Stella Bernstein, Jewish community heavy hitter, dies

Stella Bernstein speaks with Fred Cantor at the dedication of the Bronfman Center in 2009. (Photo courtesy of Jewish Council for the Aging)

With her warm smile, generous nature and unrivaled Rolodex, Stella Bernstein knew how to get things done in the Washington-area Jewish community — and did, serving on the boards of numerous community organizations. The Columbia resident died Dec. 26 at the age of 81.

“She was a community person, in all caps,” said David Gamse, CEO of Jewish Council for the Aging, who was hired in 1990 when Bernstein took over as president of the JCA board. “She had a Rolodex that was unrivaled,” he added, which she used to build bridges and connect people and organizations “to the benefit of everyone.”

Those who knew her say Bernstein was dedicated to people and serving the community. She was interested in individuals — always asking how a person was doing, how was her family, is her parent feeling better — and remembered birthdays, anniversaries and other important dates.

Gamse said she would tell him: “A community is a collection of individuals, and to create a community you have to value the individual.”

But she was especially known for her hand-written thank you notes, Gamse said. With her trademark purple pen in hand, Bernstein wrote thank you notes to volunteers, employees and anyone else she felt deserved one. Gamse said he has no idea where she found the time, because she took on everything like it was a full-time job.

Along with JCA, Bernstein was a past president of Service Guild, Jewish Home for Retarded Children, Brandeis University National Women’s Committee, National Council of Jewish Women and American Israel Cultural Foundation, among others, according to an obituary that appeared in several locations. She also served on several boards, including for the Jewish Social Service Agency.

“She was a very warm and generous woman and cared very deeply about the Jewish community,” said Sylvia Raphael, who took over from Bernstein as JCA president.

During her tenure as president of the board at JCA, Bernstein helped boost the senior helpline and invested in outreach so that those in crisis knew they had somewhere to turn.

“She knew it was not only important to provide services, but make them accessible at the right time to the right people,” Gamse said.

She was a very immediate person, he added, and would call him — this was before the era of email — several times a day either to check in on someone she had referred to JCA or to refer someone she had talked to she thought could use the agency’s help.

The agency grew under their tenures, Raphael said, calling Bernstein one of the founders of “a new JCA.”

“She deserves to be applauded for all the work she did,” Raphael said

Along with her service work, Bernstein was chair of the Goldman Art Gallery at the Bender Jewish Community Center and worked at the Ratner Museum in Bethesda.

Phillip Ratner of the Ratner Museum knew Bernstein to be very “take charge” and always “dressed to the nines” while she worked there, greeting guests and providing information.

Those who knew her expressed a sentiment similar to this, which appeared in her obituary:

“Stella always left things better than she found them.”

Bernstein is survived by her husband, Paul; children, Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein (Dr. Judith Chernoff), Ellin Allin, Mark Bernstein and Julie Bernstein (Steven Weinstein); six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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