The downtown community lost a vibrant advocate and true friend last week
On Monday, August 5th, Elizabeth Berger, president of the Downtown Alliance, died at the age of 53.
Liz, as she was called, left behind an endless list of outstanding professional and political accomplishments, but to those who knew and loved her, she was far more than just a community leader — she was a mother, a neighbor, and a loyal friend.
Liz grew up and lived in New York City until her father’s job at the UJA Federation relocated the family to Buffalo, New York. She arrived at Yale in 1978 and convinced the school to let her design her own major, “Studying the City.”
On her first day of class, she met Frederick Kaufman, the man she would eventually marry.
“We were standing in line together outside Lindsey Chittenden Hall waiting to sign up for English 129. We immediately hit it off, and wrote a song together,” Kaufman recalled. “We were friends throughout college, but did not begin going out until Valentine’s Day, 1984.”
Liz also met one of her dearest friends that first day of college, a woman named Melissa Harris, who described her as “dazzling, smart, witty, and full of energy.”
“We used to walk down the street together in New Haven and sing showtunes — well, we called it singing, but it was more like screaming,” Harris said. “We’d both seen a lot of musicals, and, unfortunately for those around us, we knew most of the songs. Neither of us sang well, but it didn’t stop us.”
Andy Breslau, an old friend who was recently appointed communications representative for the Downtown Alliance, remembers that, twenty years ago, whenever Liz came to watch his band play, she was surrounded by people from all walks of life.
“She was always motivated by people, the kind of person who knew everybody and would introduce you to them,” Breslau said. “You could have great debates with her, and there was always pleasure in it. Those debates were dynamic.”
Indeed, Liz believed strongly in her own convictions, especially where morals were concerned. Eunice Bet-Mansour, a close college friend, recalled a trip they took to the Bahamas in 1980 shortly after the Iran hostage crises had broken out. Even though she had a green card, Bet-Mansour, who hails from Iran, wasn’t allowed to board the plane.
“Liz wouldn’t let them take off until she made sure I was on that plane,” she said. “She made a big fuss and told the captain he’d be in big trouble if he left without me. She managed to convince them to let me on.”
Years later, Liz could be found at all of her friends’ special events.
“She was very, very loyal,” said longtime friend Robin Cembalest.
Liz was a patron of the arts and had a deep love of dance, music, and old movies, sitting on a variety of boards like that of the Film Forum. Her passion for all things creative manifested itself in her unique, fashion-forward appearance.
“She had an artistic soul, and you saw that in her jackets and her glasses,” said Julie Menin, a friend and former fellow Community Board 1 member. “Her quirkiness showed through in the way she dressed.”
In 1983, Liz moved into the Financial District, where she would remain for the rest of her life.
Twenty years later, in 2003, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which eventually went into remission.
“Throughout her life, she was always very courageous,” said Harris. “She wasn’t a sick person. She was a healthy person with a disease, and she had this incredible empathy for other people.”
It was this empathy that perhaps served her best in her roles as president of both the Downtown Alliance and the Downtown Lower Manhattan Association.
“Liz was ultimately someone who embodied the survivor spirit,” said Menin. “She did it after 9/11 and again after Hurricane Sandy, all while she was going through a tremendous personal battle herself, which she handled with grace and dignity.”
Over the course of her career, Liz advocated for the reconstruction of Fiterman Hall, the creation of the Back to Business program that provided relief to local businesses after Hurricane Sandy, and pushed for the extension of post-9/11 commercial leasing incentives.
Liz’s office at the Downtown Alliance was adorned with pictures of her husband, writer Frederick Kaufman, her brother Gideon, and her children, Julian and Phoebe.
A devoted mother, she could always be found at her son’s Little League games, cheering him on.
“I would see her on the sidelines of the old muddy soccer fields and she would buttonhole me with about five ideas for community events,” said Community Board 1 member Mark Costello. “She talked about wanting to contribute youth sports equipment to needy kids in the third world and have bulb planting parties in the spring, and was bursting with community ideas, all at about 8 a.m. in the morning on a rainy Sunday. Her motor never stopped running.”
All of Liz’s friends knew her as an amazing cook, who, despite her hectic work schedule, always found time to come home, bake cookies, and make dinner for her family. According to Bet-Mansour, she could whip up an eight-course meal “effortlessly” along with lemon tarts, chocolate cake, and her grandmother’s chocolate chip cookies for dessert.
“An incredible meal always seemed to magically appear,” said Harris. “I was in constant awe of her ability to make something new every single time I was there. She always had a different menu — except on Passover.”
Each year, Liz and Fred welcomed nearly thirty people into their home for the Seder and fed them the best beef brisket in town.
Liz also liked to feed the needy, and encouraged her daughter, Phoebe, who had an interest in helping the homeless, to serve dinner on a weekly basis at the Bowery Rescue Mission.
“Those two children meant everything to her. She wanted to give them all kinds of experiences and help them be independent thinkers and adventurers,” Harris said. “She wanted Julian and Phoebe to trust the world and embrace people the same way that their mother did.”
A week before her death, Liz told her friends that the past ten years had been the happiest of her life.
Trackback from your site.