Over the past 13 years, Allen’s Table has become a staple for Jewish students at the University of Toronto. On weekdays, U of T students go to the Wolfond Centre for $5 kosher dinners and find community and friendship as well. However, while students enjoy Allen’s Table, most do not know the man, or the story, behind the name. In this newsletter, and in continuation of Holocaust Education Week, we want to highlight Allen Berg’s story, and his contributions to U of T, and the broader, Jewish community.

Born as Avraham Shaja Bick in 1948 in a refugee camp in Ginsburg, Germany to Holocaust survivors, the preservation of Jewish heritage was always an important part of Allen’s life. All of Allen’s grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins died in the Holocaust, and the horrors of what his parents went through forever affected Allen and his family.

Allen’s mother Yetta (nee Liebling) was born in Zbarazh (Zbaraz) in Ternopol region, Poland, now western Ukraine. She was drafted by the Russian army into intelligence as a translator at the age of 17 and went wherever they sent her. She survived the brutal battle of Stalingrad, where about 2 million died. Stalingrad was the deadliest battle to take place during WWII and was one of the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare. Yetta at some point left the army and was on the run in territories that were being bombed. She experienced starvation, eating leaves and snakes to survive. She eventually ended up in Uzbekistan. When the war ended, Yetta returned to her town to learn that her entire family had been slaughtered; Yetta’s parents, Avraham Liebling and Wella (nee Shapiro), and younger sister, Guscia (Gittel), most likely perished in the “Holocaust of Bullets” in Ukraine. In a yahrzeit document, the date of death was recorded as April 6, 1943 – this was when about 1000 Jews were shot to death in the town (Yad Vashem archives). Out of the 3000 Jews that lived in Zbarazh, only about 60 survived. Yetta fled west and ended up in a refugee camp in Germany where she met and married Morris Bick and where Allen was born.

Allen’s father Morris (Moshe Bick) was the only survivor in his family. His parents, Shaja and Sala (Sarah), and siblings Etel, Fayga and Yonick, all were murdered by the Nazis. Unfortunately, not much is known of Morris’ history as he died young and his experiences were never communicated. Morris’ untimely death greatly affected Yetta, Allen and Allen’s brother Saul. Allen faithfully drove every year to London, Ontario with his wife and children to visit his father’s grave and say Kaddish.

When Yetta and Morris arrived with Allen in Canada, they came with nothing, did not speak English and an immigration official changed their name to Berg. They were very grateful that Canada took them in as they were supposed to be relocated to Venezuela. They came to Canada as farm workers living in Ingersol then moved to London, Ontario, where he grew up. His parents worked hard as tailors to provide for Allen and his younger brother Saul. Allen’s father died unexpectedly at home at age 40 when Allen was 13 and Saul was 7. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Yetta; she had a breakdown and was in and out of hospitals, with severe depression, PTSD and profound “survivor’s guilt”. Between hospitalizations, Yetta worked for minimum wage as a sales clerk. At age 13, Allen started providing for his family by working at the local fruit market and working all sorts of jobs including cleaning industrial fridges. He and Yetta saved every dollar they made and began a second mortgage lending business. Allen received academic scholarships to study Applied Mathematics and Computer Science at Western University and while in university he continued to provide for his family in various ways including selling his blood to be used in the biophysics department. Allen then received his Master’s in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Toronto, did research contracts with Bombardier and SPAR Canada and started a PhD in computer science at U of T. Allen had very fond memories of going to Hillel at U of T where he enjoyed kosher food provided by Mrs. Marky who later started a delicatessen. Hillel provided Allen with a home away from home for which he remained grateful years later and wanted to be able to provide a warm, safe and kosher environment for others. When Allen’s friend Harvey became ill, Allen designed the program in his honour for a refua shlemah, calling it “Harvey’s Table”. The name was changed by Allen’s family when Allen died of cancer in 2015 and it is continued until this day as his family knows how important this program was to Allen.

Allen, through hard work, creativity and perseverance, at 26 years old started and ran until his passing, Computer Methods, now CMiC, a software development company which is now the leading provider for ERP systems for the construction industry. At the age of 27, Allen married Judith (nee Levy). At 33, Allen suffered a stroke that impaired his right side. This was both physically and emotionally difficult for Allen and Judith, and their young daughter Melissa. Allen felt his life would be ending by 40 like his father’s and he considered making plans to close up the business and wind down everything in his life. Fortunately, the will to survive kicked in, as well as the loving support of Judith, and they persevered, having two more children, Amy and Michael. Most victims of such a stroke never walk normally again let alone ride a bicycle. Allen learned about neuroplasticity, and 30 years after his stroke, although still walking with a limp and a weak arm, taught himself to ride a bicycle again – first a tricycle, then a 2 wheeler, falling many times until he finally succeeded.

Family was incredibly important to Allen. He was very devoted to his mother Yetta, and his wife Judith and their three children. The commandment to honour one’s parents was especially significant to Allen, and he took care of his mother, both as a young man, and then with the help of Judith. Yetta, when in need of extra care, even moved in with Allen and Judith, sharing a room with Amy. Yetta to this day is deeply loved and missed by her grandchildren and Judith. Allen also founded the Berg Chabad House in London, ON in 2003, in honour of his parents and to provide a warm, welcoming place for Jewish students. 

As the child of Holocaust survivors, Allen felt a duty to ensure the continuation of Judaism. To that purpose, many of his charitable initiatives revolved around Jewish causes and institutions – including building the Village Shul and serving as its Chairman and Treasurer. Allen also was involved in the creation of a Reena home, a place for people with developmental disabilities.

In addition to Jewish causes, he was a leader in various communities, and was someone who you could always count on for help or advice. Allen sat on the board for religious, government, and technological organizations. He deeply cared about other people, and especially had compassion for immigrants and the vulnerable. He also took joy in mentoring youth and was generous with his time and guidance. Over the years, Allen created many jobs and careers for others, helping them get back on their feet. Allen was a loyal friend to many and connected with people from all walks of life. 

Unfortunately, Allen, not yet retired and with so much more to give, was diagnosed with metastatic cancers in 2014. Allen’s family was devastated as he was the rock of their lives. Not only did they love Allen and enjoy spending time with him as he was unique, funny, kind and intelligent, but he was the person that everyone relied on and turned to for help. Allen, in keeping with his determined and optimistic spirit, tried to do whatever he could for himself and his family to survive. With his family by his side, he visited many specialists and received many treatments including painful intense treatments in Boston and Israel before succumbing to his cancers. Allen was a great man with an immense presence and left a vast chasm when he died. He is deeply missed by his family who continue to uphold his legacy and keep his memory alive.

Allen’s legacy is felt throughout the Jewish community, and at Hillel U of T especially. His devotion to his family, commitment to Judaism, and care for Jewish students is felt every time students come to Allen’s Table. Allen would be thrilled to see that his vision of a community hub for Jewish students to find friendship and kosher food has continued to be a huge success. In reading this post, we hope that you have a better understanding of Allen Berg, the man behind Allen’s Table, and his dedication to bettering other people’s lives.

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