In the eleventh grade, Barry Berkowitz was given his first pair of tzitzit on NCSY’s Yarchei Kallah program. When he graduated high school, an anonymous NCSY donor donated a pair of tefillin for Barry on the condition that he put them on each day.
“I took the slow and steady approach,” Barry explained from Palo Alto where he now lives with his wife and newborn son. “I figured if the pendulum swung too far it would swing back and I’d lose the momentum I’d gained.”
Barry grew up in a Conservative family in East Meadow, New York. “I grew up traditional: having Shabbat dinner and going to shul on Saturday morning and Hebrew school but that was the extent of it,” he said.
Barry went on his first NCSY Shabbaton in sixth grade and was immediately hooked.
“I look back with very fond memories of NCSY,” he stated. “It was the highlight of my high school experience, especially coming from a public school environment.”
For university, Barry went to Babson College, which has one of the best entrepreneur programs in the United States. “It wasn’t until college that I was able to blossom and find my own comfort level in observance,” he said.
He described hitting the pinnacle during his sophomore year at Babson. “I decided to put my yarmulke on full-time,” he explained. “It was a big commitment. All of a sudden I felt like I was the face of the Jewish people.”
This in turn led him to be aware that he needed to fill the void of not having a Jewish day school education. Since there was no kosher food on campus, Barry began spending Shabbat at the nearby Brandeis University and supplementing his studies in Babson with an aggressive schedule of chavrusas (learning partners) and shiurim (classes). “I had to teach myself how to daven and how to learn,” he asserted.
After graduation, Barry moved to the Upper West Side and began working in the mergers and acquisitions division of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Orthodox life in New York was much less challenging than college. “It’s easy being religious in New York City,” he said, though he still faced some difficultly when he travelled nationally and internationally for PwC.
He met his wife, Erica Mikhli, through mutual friends. The two married in 2010. Barry proposed in Central Park on Friday afternoon before sunset so the two could spend a quiet Shabbat together before making their engagement public.
In 2011, Barry was contacted by a Google recruiter through Linkedin. “I wasn’t even looking to leave PwC but my wife said, ‘How can you not respond to a Google recruiter?’”
After a phone interview, Google flew Barry out to the company headquarters in California. “I accepted the position and we made the difficult decision to move away from our family and friends,” he said, before adding that working for Google has many perks. “It’s fun coming to work. Google has been ranked the number one company in the world to work for.”
The company provides three kosher meals a day from the local kosher restaurants for the less than 10 observant Jews who work in the company’s headquarters.
He and his wife attend the local Orthodox shul, Emek Bracha. Within three months, he became the shul’s treasurer.
Rabbi Yehoshua Marchuck, the current director of NCSY Alumni, was a staff member when Barry was in Jr. NCSY. He wasn’t surprised by Barry’s success. “Barry was always the type of NCSYer that would notice new kids at their first event,” Rabbi Marchuck recalled. “He would approach the newcomer and get them involved. Those leadership qualities were there as a teen and have only been refined.”
Even though he’s 3,000 miles away, Barry is still connected to his former NCSY region. When he makes a donation, Google matches it. “I want to create as many opportunities to enable programs like the Hebrew culture clubs and summer programs,” he said. “That’s where it all starts. All you need is one successful program to spark that interest from a non-observant public high school student and they can start on a successful path to get to where they feel their life should be. That was my experience.”