It’s not often you hear a Hollywood scriptwriter say the words “Shabbos,” and “Hashgacha Pratis” [divine providence] and an Orthodox mom say the words “tapings,” “writers’ room” and “agents,” but a captivated audience certainly did during a fascinating and highly entertaining conversation with Emmy-winner Ilana Wernick Berenson on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.
Berenson was the featured speaker at a fireside chat presented by the Business Honors and Entrepreneurial Leadership Program at the Sy Syms School of Business. During the engaging conversation, Berenson discussed her experience as an Orthodox Jew and her career as a writer and producer for over 20 years on shows including Modern Family, The Middle, The King of Queens and Mom in a chat moderated by Leah Gottfried ’14S, an actress and writer known for Soon by You, Operation: Candlelight and Angie’s Song.
When Berenson went to journalism school at Columbia University, she realized she liked writing but not reporting. She signed up for a sitcom writing class, was “discovered,” and a career (Jewish star?) was born.
Attendees listened as she talked with much humor about balancing an observant life, motherhood and show business, such as Friday night tapings (never, except when the finale was moved to Thursday night to accommodate her schedule); overpriced kosher pizza for the writers, cast and crew at a bowling get-together; the show she pitched with a tzedakah [charity] theme (which turned into an episode); and the need for a supportive spouse in such a demanding career (“I couldn’t have done it without him,” she said).
Providing an example of how her life worked, Berenson told a funny story about an important call that came from Kevin James, the star of The King of Queens, just as she and her son were rushing out the door to a megillah reading one erev Purim some years ago. She took the call, of course, but thankfully, all went well in the end, and Mom and Batman made it to the reading on time.
Dr. Moses Pava, the Alvin H. Einbender University Professor in Business Ethics and director of the Honors Program, said, “Ilana is an amazing role model for our honors students. Her ability to maintain the integrity of her Jewish identity while succeeding in the world of comedy writing is truly inspiring.” He added, “Her religion is not a liability but an asset in pursuing her professional goals at the highest level.”
Throughout the discussion, Berenson gave advice to students interested in pursuing a challenging career while remaining an Orthodox Jew. “You want to fit in, but don’t cut away the parts that make you special and different,” she said. “People will respect it,” and added, “But don’t act entitled.” And while she encouraged students to persevere despite the odds, (“some people thought I was crazy,” she said), she told them, “You do have to be realistic.” Most important, said this funny, accomplished mom of four, “Stand up for your values and be proud of what you are.”
For being a true role model of an Orthodox person enjoying great success in a fun but challenging career, we say to Berenson, “Kol Hakavod!” [Nice going!] – and we’re sure she knows what that means.