University in the name of his mother and stepfather, Sara and Michael Chipman — sat next to Mackey on the trip down to D.C.
“I was his seat partner, and it just so happened that the following day, Dec. 15, was his 80th birthday,” Mackey said. “When I found that out, after the buses stopped we had all the kids from both buses sing him "Happy Birthday."
“The cadets couldn't thank him enough,” Mackey said. “I told them before we left, you don't understand, people come from all over the country and with great personal expense to experience what you're experiencing, and Mr. Berkman gave you that opportunity. We would never have been able to afford that trip without his generosity.”
Berkman later gave Mackey and all the cadets copies of the book he co-authored called “Two Voices: A Mother & Son, Holocaust Survivors.”
“Near the end of the school year, in May, the kids will be asked to do an essay on the book,” Mackey said. “We're also planning on honoring him at our NJROTC Awards Night in front of the parents and the school district in May.”
Mackey said the trip to D.C. was made even more compelling for Berkman since it happened shortly after a hate crime occurred at a kosher market in Jersey City — an act of domestic terrorism in which six people were killed on Dec. 11.
“He was talking about that on the trip down, saying things like 'It's still going on. When will it stop,'” Mackey said.
The Barnegat NJROTC had a U.S. Navy inspection conducted on Feb. 27. Mackey e-mailed a photo of the cadets in their dress uniforms to Nanette Berkman, Don's wife.
“Her response,” Mackey said, “was 'Thank you, beautiful kids. There is hope for the future.'”