Burle Usher Stromberg: Following in his father’s footsteps

“It warms my heart that there are so many exciting events taking place at HAT. Not only are we teaching our students, but we are also educating our parents, grandparents and siblings,” says Burle Stromberg, president of the Hebrew Academy of Tidewater board. When Stromberg pages through his calendar, his activities are centered around The Hebrew Academy of Tidewater, Konikoff Center of Learning, his family and his job as assistant city attorney of Portsmouth.

Last month, 200 people attended HAT’s Spaghetti Night. Four times a year, a joint lunch and learn program for the students and their parents takes place. “My son, Sam (Samuel Hyman), and I made a mezuzah working alongside his preschool classmates and their moms and dads,” he says. “In the middle of April, I was on campus for my daughter Rachel’s Science Fair held in the cafeteria. NASA scientists from the Peninsula spoke to the fourth and fifth graders and their families. Across the hall in the Fleder Multipurpose room was the annual Book Fair. I watched the attendees run back and forth, all night long, between the two rooms. The excitement was contagious,” he says.

One of his earliest HAT memories is captured in a photograph of his father wearing a hard hat and holding a shovel at the school’s groundbreaking ceremony on Thompkins Lane. Hyman Stromberg was one of the visionaries who helped shape the school’s progress.

At the time, the Hebrew Academy was an Orthodox school, renting space in the Ghent synagogues. The Strombergs and the Dozoretzes had become good friends, both having moved to Portsmouth in the mid 1960s. In 1970, when the public school districts were being reconfigured for busing, these men, along with Rabbi Bornstein and many others, had the dream of establishing the Hebrew Academy as a community day school located in it’s own building. Stromberg recalls many night meetings in his father’s study.

His father was born in Canada in 1930 to immigrants from White Russia who left their home in the early 1900’s during the communist revolution. Hyman Stromberg met his wife, Lily, when he was 14 years old. As young children, they both attended Yiddish school after their secular classes. Married in 1952, they lived in Montreal, Quebec where subtle anti-Semitism existed through quotas designed to limit Jewish entrance into schools and institutions. Although happy to be a North American, Hyman considered himself a “Jew” first and then a Canadian.

Lily was a school teacher while Hyman went to medical school. When looking for a neurosurgery residency, the United States offered many more opportunities for Jews. In 1958, on a student visa, Stromberg’s father brought his wife and oldest son, Jacob, to Richmond, Va. to attend MCV. A year later, Burle Stromberg was born, a dual citizen. In 1962, so was his sister, Debbie. Within a few years, his family became naturalized Americans through the help of a friend who knew Robert Kennedy, then United States Attorney General.

In 1967, Stromberg’s father started to practice with Dr. Frank Clare in Portsmouth, a top neurosurgeon. In their search for a new home, Stromberg vividly recollects his father’s words to the realtor as they traveled through town. “The salesman had just finished explaining that the restrictive covenant on the deeds in River Shores had been lifted, allowing Jews and Blacks to purchase homes in the community. Unacceptable to my father, Hyman responded, ‘Turn the car around and take me to the Jewish neighborhood.’” That is when the Strombergs moved into Sterling Point, and joined Gomley Chesed, a conservative synagogue with close to 400 families.

Many lived within walking distance of one another. Together, the kids attended Hebrew School twice a week and Sunday school each weekend. When Stromberg was eight years old, he remembers going to Cedar Point Country Club in Suffolk with one of his public school classmates. His friend kindly suggested, “Let me sign you in. No Jews are allowed, and you have a Jewish sounding last name.”

“My father was a true intellectual and an ardent reader. He even studied the Talmud at night, writing notes in the margins,” reports Stromberg. In the early 1970’s, he and Stanley Peck went to Israel. Both of them were committed to raising funds for the state through the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater. “My father was a true Zionist,” Stromberg says. “In 1973, during the Yom Kippur war, he came to synagogue with a transistor radio in his pocket and earphones in his ears.” Throughout services, he gave sporadic reports to the rabbi, who then conveyed the news to Gomley Chesed’s congregation.

Stromberg’s father, who had a great interest in politics, had three televisions placed in his living room, each set on a different channel, offering multiple perspectives on the 1968 presidential primaries. Shocked by Robert Kennedy’s assassination, his father explained to his family about the surgery required to dislodge the bullet from the candidate’s brain. Four years later, Stromberg witnessed a similar brain surgery that took place from 10 pm until 4 am. He occasionally accompanied his father to the hospital to observe the operations.
Always dressed in sterile clothing, Stromberg watched from a high stool positioned right behind his father.

In 1974, at the age of 44, Hyman Stromberg passed away while they were on vacation at the newly built Mai Kai apartments at Virginia Beach’s oceanfront. Known as “Bagel Beach,” it was a popular summer vacation spot for the Jewish families of Norfolk and Portsmouth.

After that summer, Ron Dozoretz became Stromberg’s mentor, acknowledging the young man’s life’s turning points with encouragement and kindness. His father’s devoted friend was there to celebrate many of Stromberg’s milestones, even giving him his first job before he passed the bar exam. Stromberg laughs, “In 1984, Dr. Dozoretz bought me an entire week’s wardrobe for work after hearing jokes from the other employees about my worn out shoes and suits. I still have some of those outfits.”

As the leaders before him, Stromberg has taken on the welfare of the community. When asked to become more active on the HAT board by his lifelong friend, Miles Leon, Stromberg did not realize that one day, he would become its president. Today, he also sits on several other boards in the Jewish community. He has also served on the boards of Portsmouth General Foundation, the Portsmouth Sports Club, the Portsmouth Sports Foundation and the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association Board.

As a carryover from his younger years, Stromberg coaches his son’s t-ball and basketball teams. He was involved with all the seasonal sports offered by the JCC when he was a teenager. Also a member of AZA, he participated in the weekly gatherings when all six AZA chapters and five BBYO groups met at the Newport Avenue building.

In 2000, Stromberg met his wife Robin, exercising at that same JCC while his daughter, Arielle, 8, was attending summer camp. Arielle was a second grader at HAT. Stromberg says, “It was a no brainer when it came time to send her to preschool and elementary school. HAT was my first choice.” He immediately became an active parent volunteer.

Today, Stromberg is thrilled with the school’s innovative education and “smart” classrooms. Already, more students than expected are enrolled for next year. As Zena Herod retires, Rabbi Mordechai “Michael” Wecker, comes to the school in July as headmaster. The new director believes in the strong academia that has been fostered by Herod and Helen Kisser in the secular curriculum and looks forward to continuing the Judaic studies program which supports all denominations of Judaism.

At the end of each school year, Stromberg bestows upon one deserving student an award that Ron Dozoretz endowed in his father’s memory, The Hyman Stromberg Memorial Award for Excellence. “It is an honor for me to recognize a student who embodies the same values by which my father lived,” relates Stromberg.

As he looks to his past, Stromberg sees the strength of his predecessors. He says, “My father never put himself on a pedestal, yet so many people admired him. I was the one on the high stool looking over his shoulder, learning the lessons that he wanted to pass on to me.

“My father would be very pleased,” Stromberg says. “The Hebrew Academy of Tidewater has remained our community’s educational bridge, linking one generation to another. HAT is extraordinary! The school’s state of the art education is the foundation for our future as a Jewish community.”

by Karen Lombart