Bernstein, Philip S. - Introduction


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Rabbi Philip Bernstein needs no introduction to a Rochester audience. He has been here too long.[1]

Philip S. Bernstein was the son of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe who came to the United States in the late nineteenth century. His mother, Sara Steinberg, came from Seraye in Lithuania. At the age of ten her family sent her alone to America. She came to live with her brother Sam in Rochester, New York, and never saw her immediate family again.[2] Bernstein's father, Abraham, born in 1875 in Kalvary, Lithuania, immigrated with his family to New York City. There he learned the tailoring trade. Eventually he arrived in Rochester where he met and married Sara Steinberg. Philip S. Bernstein, the first of their three sons, was born there on June 29, 1901. In 1903, the Bernstein family moved back to New York City for about eight years, then returned to Rochester to stay. For the next fifty years, Philip Bernstein lived "within the area of one square mile" in the city.[3]

A precocious student, Bernstein was placed in advanced classes at East High School in Rochester. He left in 1917 without being graduated. Despite his youth and his family's lack of money, he was determined to go to college—even running away to his aunt in New York for a short time to make his point. In the fall of that year he was finally allowed to enter Syracuse University. His schooling there was interrupted by his father's illness, and in 1919, he returned to Rochester to run the family tailoring business for a short time. It was never very prosperous, and Bernstein decided to leave the world of business. As he saw it, his future lay either with the law or in the rabbinate.

Bernstein had, from an early age, been active in the Jewish community. In this he was alone in his family: his brothers both pursued successful secular careers. (However, his cousin Milton Steinberg, son of his mother's sister, with whom he grew up, was also to become a well-known rabbi.) Bernstein's interest in Zionism found expression in 1914 when he was an usher at the 17th National Convention of the Federation of American Zionists in Rochester.[4] The following year, as a delegate to the Young Judean Zionist Convention in Boston, he met future Supreme Court Justice and active Zionist Louis D. Brandeis. Later, as a student at Syracuse University, he taught Sunday School at Temple Society of Concord, a Reform congregation. These kinds of activities seem to have convinced him to formalize his service to his community by becoming a rabbi.



After being graduated from SU in 1921, Bernstein entered the Jewish Institute of Religion (JIR) in New York City. The Institute had been recently founded by the famous Reform rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and Bernstein, attracted by Wise's powerful personality and the Institute's pro-Zionist stance (in contrast to what he saw as the anti-Zionism of the Hebrew Union College), was a member of its first class, graduating in 1926. His master's thesis was on Jeremiah, after whom his first son was named. In later years he expressed regret that his education did not give him a deep background in the Hebrew language.

In June 1925 he married Sophie Rubin, the niece of Syracuse rabbi Benjamin Friedman, with whom Bernstein had become friends while attending the University. Sophie Rubin does not have a large place in her husband's papers. She is revealed indirectly as a woman of strong character, willing to meet the traditional social obligations of a rabbi's wife, but also capable of substantive work of her own in the Temple in which her husband was rabbi. She aided him organizationally, especially in the activities of the Sisterhood of Temple B'rith Kodesh, which was sometimes as much an educational and political organization as it was religious and social. She accompanied her husband on most of his trips throughout their lives, and together they were indefatigable travelers. Shortly after their wedding they took the first of what would become a typical Bernstein working vacation. They spent the 1925 fall term at Cambridge University, England, where they met and became friends with Chaim Weizmann, the future first president of Israel. At the end of the term, they left England and visited Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Poland, Vienna, Venice, Rome, Naples, Egypt, and Palestine, where Bernstein completed his studies in the first classes at Hebrew University.[5] Forty years later they went on a trip around the world in the opposite direction, traveling to Los Angeles and thence to Hawaii, southeast Asia, India, Africa, Israel, and Greece. In many of these cities and countries, they inquired after the history and lives of Jewish communities: "Wherever we go, like Joseph, we seek our brethren. And we find them."[6]

While in Palestine, an apparently chance meeting with some touring residents of Rochester led Bernstein to apply for the position of assistant rabbi at Temple B'rith Kodesh. In August 1926 he was hired and when Rabbi Horace J. Wolf died in February of the next year, Bernstein became the sole rabbi. He remained at the head of the temple for 46 years until his retirement in June 1973. This long tenure was divided in two by an almost five-year absence from the congregation during World War II. The first period, from 1927 to 1942, was marked by his social activism in Rochester, extensive traveling abroad (especially to Europe, where he observed with alarm the increasingly dangerous situation of the Jewish community), and his move from pacifism to acceptance of war as the only means to stop Hitler. In the second period, from 1947 to 1973, Israel replaced Europe as the focus of his international concerns, while at home, he worried about the survival of Judaism in the affluent and superficially tolerant culture of the United States.

