JOAN SEIDENBACH BERENSON, a pillar of the Jewish community whose contributions to organizations like the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Louisiana (JEF), the Anti-Defamation League, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Jewish Community Day School (JCDS) and the Jewish Children’s Regional Service (JCRS), were cited as among the most significant ever, died peacefully at her home after a lengthy illness on Monday, January 14. She was 88.
For her individual largesse and leadership, Berenson was bestowed with the highest awards to Jewish community members in and out of the community. With her husband, Dr. Gerald Berenson, she was honored in 2014 with the South Central Region of the Anti-Defamation League’s A. I. Botnick Torch of Liberty Award alongside New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owners Tom and Gayle Benson.
ADL regional director Aaron Alhquist had this to say: “Joan Berenson has inspired so many with her steadfast commitment to the Jewish community of New Orleans, and her loving generosity was felt by so many. We mourn her passing, and hope that her family is surrounded by love and support in this difficult time.”
The 2017 JCDS gala honored both Berensons for their longtime contributions to the school.
Born in 1930, Berenson dedicated her life to family and community, following the example set by her parents towards volunteerism. She accompanied her mother at the age of six on service trips to the National Council of Jewish Women’s Well Baby Clinic, and at 10, she knit and folded bandages to help with the Red Cross’s World War II effort.
A graduate of Isidore Newman School, she went on to graduate from Newcomb College in 1953. While there, she met her future husband, later receiving a degree in Sociology. At this time, she helped to resettle Jewish refugees from Displaced Persons Camps as they arrived by boat from Europe. These early experiences set the foundation for what would become a lifetime of service.
She went on to serve in leadership roles for the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans. She was the first woman to serve as its vice president and was the second woman to serve as its president. Berenson was also the first woman to chair its Annual Campaign.
Berenson sat on the national United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Women’s Division Board as well as on four national committees of the UJA Campaign. Additionally, she served on the charter committee that established the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Greater New Orleans (since renamed), and later received the 2001 Tzedakah Award from JEF.
During her time as a leader, she firmly championed the equality of women, seeing to it that the chair of the Women’s Division sat on the National Federation’s Board just as the men had always done. The Jewish Community Center gave Berenson an award for continuous efforts with the Federation, the first time they had ever granted such recognition.
Berenson served the NCJW as a volunteer for 82 years. During her time with the organization, she served as parliamentarian, vice president, and president. She marched for civil rights, marched for Soviet Jewry in both New Orleans and Washington D.C., and won the Harold Salmon Sr. Award for her service work. At the time of her passing, she was one of only a handful of volunteers named as an honorary vice president.
In 2011, Berenson was the recipient of the Hannah G. Solomon Award presented to her on behalf of the Greater New Orleans Section for her meritorious service.
NCJW Section president Barbara Kaplinsky commented on her passing. “Joan continued to serve for many years as an honorary vice president, active in the affairs of NCJW. She will be terribly missed by all 900 members of NCJW,” she said.
She also testified before the Federal Select Committee on Immigration to help resettle refugees from Hungary, Vietnam, and the Soviet Union. She earned the New Orleans Section District Membership Award and won the prestigious Hannah G. Solomon Award for exemplifying the qualities of the organization’s founder.
Mrs. Berenson served on the board of the JCRS, the nation’s oldest children’s charity, assisting with efforts to provide need-based scholarships for college, Jewish summer camps, and assistance to children with special needs. Along with her husband, they established three different scholarship funds supporting each of these entities. She served as education committee co-chair and camp chair. In 2012, the Berenson family and siblings were honored by JCRS.
She was also selected as the local chair for the American College of Cardiology for three different conventions, which each had over 33,000 attendees..
Berenson, a member of Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation, was a lifetime member of Hadassah and with her husband was also cited as having instituted a Create a Legacy fund that would continue to benefit the JEF after their passing.,
She was recently predeceased by her husband of 67 years just 53 days ago in late November and is survived by her children Les Berenson, Ann (Richard) Goldfarb, Robert (Irene) Berenson and Laurie (Dale) Maas, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Services were held at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, January 17, 2019 at Congregation Shir Chadash, 3737 W. Esplanade Ave. in Metairie. Rabbi Deborah Silver officiated. Burial was private.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to: Jewish Community Day School 3747 W. Esplanade Ave., Metairie, LA, 70002; National Council of Jewish Women, 6221 S. Claiborne Ave #208, New Orleans, 70125; Jewish Children’s Regional Service, 3500 N. Causeway Blvd, Suite 1120, Metairie Louisiana, 70002; or Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, 3747 W. Esplanade Ave., Metairie, LA, 70002
Arrangements are by Tharp-Sontheimer-Tharp Funeral Home, 1600 N. Causeway Blvd. For more information, call 504-835-2341. Condolences may be expressed online here.