Teen turns bar mitzva project into annual event

Teen turns bar mitzva project into annual event

Charity baseball game brings in funds for variety of causes

Dan Berke, left, receives a check from Gary Moore, on behalf of the Westfield Police Benevolent Association, to support his charity baseball game last year.
Dan Berke, left, receives a check from Gary Moore, on behalf of the Westfield Police Benevolent Association, to support his charity baseball game last year.

Dan Berke’s first baseball game for charity, in 2006, was simply a tzedaka project for his bar mitzva celebration at Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield.

Since then it has become almost an institution in Westfield, where he and his family live.

On Sept. 26, the 16-year-old and his friends from Westfield High will play a team from the Westfield Police Department at Tamaques Park, in the fifth event now known as “Daniel’s Charity Baseball Game.” The proceeds will go to Canine Companions for Independence, a national organization that provides highly trained dogs to help people with disabilities.

Such commitment is rare in a teenager. Dan said he didn’t really intend to do the game year after year, “but each time, when I’ve presented the check, it’s felt so great, and the people have been so nice about it.”

Each year, he said, he has a hard time getting started — usually in early June — and then the momentum develops over the summer. It has also gotten easier to get donations. The vendors in local stores “know me now,” he said. “It was really weird with this one guy; I didn’t say a single word. I walked into the store, and he just said, ‘Oh, you’re the kid who does the game,’ and gave me the donation.”

Dan said he hopes to be a sports agent one day, after he earns a law degree, so the games might just turn out to be his first foray into the field. For the inaugural game, he said, he had a hard time recruiting the 30 or so people to make up two teams. These days, with the police participating, he doesn’t need as many players, but he welcomes as many supporters as possible. “At school, people know about the game and ask me when the next one is going to be,” he said. “It’s great.”

Dan’s father, Evan, said that he and his wife, Meg, are delighted by their son’s philanthropic spirit but decline to take much credit. Evan said they are just grateful to have a son and daughter like Dan and his 19-year-old sister Kim, who has flown home from college in Ohio the past couple of years to help her brother with the game. His children “are just wonderfully warm, compassionate people,” Evan said. “We’re very lucky. But I suppose we do like people and we try to be nice to others, and we have taught our kids that you get what you give.”

‘A good fit’

Dan makes his own choices about whom to help each year, keeping the process as simple as he can. “It could be really tough, turning down friends who ask for help, say, for a family member or someone they know, so I jump at the first suggestion that feels right to me,” he said.

The first year, he raised $2,100 for Children’s Specialized Hospital in Mountainside. Then, as since, the money came from $20 donations from the players, pledges — fixed or linked to the number of runs scored — and from goods and services donated for the accompanying raffle and auction.

In 2007 he raised a bit more, and gave it to Saint Joseph Social Service Center in Elizabeth. The next year the money — more again — went to the Hannah Peretsman-Breene Foundation. Last year, the game brought in $4,100, which Dan gave to the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, which links children with cancer with college sports teams whose members befriend them and raise funds for their care.

Dan said he is hoping to take the total higher this year. Already, for the raffle and auction he has collected restaurant vouchers, sports memorabilia, game and movie tickets, store gift cards, and food offers large enough to feed a holiday party. Family friend Jennifer Pottheiser suggested CCI to him. She is involved in helping the organization, and he welcomed the idea. “I love animals, and CCI really helps people. It was a good fit,” he said.

In response to a question from NJ Jewish News, Jean Earle, the president of CCI’s New Jersey chapter, wrote that Dan’s contribution would help many people with special needs achieve greater independence. “Dan’s good works serve as an inspiration to us all,” she said.

Choosing to have a baseball game as his bar mitzva project was, he said, a natural choice. Dan shares a passion for baseball with Rabbi Joshua Goldstein, the leader of Sha’arey Shalom, the Reform congregation where the family are longtime members. He and Goldstein are both avid fans of the University of North Carolina Tarheels, and this year, Dan said, he is hoping to join the biweekly brunch the rabbi holds with teenagers.

“Rabbi Goldstein is one of my favorite people,” he said.

The rabbi said, “Dan’s an absolutely extraordinary person, with a wonderful family. He takes his identity as a Jew very seriously, and I’d like to think that our synagogue has maybe had an impact on him that way. I had the joy of being at the game last year and seeing the impact one person can have on the world.”

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