Bernstein's career as rabbi began at the close of the era of Old World Jewry and embodied the coming of age of New World Jewry.[7] The child of recent Eastern European immigrants, he came into a mature temple founded in 1848 at the beginning of the "German Period."[8] Bernstein integrated the liberal concerns of the German Reform movement with the new demands of the immigrants for a traditional Jewish religious experience.

Temple B'rith Kodesh was in 1926 the largest synagogue in Rochester, with a membership of about 400, and its only Reform temple. As a Reform synagogue it was liberal in its theology and practice[9] and active in social affairs. Rabbi Wolf had been the chair of the Social Justice Commission of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR)—the main body of Reform Judaism—from 1916 to 1924, and was described by Jacob R. Marens in 1954 as a disciple of well-known Protestant Social Gospel leader Walter Rauschenbush.[10] Bernstein continued its tradition of social activism and liberal thought. Theologically, he was, in his early years, squarely in the modernist camp.[11] Henri Bergson was a major influence, and Bernstein's mentors while he was a student at JIR included John Haynes Holmes, founder of the non-denominational Community Church, and Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture movement. While at JIR he also took classes at Columbia University from John Dewey. In a 1926 address, given before he was hired by B'rith Kodesh, Bernstein admitted to not having "a definite belief in God" [12] (and in a 1960 sermon said of himself, "I was a teen-age atheist"). Although he was by no means a materialist, the core of his belief at that time lay in the realm of ethics; in 1948 he would still say that the aim of Reform Judaism "was to recapture the spirit, the teachings, the way of life enunciated by the Hebrew prophets."[13] This belief drew him into deep involvement in social concerns and a willingness to stir things up. "The building of a better social order means radicalism of one kind or another," he told a local PTA in 1933. "You can't find or abolish what is evil without offending vested interests, and that means trouble."[14] Locally, he worked for fair housing in Rochester, on its Housing Commission and as a private citizen (yet also using the pulpit as a forum). He often addressed the City Club on issues of economics and justice. He arbitrated several labor disputes.

What Bernstein added to B'rith Kodesh was a renewed emphasis on Jewish tradition—on ritual, ceremony, and symbolism, an effort to "re-Judaize Reform Judaism."[15] The Reform movement in the early part of the twentieth century had "little Judaism, [and] less Jewish observance (piety)," said Bernstein in the 1950s:[16] there was "not very much to distinguish the religious life of the temple from that of the First Unitarian Church."[17] He found himself "repelled" by the first Reform service he attended at the Gibbs St. Settlement House in Rochester.[18] Most of B'rith Kodesh's members in 1927 were Jews of German origin who prided themselves on a humanist thinking and practice in their temple that often transcended cultural and ethnic differences. But Jews immigrating from Eastern Europe, including Bernstein's parents, had been dramatically increasing in numbers since the end of the nineteenth century,[19] and had brought with them an interest in and desire for a more traditional, distinctively Jewish religious setting. The two groups were hostile and showed little cooperation.

