Larry Berman speaks for the R.I. House’s leadership

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Larry Berman is the communications director for the Rhode Island House of Representatives. Raised in Woonsocket, he now lives in Cumberland with Beth a preschool teacher at Providence Hebrew Day School and his wife of 42 years. The couple have two adult daughters and three grandchildren. Berman is also president of the Touro Fraternal Association’s Harmony Lodge.

Jewish Rhode Island conducted the following interview with Berman on May 8.

Tell us about your job.

My title is communications director, but I act as the spokesman for the House of Representatives. I do communications for Speaker [Nicholas] Mattiello and the House leadership, and I answer questions from the media.

What’s changed since the beginning of the pandemic?

I’ve been in this job for 18 years, and this is by far the most challenging time that we’ve ever faced. We normally know the rhythm of when we pass bills, and when we put the budget together, which is right around now. Everything was turned on its head in the middle of March, when we stopped having sessions. We haven’t met in session in the House or the Senate in [several] months.

Almost everyone is working from home. I don’t know what would have happened 10 or 15 years ago if this had occurred, because we certainly didn’t have the technology then to conduct our business the way we do now.

What does this mean in regard to passing legislation?

Right now, everything is on hold; we’re not working to pass any legislation at this moment.

The biggest responsibility that the General Assembly has is to enact the budget every [fiscal] year, which begins on July 1st. The House Finance Committee is going to start meeting … to start putting together a budget; members will vote on it in June.

How did you come to this position?

I spent 17 years covering politics and writing a political column for the Woonsocket Call, and in 1994 I was approached by Patrick Kennedy, who was running for Congress in the 1st District of Rhode Island. He knew that I had knowledge of the Blackstone Valley, which was the heart of the district, so he offered me a job as his communications director. He won, and I stayed with him for eight years. I was offered my current job in 2002.

What are the greatest rewards and challenges of your work?

When you work for the speaker of the [Rhode Island] House, you’re also working with the 75 members of the House of Representatives. You need to work with people from various backgrounds, who have divergent viewpoints. It becomes very challenging, because there are people from all walks of life; it’s very much a people’s legislature.

It can be very rewarding to see representatives get reelected, and do good work.

Are there many Jews in the General Assembly?

There are three in the House and two in the Senate. In the House, there’s Rebecca Kislak, Mia Ackerman and Jason Knight. In the Senate, there’s Gayle Goldin and Josh Miller. We’ve had others come and go.

Is there a sense of Jewish camaraderie?

I think there is, especially at times of celebration. We always have an Israel Independence Day celebration in the House. We invite the Israeli consul general from Boston, and we sing “Hatikvah” to start the session. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do it this year.

At Hanukkah, the Jewish members get together for a menorah-lighting ceremony, and we invite all the reps. Each year for Holocaust Remembrance Day, we do a resolution and say some prayers on the House floor.

Does Judaism play a role in your work?

Yes. About three years ago, Speaker Mattiello went on a trip to Israel. He came back enlightened to the culture, traditions and heritage of the Jewish people. I think it opened his eyes to the Jewish connections Rhode Island has to Israel, and we passed some pro-Israel legislation because of it. We did an anti-BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] law, and one mandating that Holocaust education be taught in middle and high schools throughout Rhode Island. I think some of that is a direct result of Jewish members and staff encouraging our leaders to do the right things when it comes to taking care of the less-fortunate; those Jewish ideals that are taught to you when you’re very young.

As a lodge president of Touro [Fraternal Association], I’m fortunate to have connections at the State House. I make sure political leaders come and speak to us; the general officers have all come and spoken to Touro members and gotten a sense of Judaism that way. I try to make sure that they come and listen to the concerns of the Jewish community.

What’s Touro been doing during the pandemic?

It’s awful. We had a whole calendar of events and some excellent speakers, and everything is canceled right through summer. We’ve been holding board meetings and committee meetings via Zoom, so, you know, we’re trying.

Has Touro done anything more social with Zoom?

We met virtually to start planning a game night, trivia contests, things like that. We want to involve people that way at least through the summer, because so many of our activities bring people together – and we can’t do that right now.

Did you grow up in Woonsocket?

Yes. I got Bar Mitzvahed at Congregation B’nai Israel, in the ’60s. There were a lot of Jewish mill owners in Woonsocket who had invested in building a beautiful synagogue there. Unfortunately, most of those people are no longer active, so it’s a very small congregation [now].

How has the Rhode Island Jewish community changed since the ’60s?

I think the Jewish community in general is becoming a much older group. It’s hard to get younger people active and involved because there are so many demands on their time. A lot of people have left Rhode Island for work, so it’s hard to keep the community together. We’ve [Touro] been trying to gear events to younger folks; the racing event we did was a big success. It was great! But getting younger people to join any organization is challenging because of how society has changed – there are so many choices these days.

Your favorite Jewish food?

Lox and bagels, with cream cheese. Gotta have the cream cheese.

What kind of bagel?

Cinnamon raisin.

With lox?

Yeah. Any kind of bagel with lox!

Fruit and fish together?

Actually, when I think about that, say sesame – that would be better!

Favorite Jewish holiday?

It has to be Hanukkah. We had a great event at Touro this year with the kids. They made menorahs and dreidels, and it was a lot of fun. And I love latkes.

Favorite Hebrew or Yiddish word?

My favorite word would be mensch. That’s a description to aspire to in living your life.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Treat people the way that you want to be treated.

MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE (mschemaille@jewishallianceri.org) writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.