Dotted across the map of Greater Jewish Washington are examples of Norman Bernstein’s contributions to the community.
Capital Camps, two Jewish community centers, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and many others owe their existence or growth to the Washington-born Bernstein, who died on July 5 at the age of 100.
Founder of Bernstein Management Corporation, he was “one of the key funders” of Capital Camps in Waynesboro, Pa., said Zach Briton, chief development officer for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Equally important, Briton said, was his vision that Capital Camps could be a premier camping institution. He also was a moving force behind the Retreat Center at Capital Camps.
Bernstein envisioned Jewish camping as a way to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people, said his son, Josh Bernstein.
Norman Bernstein also was an early supporter of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. In May 1982, the school’s newsletter called Bernstein “Man of the Year.” According to the article, Bernstein’s association with the school began in 1972 when he served on “a committee to examine the feasibility of a comprehensive, communitywide day school.”
That committee recommended constructing a kindergarten through high school building for Orthodox, Conservative and Reform children. It called on the United Jewish Appeal Federation (now called the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington) and the Greater Washington Jewish Community Foundation for support.
Bernstein also was influential in the development of the two Jewish Community Centers, and chaired the land acquisition committee, which selected the site at Montrose Road and East Jefferson Street in Rockville. According to the article, Bernstein “then aided in planning the new building and took an active role in major fundraising” and has supported the school ever since.
Bernstein was also influential in the development of the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, in Rockville, and Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center on 16th Street, his son said.
Chief Development Officer of the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes, Lew Fontek, called Bernstein “a very generous donor.”
Many other local organizations could say the same thing.
Bernstein stressed the importance of contributing to the community to all six of his children, said Josh Bernstein. His father contributed to the arts and other causes, but he made the Jewish community his highest philanthropic priority.
The family’s spiritual home was Adas Israel Congregation, where all the Bernstein children had their b’nai mitzvah and confirmations.
Bernstein served on many boards and was active with the United Jewish Appeal Endowment, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Adas Israel Congregation, State of Israel Bonds and the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Israel. He led several building and development initiatives and helped these organizations grow and manage their endowments, Josh Bernstein said.
In 1965, Bernstein and his wife, Diane, established the Diane and Norman Bernstein Foundation to involve their children and future grandchildren in their charitable giving. Diane Bernstein died nine weeks before he did.
“They are very clear about the values that Norman and Diane instilled in them,” Briton said of Bernstein’s children. When it comes to philanthropy, “They are each in their own way change makers here in D.C. and wherever they live,” he said.
Gail Schwartz, Diane’s sister, described her brother-in-law as “a very dignified, soft spoken, caring, loving — all the good adjectives I can think of — gentlemen.
“He was devoted to his family, devoted to the city, the country and the world,” she said. “He had a wonderful sense of values.” However, Bernstein went about his philanthropy quietly, Schwartz said. “He didn’t want publicity.”
Bernstein was “very Jewish,” Schwartz said.
Josh recalled that Friday night Shabbat dinners were a large part of his growing up. Everyone attended, and the children’s friends were always welcome.
Bernstein, who is buried near his parents in Adas Israel Cemetery, had a close relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington has a photo of a 1971 event that shows then-Ambassador Rabin and Zubin Mehta, the former music director of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, with Bernstein in commemoration of the orchestra’s premiere at the Kennedy Center.
Bernstein helped raise money to buy a Chesapeake Bay steamer that was converted into a vessel that was renamed the Exodus. That ship carried 4,500 refugees from France to Palestine after World War II, but British naval forces refused to allow the passengers, many who were victims of the Holocaust, to disembark.
Leon Uris’ novel and a film starring Paul Newman popularized the Exodus’ story.
“He was deeply committed and embedded in the Jewish community,” said Briton. “I think Norman was almost always ahead of his time. He was a change maker,” he said, adding, “He rolled up his sleeves with his time, with his energy.”