However, the influence of the newcomers on the American Jewish community was decisive. In Rochester, B'rith Kodesh began to offer Hebrew lessons to students during Bernstein's first decade as rabbi. Bar mitzvahs were introduced during that same period. "Sentimental Protestant music" was replaced by music informed by "Jewish religious sources."[20] And in 1941, the Temple discontinued Sunday morning services to return to traditional Friday evening services. Despite the renewed attention to tradition, Bernstein emphatically denied he was a Conservative. He was striving to institute a "liberalism steeped in Jewish tradition." He defined the difference between the Reform and conservative branches of Judaism as being that of choice: The Reform wing chose to adopt the traditional ritual practices, whereas the conservatives saw themselves as being bound by them.[21] This approach could be seen as simple pragmatism: Writing to one of his congregation in 1951, Bernstein accepted a compliment on a Friday evening service, noting, "We try to make [our historic traditions] appealing and meaningful and win our people to them not through compulsion but through their desirability and usefulness."[22] Looking back in 1967, Bernstein could claim that the genius of Reform Judaism lay in its adaptation of its historic core to the times: "[It was] a way of being a Jew, a way of seeking the essence of faith, relevant to the needs of one's time and place. It represented a readiness to change, to adapt, to acculturate."[23] He also noted that the Temple had, under his leadership, become more traditional. That this balance between keeping the old and introducing the new could not please everyone is revealed in some notes received as B'rith Kodesh was looking for Bernstein's successor in 1972–1973. "Give us back our Reform Service," said one congregant, and another wrote, "The kind of Rabbi I would want is a reformed [sic] Rabbi."[24]

The location of Jewishness in practice, or the structure of the religious life—rather than in a creed, or in theological abstractions—found full expression in Bernstein's tremendously popular essay, "What the Jews Believe." Originally published in Life magazine September 11, 1950, it received an enthusiastic response from Jewish and non-Jewish readers, and Bernstein later expanded it into book form. The interest of non-Jews seemed especially important to him. An intrinsic part of having a Jewish identity was explaining and relating it to the adherents of other creeds and cultures. Yet "What the Jews Believe" was in large part addressed to Bernstein's own community. He was to say later, "As the years passed it was clear that it was even more important to get Jews to respect Judaism than to get Christians to respect it."[25]

During the first part of Bernstein's rabbinate, the Jewish community's great foe on the outside was a relatively straightforward anti-Semitism. Europe was home of the Oberammergau Passion Play and, of course, Hitler; and even after the War, pogroms and racial hatred continued. Americans were subject to the rantings of Father Coughlin and the reflexive anti-Semitism of the uneducated. However, the challenge of this kind of prejudice was gradually replaced by the end of the 1950s by the threat of assimilation. On the positive side, Jews had made great strides in finding acceptance in society, and Bernstein was glad to note that his students in his confirmation classes were reporting having had no experiences of anti-Semitism.[26] Economically, American Jews shared in the post-war prosperity of the United States; B'rith Kodesh moved in 1962 from the inner city to Brighton, one of Rochester's wealthy suburbs, where most of its burgeoning population lived. This increase in numbers and in wealth was not an unambiguously good thing. "In Rochester one can't join the country club unless he's a member of a synagogue; in this place the synagogue is the country club," Bernstein lamented .[27] Furthermore, the cost of this growth seemed to be the loss of a distinctive, vibrant Jewish identity. Bernstein complained in 1969, "In my youth intermarriage was rare, assimilation was remote. On one day earlier this month I had five requests for conversion and intermarriage."[28]

Bernstein saw an active Jewish identity as the basis for participation with other creeds and movements in a ministry of social reform; his ecumenism had deep roots. In the early 1930s he, along with Rochester Unitarian minister David Rhys Williams, were the foremost religious leaders in progressive reform in Rochester. They sometimes parted ways, such as over Williams's strenuous attacks on the Catholic Church, one of which he delivered from Bernstein's pulpit during Thanksgiving. But the friendship survived and thrived on argument and disagreement, and together Williams and Bernstein made a significant contribution to settlement houses, missions, educational institutions, and political life in Rochester. Nationally, Bernstein campaigned on behalf of and also with the socialist Norman Thomas during the Depression.

Bernstein saw himself as an advocate of woman's emancipation and Negro American rights in the 1930s and 1940s. Primarily a liberal paternalist, even on that basis he was nonetheless often several strides ahead of Rochester public opinion. In the early 1930s, he and David Rhys Williams both invited Margaret Sanger to speak from their pulpits. They publicly defended her and the birth control movement against charges of obscenity, a stance which cost Bernstein some important Temple members. As a Reform Jew in the 1930s, Bernstein advocated the emancipation of women from traditional restrictions on their autonomy and development, and was impressed by the achievements in that area in the young Soviet Union. In 1960 he boasted that one of Reform Judaism's unique contributions had been the achievement of equality by women, pointing to the establishment of Confirmation for girls as well as for boys, and the permitting of women in the pulpit.[29] However, he was relatively silent on the issues of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s.

