By Ben Kahn
Imagine you are on a trans-Atlantic flight when the pilot comes to your seat and says, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but your country is being attacked.” This is the position Stuart Bernstein found himself in on Sept. 11, 2001.
Just weeks before, the Washington native and heir to a real estate fortune had been appointed ambassador to Denmark by President George W. Bush. He had presented his credentials to Queen Margrethe II on Sept. 3.
And suddenly, it was his job to represent to small Denmark a powerful America, reeling from a brutal air attack.
“9/11 changed the job,” Bernstein, 83, said recently.
For two days after the attack, Bernstein was left in the dark by his superiors in Washington. But, he said, he basked in the outpouring of love for America from ordinary Danes. Hundreds of people gathered at the U.S. Embassy to leave flowers and express their condolences for the American people.
“Being an ambassador was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” Bernstein said, “I gave it everything I had.”
In his seventh-floor office on K Street in Georgetown, scarcely a surface is uncovered by photos and other mementos of his life in real estate, philanthropy and, until a few years ago, Republican politics, first serving President George H.W. Bush as a commissioner of the International Cultural and Trade Center.
His Judaism is informed by his secular Jewish upbringing. A former board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, he described himself now as “fiscally conservative” and “socially compassionate.” “I am pro-choice and I hate guns,” he said.
As a Jewish ambassador, Bernstein said he relished the irony that the American ambassador’s residence in Copenhagen had been the headquarters of the Nazi civilian government during the German occupation in World War II.
In the days following 9/11, Bernstein conducted several televised interviews in which he implored Muslim communities around the world to reject extremism. In public addresses, he told audiences that “Islam is one of the great Abrahamic faiths” and that it had “been hijacked by extremists.”
Bernstein said he learned tolerance and compassion from his father, Leo Bernstein, whose immigrant parents opened an Army/Navy surplus store in the 1880s on the current site of the FBI headquarters.
“I’m proud to be a Jew, but I am even more proud to be an American,” Bernstein said. “[My father] was a proud American and truly believed in the American dream.”
Years later, the Bernsteins sold the business, purchased several houses and began renting them out. That was the beginning of what is now The Bernstein Companies, a commercial real estate firm, founded in 1933 by Leo Bernstein.
Leo Bernstein passed leadership of the company to Stuart Bernstein, who remains chairman emeritus after passing the title of CEO to his son, Adam Bernstein, in 2001.
Stuart Bernstein sits on the board of the Bernstein Family Foundation, founded to carry on Leo Bernstein’s philanthropy, including to Jewish causes and particularly Orthodox organizations.
“The Jewish faith is still alive today because the Orthodox do what they do,” Stuart Bernstein said, adding that his father shared this belief. “I believe the Orthodox have a mission [from God].”
The foundation supports, among others, the Leo Bernstein Academy of Fine Arts in Silver Spring, Chabad Lubavitch of the Maryland Region, Mesorah D.C. and Sixth & I Synagogue, which he attends.
As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 passes and America exits its military involvement in Afghanistan, Bernstein is diplomatic about the two decades that have passed since the airline pilot brought him news about the terrorist attacks in Washington and New York.
“It is quite obvious that 20 years and trillions of dollars was not enough — we had to get out of there,” Bernstein said. “Perhaps it could have been done better, but I do not question the decision. [Afghanistan] is not going to be the democracy we would like it to be.”