JUNE 1, 2017 — On a recent afternoon, Barry Berman moved with ease through the lobby of the Leonard Florence Center for Living on Admiral’s Hill in Chelsea. He waved to residents, family members, and staff at the skilled nursing residence and then took a seat in a back office.
For a guy who runs a $70 million a year nonprofit, Berman keeps a low profile and listens much more than he talks.
“The secret to my success is everything I do is based on common sense – like common dignity, common courtesy,” said Berman, who is the chief executive officer of the Chelsea Jewish Foundation. “I treat people with dignity and respect and my word is my bond, and everything else falls into place. It’s really very simple.”
Berman, who is 63, grew up in Haverhill and expected to become an accountant when he went off to Bentley College. He altered his plans a few weeks into his freshmen year when he happened to come across a group of severely disabled people at the old Fernald State School in Waltham.
“I looked up and saw this disabled population and I said, ‘This is what I need to do with my life.’”
He went on to graduate school at Assumption College in Worcester, and met his wife, Cindy, a nurse. When he was 23, he was working at a rehab center in Worcester when a rabbi walked in and asked if he’d be interested in running the Chelsea Jewish Nursing Home. During a phone interview, Berman helped seal the deal when he asked if he could get a good corned beef sandwich in Chelsea.
“And they took me to a deli for an interview,” Berman recalled. “I didn’t want the interview to end! They kept [stuffing] me with food.”
In 1977, he took over the top leadership post at the Chelsea Jewish Nursing Home. At the time, there were 60 beds in the building and 40 employees.
“The staff called me the bar mitzvah boy. I looked 18. They couldn’t believe I was going to be the CEO,” he said.
A couple of years later, he met Leonard Florence, the late Chelsea philanthropist who spent much of his golden years helping to expand the Chelsea Jewish Foundation. In the early 1980s, a new Jewish nursing home was built on the site and expanded to 123 beds. In 2001, the nonprofit built Cohen Florence Levine Estates in Chelsea – the nation’s first mixed-income assisted living facility – with 69 apartments on Admiral’s Hill. In 2002, the foundation added another 36 beds for assisted living in Chelsea when it opened the Florence & Chafetz Home for Specialized Care; the 100-bed Leonard Florence Center for Living opened in Chelsea in 2010. Then in 2014, the foundation took over the former Aviv campus in Peabody.
Berman, who calls himself a “bagels and lox” Jew, said he is surprised how much the nonprofit has grown, and credits Jewish values and God for the organization’s growth and quality of service.
“We started with nothing. God steered us in the right direction,” he said.
His management style is old school. His 1,200 employees don’t have to leave the building for lunch because he offers everyone a free meal. Workers also receive up to $100 a week of free groceries, and after five years, employees and their families are treated to a paid vacation at Disney World. Each employee, he figures, stays an average of at least 10 years.
It was lunchtime, and although Berman already had eaten, he wanted to show off the Center for Living’s kosher deli, where all meals are free to residents. Inside, he pointed out the display case, where slabs of corned beef and pastrami were nestled together.
“I knew we had to have a deli,” said Berman, flashing a kind smile. “We love the deli. Why not?”
– Steven A. Rosenberg