Much stronger was Bernstein's outspokenness on civil rights. From 1936 to 1940 Bernstein was Chair of the Rochester City Planning and Housing Council. From that position he argued for integrated neighborhoods and the construction of affordable, integrated residences for low-income families. He was also active in the Rochester City Club, and was its president from 1932 through 1933. He often pressed his causes in addresses to the Club. A sense of humor accompanied his moral earnestness. He wrote to David de Sola Pool in 1946:

"This seems to be ‘TESTIMONIAL DINNER TO BERNSTEIN MONTH.' … On Wednesday there is to be a Chamber of Commerce interfaith brotherhood luncheon in my honor at which I plan to tell them that brotherhood has no meaning unless Negroes are permitted to live everywhere in Rochester. I think that will end ‘TESTIMONIAL DINNER TO BERNSTEIN MONTH.'"[30]

In that same year, in a more serious vein, he forecast: "The fate of the Negroes in the United States for the next generation will be determined in these coming months."[31] He continued to speak out on civil rights, with increased vigor, for many years. When he received the 1958 Rochester Rotary Club award, for example, he charged that the construction of the low-cost Hanover Houses project "in the worst slum area of town" amounted to a "surrender to bigotry" on the part of the city.[32] But one can perhaps hear a note of resignation or withdrawal in his 1966 claim that "as the Jews emancipated themselves from [the ghetto north of the railroad tracks, where most Jews lived in the first part of the century] and other ghettoes, the Negroes can and will [also emancipate themselves]."[33] By then Bernstein was seeking solutions more often in the management skills of social and political elites, whom he hoped to morally awaken, than in grassroots organizing. Not surprisingly, he was also distinctly uncomfortable with black nationalism. Still, in his public addresses and private correspondence, especially in relation to the local Rochester organization FIGHT, Bernstein maintained that black anger had its roots in palpable inequalities whose reform could not help but upset the economic and political arrangement of things by whites. He put it bluntly in the spring of the turbulent year 1968: "The first [of ten commandments for Black-White relations] is the acceptance of White guilt for the problem that confronts us."[34]

Bernstein's removal from his congregation in Rochester during the war was to fill two prominent national positions—both, ironically, serving in a supportive role to the U.S. armed forces. For almost two decades after his enthusiastic enlistment in the army in 1918, PSB had been a staunch pacifist, speaking out frequently and fervently against the evils of war and the economic and social conditions that he saw contributed to war. From 1936 to 1938 he was chairman of CCAR's Committee on International Peace, and had lectured President Roosevelt on the evils of arms buildup. However, the unrelenting growth of anti-Judaism in Europe, especially in nazi Germany, forced him to reluctantly give up his pacifism,[35] although he never became a hawk. When World War II came to the U.S., Bernstein responded.

The first position was Executive Director of the Committee on Army and Navy Religious Activities (CANRA) of the National Jewish Welfare Board, a role Bernstein filled from December 1942 to February 1946. Soon after the U.S. entered the war Bernstein volunteered his services as an overseas chaplain. Although he was formally rejected in that capacity, he nevertheless became, as Executive Director of CANRA, chaplain to the chaplains—overseer of the Jewish chaplains in the U.S. armed forces. This role is documented by the Papers, although much may be missing. They reveal the lengths to which PSB went to help ensure that the Jewish enlisted men and their chaplains received appropriate material and spiritual support—letters from home, supplies for the holidays, kosher food, torahs and prayer books, places and time for worship, guidance about following Jewish practice under wartime conditions, gossip about their peers, and humor. Out of that work came Rabbis at War, explaining the work of CANRA, published in 1971 by the American Jewish Historical Society. His travels in the Pacific theater in 1944 made a lasting impression on him; he was especially fond of telling the story of the Hanukkah service on a shattered Saipan where the tropical heat melted the candles as fast as they burned.[36]

