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Jewish Children and Family Services turns 150

LOOKING BACK IN THANKS:Dr. Robert Berger of Brookline was a 14-year-old in his native Hungary when German and Hungarian police broke into his home in 1944. Forced into hiding when he was separated from his parents, brother, and sister, he was captured and imprisoned in a World War II concentration camp.

After the war, he found his way alone to a displaced persons camp in Germany, and the 16-year-old was among nearly 50 adolescents who were brought to Boston by the US Committee for the Care of European Children. Through the support of Waltham-based Jewish Family & Children’s Service, Berger learned English and attended high school, college, and then medical school.

“I learned during the war that every material thing you have can be taken away from you,” he said, “but what you have in your head is yours always.”

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Berger, sharing his story as part of the 150th anniversary observances for the Jewish Family & Children’s Service, said that he had been determined to continue his interrupted education, and decided to pursue medicine after seeing in the camp the good that physicians could do, even without sophisticated equipment.

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In 1978, the renowned physician led the team whose patient was the first to survive the implantation of a partial artificial heart.

Now 84, Berger is director of clinical research in thoracic surgery and interventional pulmonology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and previously was director of cardiothoracic surgery at Boston University School of Medicine.

Berger, who notes that “some good things come from the bad,” continues to give back to the organization that provided him with housing, financial assistance, and comprehensive care by serving on the Jewish Family organization’s committee that allocates emergency aid. He is still plagued by memories of World War II in nightmares, but he remains grateful to the agency that “took our hands and showed us the way.”

“Looking back, I don’t know how I did it,” added Berger, whose brother was the only other close relative to survive the Holocaust. “A large part was because of the good, kind, understanding, and empathetic people who were, for a short time, my substitute parents.”

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Founded in 1864 as the United Hebrew Benevolent Association, Jewish Family and Children’s Service now provides an array of services covering 250 communities statewide. Chief executive officer Rimma Zelfand said it remains relevant by continually adapting its programs to meet the changing needs of its 17,000 clients, who receive services regardless of religious affiliation.

“We’re fairly large and sophisticated now,” she said, “but at the center of it all is the same burning desire of our predecessors to improve people’s lives.”

For more information, visit www.jfcsboston.org.

LEGACY OF INCLUSION: Just two weeks after completing their 32d and final Boston Marathon as sentimental favorites, the father-son duo of Dick and Rick Hoyt will be the featured speakers and guests of honor at the 35th anniversary gala of Newton-based Understanding Our Differences, taking place next Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. at Community Rowing Inc., 20 Nonantum Road in Brighton.

The Hoyts — now 74 and 52 years old — will share their inspirational story of how Dick helped his son take part in a local road race by pushing him in his wheelchair 36 years ago, and how they went on to complete 70 marathons and more than 1,100 race events while sharing their slogan, “Yes, you can!” Their charity, Team Hoyt, strives to help those with physical disabilities become fully active community members.

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Also being honored is longtime volunteer Linda Hiller, a past president and board member, and speaker for the organization’s physical disabilities unit. Newton Mayor Setti Warrren and Tassy Warren are the event’s honorary chairs.

Founded in 1978, the nonprofit organization provides disability and medical condition awareness education to schools and organizations locally and nationwide.

For tickets and more information, visit www.understandingourdifferences.org.

“DREAM’’ HONORS: Five area residents will be honored for their dedication and community service to those in need by Jewish Family Service of Metrowest at its “Seize the Dream’’ gala next Sunday, from 5:30 to 9 p.m at the Sheraton Framingham Hotel and Conference Center, 1657 Worcester Road .

Leslie and Jonathan Gerber of Holliston are longtime supporters of the nonprofit organization’s Reducing Achievement Gaps and Family Assistance initiatives, as well as the founders of an annual holiday gift drive that has benefited more than 1,500 children. In addition, Leslie is a member of the agency’s board of directors.

Framingham resident Robin Welch, retired principal of the Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Framingham and also a member of the board of directors, is an education leader and advocate for low-income children and their families.

Ellie and Barry Shrage live in Chestnut Hill. Ellie, who works with children with developmental delays and disabilities, has served on numerous boards. Barry, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, has helped develop its Economic Response program, providing crisis funding for isolated seniors, immigrants, the unemployed, and the disabled.

The annual event will also feature fare from 25 local restaurants, caterers, and specialty food stores. Proceeds will benefit the agency’s community programs that support at-risk children, the local food pantry, and elderly assistance.

For more information, or to visit the event’s online auction, go to www.jfsmw.org.

HEALING JUSTICE TODAY: Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice as Healing, will lead a free public presentation Sunday from 12:30 to 2 p.m. at First Parish in Bedford, 75 Great Road.

The Boston-based criminal justice reform organization advocates for the creation of community wellness alternatives to incarceration, especially when involving issues of addiction, mental health, and general poverty.

James is a former criminal defense lawyer who has worked within the criminal justice system for more than 25 years.

After receiving a 24-month federal prison term in 2009, she wrote “Upper Bunkies Unite: And Other Thoughts on the Politics of Mass Incarceration,” and “A Letter to My Children from a Mad, Black, Incarcerated Mother.”

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. For James, however, the answer is not prison construction or expansion.

“As long as we’re putting so many resources into incarceration for drugs and other nonviolent reasons,” she said, “we’re not helping people heal their lives.”

People items may be submitted to Cindy Cantrell at cindycantrell20@gmail.com.