GERALD SANDERS BERENSON, M.D., a leading researcher and internationally renowned academic specialist in cardiac studies and also acknowledged as one of the most dedicated New Orleans Jewish community leaders, died on Thanksgiving, Thursday, November 22, 2018. He was 96.
Dr. Berenson was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, the place where the so-called Bogalusa Study was created in which he and his dedicated staff of researchers traced the identifiable risk factors for cardiovascular disease due to biological and social factors beginning in childhood and adolescence. The study lasted for more than four decades and has been cited as foundational in establishing ways to identify and reduce risk factors such as hypertension and high cholesterol levels that would, in turn, minimize cardiovascular disease in older adults.
Berenson was an author of more than 700 academic and scholarly medical publications. He promoted the work of others above himself, a rarity in the academic world. Despite his key leadership in the many teams he participated in, he unselfishly insisted his name be listed last.
Because of his Jewish identity, Berenson recalled he was bullied as a youth while growing up in Bogalusa. As a result of a bloody nose that bled for a week after a severe beating, he learned how to box at the local Y.M.C.A. The valuable lesson he was taught was that bullying would stop when confronted,
A child of the Depression, he remembered how tough a struggle he and his family had and the threat to the Jewish community in Bogalusa during the Civil Rights era, when the downtown area was targeted for destruction by hate groups because of the number of Jewish businesses there.
After receiving his medical training from the Louisiana State University School of Medicine, he began his studies, which led him to found his Heart Smart program instilling in youth self-respect and acceptance of others in addition to improved nutrition and other factors. Dr. Berenson definitively linked the high dropout rate to a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease. His work continued in Washington Parish for many years.
Berenson was married for 67 years to the former Joan Seidenbach, whom he met in New Orleans. Together they became inspirational leaders of the Jewish community. Their work across the length and breadth of Jewish New Orleans included giving generously to the annual Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans campaign and to other highly visible institutions such as the Jewish Community Days School and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The ADL honored the Berensons for their leadership in 2014 with the presentation of the A. I. Botnick Torch of Liberty Award.
Besides his wife, he is survived by his children Les Berenson, Ann (Richard) Goldfarb, Robert (Irene) Berenson and Laurie (Dale) Maas, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
A funeral service was conducted by Rabbi Deborah Silver at Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation, 3700 West Esplanade Avenue in Metairie on Sunday, November 25. A private burial service followed for family members only.