The second position came almost immediately on the heels of the first. Bernstein had barely returned home when he was asked to succeed Judge Simon Rifkind as Advisor on Jewish Affairs to the U.S. Army Commander in Germany (later expanded to include Austria). His was the longest tenure of all the advisors, serving Generals Joseph T. McNarney and Lucius D. Clay in Germany, and Mark Clark in Austria, from May 1946 to August 1947. As Bernstein was to recall in 1962: "The displaced persons were at the lowest ebb of their morale. They were among the people who had brought about their misfortunes and were facing the coldest winter in Germany's recorded history."[37] Many Germans, and other Europeans, were unrepentantly hostile toward Jews. In July 1946 a bloody pogrom in Kielce, Poland, sparked an exodus of Jews toward the haven of the U.S. Occupied Zone in Germany. This section of the papers covers Bernstein's successful efforts to open the borders of the American zone after the Kielce attack, and to keep them open through the winter and into the next year, and his concern over the maintenance of adequate food and housing standards for the DPs. While their ration at first was 2200 calories, as against 2000 for other DPs, this was reduced to 2000 in March 1947. He took special pride in his role in reversing history. The Weisbaden Temple rededication in December 1946 was the first since the Nazis came to power. His son Stephen became Bar Mitzvah in Frankfurt in January 1947, the first in Germany for seven years. Bernstein noted, "Since liberation there was not a single Jewish boy in this once great city of Frankfurt who reached the age of thirteen."[38] Perhaps his greatest achievement, in his own estimation, was gaining recognition by the U.S. Army of the Central Committee for Liberated Jews. The Committee, he crowed, "in effect re-established an official Jewish community in an area from which Hitler claimed he had forever abolished them."[39] Less successful, however, were his efforts to convince the U.S. Congress to open the doors wider to Jewish DP immigration. This section of the papers also includes correspondence and reports on Bernstein's efforts to get DPs to Palestine, and related to that, on his meetings with President Harry Truman and English Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin.

Bernstein's other two major roles did not take him away from his congregation. The first of these was his presidency of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the chief organization of Reform Judaism in America, from July 1950 to June 1952. Bernstein initiated major changes of lasting importance to that organization, including the establishment of its own periodical, CCAR Journal. He was most proud of his leading a seminar of American rabbis to Israel in 1951 to see first hand how Israeli Jewish life compared with American Jewish life.

Finally, the last major national position held by PSB was Chair of the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs (AZCPA), founded early in 1954. Not surprisingly, Bernstein's Zionism underwent some changes through the years. It does not seem to have meant to him the end of the Diaspora and the ingathering of the Jews. Bernstein himself seems to have seriously considered emigrating to Palestine only twice: first while he was attending Hebrew University in 1926, and later after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Before and immediately after the war, Zionism for Bernstein was the expression of the hope for a port in the storm: a refuge to which the Jews of Europe could flee from mounting persecution. Thus Zionism was not a theological issue, but "an answer to anti-Semitism."[40] This view guided his efforts as Advisor on Jewish Affairs to get Jews admitted to Palestine, where most of them wanted to go. After the birth of Israel, Bernstein's Zionism seems to have become the expression of the safeguarding of the young country from the hostility of its Arab neighbors. Israel was now indeed a Jewish homeland, a place where Jews could develop their own culture free from the oppression that had haunted them in Europe. Nonetheless, Jews could also remain loyal citizens of any hospitable country in the world. In 1951 he claimed, "There will be two great Jewries in the world,—Israeli and American."[41]

Bernstein became the second chairman of AZCPA in 1954, succeeding fellow Rochesterian Louis Lipsky. The Committee's purpose was to promote an American foreign policy favorable to Israel's interests by lobbying government officials, and by countering what it considered Arab propaganda in the media and elsewhere. Bernstein's position was that of a western cultural paternalist, and the main line of argument of the Committee with government officials and the public was that Israel was a lone western democracy, tamer of the Palestinian wasteland, surrounded by backward, hopelessly despotic Arab governments.[42] As such, it was the United States' most promising ally in the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union for hegemony in the Middle East. Bernstein and AZCPA president I.L. Kenen were unsympathetic to a hearing on the Palestinian side of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

In 1959, the Committee changed its name to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), to reflect, according to public explanation, non-Jewish support for U.S. foreign policy favorable to Israel. Perhaps "Zionist" seemed a historical anachronism once the state of Israel had been established. But the name change might also have been a result of the fairly continuous problems the Committee had concerning its status with Senator Fulbright and other non-Zionist Jewish organizations, who claimed that the Committee should be formally registered as a foreign agent of the Israeli government rather than as a domestic lobby.

Ironically, though, Bernstein would probably consider today's AIPAC as something of a repudiation of what he and Kenen had worked to make it in its first few decades. In Bernstein's day, AIPAC was allied with liberal Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, at least ostensibly supportive of democratic principles, while the AIPAC of today has sought out right-wing support, and especially the dollars and political power of the kind of Christian right-wing organizations that Bernstein abhorred.

All along, however, AIPAC has remained a low-profile organization. The position of chairman in most organizations such as AIPAC is usually that of a public relations figure, while the executive director is responsible for policy and organization. Chairmen are usually chosen for their status in a particular community, and their talents in interpreting the organization's work to the public. Bernstein, however, worked in equal partnership with Kenen in building the Committee and forming its policy. And, ironically, the strength of this section of the papers comes from the fact that Bernstein could not be in Washington, D.C., where the lobby was located, all the time, and so, instead, he and Kenen corresponded, sometimes twice a day. Their heavy, substantive correspondence survived.

In 1968, Bernstein retired from his position as Chairman of AIPAC, and in 1973 he retired as rabbi at Temple B'rith Kodesh. His review of Judd L. Teller's Strangers and Natives sums up his experience of the development of American Jewry in the 47 years from 1921 to 1968 (the same span as Bernstein's leadership at the Temple): "The swift evolution from ghetto to suburbia, from poverty to affluence, from the laboring masses to the middle classes, from anti-Semitism to a-Semitism, from segregation to acceptance, from inbreeding to intermarriage."[43] In the 1970s he began to suffer from Parkinson's Disease, and he died on December 3, 1985, at the age of 84. Before his death an endowed chair was established in his name in the Department of Religious and Classical Studies at the University of Rochester.

The first part of the Papers is organized around PSB's different roles and activities, as rabbi, Director of CANRA, Advisor on Jewish Affairs, and President of CCAR and AIPAC. In a short article in Life magazine in 1955, Bernstein noted, "My congregation has hailed me, because of my travels, as ‘the oldest established permanent floating rabbi in the world.'"[44] The characterization was apt. Bernstein's career history was one of a locally rooted pastor, yet also the head of several organizations of national and international importance. Even as the latter obligations often took him away from his congregation, they seem to have supported him. Certainly his activities brought some luster to the Congregation. Just about every person of national or international importance, from World War II generals to foreign diplomats, whom Bernstein came to know in his work and travels, ended up giving a talk at Temple B'rith Kodesh in Rochester, New York. This part of the Papers also includes material reflecting PSB's concerns and activities on the levels of city, county, and state.

The second part of the Bernstein papers includes his addresses, writings, and correspondence. Upon Bernstein's return from Israel to the United States in 1926 he wrote an article on the Jewish kibbutzim of Palestine, which was published in The Nation. It was the first of many articles that he contributed to either The Nation or The New Republic. Many of his sermons found their way into print in these magazines, often without rewriting. Bernstein's output was prolific; in addition to his numerous journal articles and weekly sermons, he delivered many radio addresses, both local and national, wrote frequently to newspapers, and published two books, What the Jews Believe and Rabbis at War. He proudly claimed of himself, "I was for a generation the writingest rabbi in the country ... Life, Harper's, New Republic, Christian Century, Jewish Publications, etc."[45] His numerous book reviews, many inflicted upon his congregation via summer letters from Dennis, Cape Cod, led Rochester historian Henry W. Clune to write to him in 1971, "I know of no one, with the possible exception of Edmund Wilson, who writes as well about books as you do. ... You, to me, are the Great ecclesiastic of the town."[46]

Finally, the third part of the Papers contains miscellaneous material—some research material probably intended for use in his public addresses, print material filed away for future use, and stuff not easily inserted into other categories.

Bernstein is probably best described as one of those figures who, while not very readily or widely known, worked with and knew, sometimes very well, everyone who was.[47] Perhaps precisely because of his non-celebrity status among leading Jewish figures and the wide and in-depth work that he did, his papers form a rich source for just about every issue one can think of concerning American Jewish identity.

Walter F. Nickeson and Laura Graham (1995–2000)




[1] "… said the Chairlady in presenting me to a women's club," quipped PSB. [Subject files, Jewish wit and humor] It seems to me that beginning this essay with a joke would have pleased PSB, who recorded a humor-filled vinyl record to explain Why Jews laugh.


[2] This story is recounted in numerous places, e.g. "The meaning of America," sermon, 31 May 1953.

[3] Address on the dedication of the PSB Chair at the University of Rochester, 16 December 1974.

[4] According to Thomas Philip Liebschutz, in his M.A. thesis on Bernstein, "The impact of these men [Zionists such as Louis Lipsky, Nathan Straus, and Stephen S. Wise] and these meetings upon the gifted and impressionable Bernstein was momentous. They made him into a lifelong Zionist; they gave him a feeling of Jewish dignity and self-respect; they moved him in the direction of Hebraic culture and the Hebrew language" (p. 37). Much of Liebschutz's information came from a 1964 interview with Bernstein.

[5] Years later PSB would write: "Cambridge was a beautiful experience, but Jerusalem changed my life. In a real sense it saved me for the rabbinate, giving me a sense of sacred responsbility to the history and destiny of our people. I developed a love for the Hebrew language and culture which enriched my entire life." Temple B'rith Kodesh Bulletin, 6 Feb 1970. (Subj.: Glueck, Nelson.)

[6] Letter to TBK for Temple bulletin, 14 December 1966. (Personal misc.: travel)

[7] Jacob Rader Marcus, in The Jew in the American World: A Source Book (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996), calls the years 1925–1960 the "Emerging American Period" and notes that the immigration restrictions of the early 1920s "had the effect of spurring the diverse Jewish ethnic groups here to begin blending ... there was, very definitely, a Jewish melting pot. Out of diversity came forth unity" (p. 393).

[8] Marcus' term.

[9] The organ and pews were introduced in the 1860s, and according to the Jewish Ledger of 5 December 1928, TBK was the first congregation in the country to conduct services in English. Edward J. Wile, "History of Temple B'rith Kodesh," Jewish Ledger (v. 9, no. 13):2.

[10] I don't know where this is from.

[11] In 1933 he wrote that he was a rabbi "of the liberal variety, which means that in addition to the modernization of my ideas, I wear Michaels Sterns clothes, Hannan shoes, Manhattan shirts and sport a snappy, collegiate haircut. A generous-minded person might mistake me on the street for an enterprising insurance agent." On Jewish destiny, Publications.

[12] This sermon, "The Minister," was published in the JIR's yearbook, The Annual, a copy of which may be found in the Personal Miscellanea section of the Papers. Ten years later he wrote in The Christian Century, "I do not believe in absolute religious truth." Pubs., box 1.

[13] "What's ahead for Reform Jews?" sermon, 26 Nov 1948.

[14] Addresses box

[15] "My last Friday evening sermon on Gibbs Street," 11 May 1962.

[16] I don't know where this is from; similar phrasing in his 11 May 1962 sermon.

[17] ?Summer letter, 1960?

[18] "Gibbs Street—meaning and memories," sermon, 23 April 1965.

[19] Bernstein said in his 15 January 1965 sermon on Fiddler on the Roof, "Perhaps three quarters of the members of this congregation are descended from Anatevka, from the shtetlah of Eastern Europe."

[20] Sermon, 23 April 1965.

[21] Despite this claim, PSB could also write (in 1954, thanking the Rochester Civic Music Association for moving the Artists' Series concerts away from Friday nights, which conflicted with the Sabbath service), "By ancient religious precept these [Sabbath services] are not subject to change, but must be observed on the Sabbath Eve." Local, NYBR Council, 15 Sept. 1954.

[22] Family worship and consecration of children, January 1951. (TBK 6?)

[23] "Presentation of Cantor David Unterman," 21 May 1967 (2:18). In this light it is amusing to see how the unexpected news that Bernard Chernik, scheduled to speak at TBK in February 1955, was Orthodox, came as "a complete shock to everyone here." Accommodating Mr. Chernik's dietary and Sabbath observances "caused a re-arrangement of many plans that were made." These comments were made in PSB's absence by his secretary, who claimed, "I have been placed in a very awkward position due to this negligence [i.e., the failure of the Speakers' Bureau to inform the Temple beforehand]." (3:13)

[24] Search for Successor Folder (2:23). While this last respondent would seem to be criticizing the Temple's move away from Liberal Judaism, the letter continued that the kind of Rabbi wanted is "One as near as you can get like [sic] Rabbi Bernstein."

[25] "My Last Friday Evening Sermon on Gibbs Street," 11 May 1962.

[26] Contrast this to his 1936 statement: "High-school students seem preoccupied with problems of anti-Semitism, and are quite worried about their future." "Jews have the jitters," pubs box 1.

[27] "Time and estrangement," pubs. Box 3, June 1958.

[28] 1969 speech to CCAR

[29] "Reform Judaism confronts Orthodoxy and Conservatism," 28 October 1960. In the same sermon Bernstein also said: "I know of what the preparations for the Passover in a traditional home meant to Jewish women. Certainly it was an effort, but it gave them the deepest kind of spiritual joy." One wonders how Bernstein knew of the women's balance between the effort and the joy.

[30] Correspondence, 1946.

[31] Sermon, 1 February 1946.

[32] Acceptance speech, 6 May 1958.

[33] Sermon, 14 September 1966.

[34] Sermon, 19 April 1968.

[35] In his "Apologia pro aetate mea," CCAR Journal (April, 1969):12, Bernstein stated, "At a midnight rump session of the Conference [i.e., CCAR] in Charlevoix, Michigan, in June, 1938, I made my public confession of sin. I renounced my pacifism and committed myself to the war against Nazi Germany." However, in the 20 July 1949 Christian Century, as part of a series on "How My Mind Has Changed in the Last Decade," he wrote, "My last pacifist speech was delivered at Williamstown on September 1, 1939." This speech is not extent.

[36] e.g.,  in "Out of this world—a report from the Pacific," radio broadcast by PSB, 25 February 1945.

[37] Address to AIPAC, 1 April 1962.

[38] AJA box.

[39] Press release, September 1946.

[40] "Reform Judaism," column in Jewish Daily Bulletin, 23 June 1935. [Publications]

[41] CCAR box?

[42] Typical of this attitude is this selection from a 1951 sermon describing the "colonization" of Palestine by Jews: "To the rank and file of the Arab people they brought nothing but benefits. The country was poor, the political system had been corrupt and rotten and the health conditions were abonimable [sic]. Every Arab suffered from some major illness and most of the Arab children died in infancy. Into this backward situation, the Jews introduced modern health and hygiene, public education, scientific agriculture, and modern industry. As a result, the Arabs near the Jewish settlements developed the highest standard of living to be found among any Arab people in the world." (Sermons, 1951)

[43] Publications box, 1968.

[44] In a letter to the editor a Rochester reader, quoting Pope Paul, wrote, "Rabbi Bernstein has long been himself a blessing ‘Urbi et Orbi.'" Dec.? 1974

[45] Letter to Samuel Karff, in 1976, in CCAR box, on ideas for a book.

[46] CANRA section, letter.

[47] When helping plan a festschrift for his 30th anniversary in 1964, Bernstein compiled a list of possible contributors that included Ben Gurion, Abba Eban, Golda Meir, Norman Cousins, Hubert Humphrey, Jacob Javitz, Lawrence Spivak, Max Lerner, and J. Robert Oppenheimer. In his 1966 summer letter to the congregation he claimed "to have had contacts with every American president since 1928."

[48] In his 1951 address "A Day in the Life of a Rabbi," he wrote, "I never use an old sermon." But in the paragraph preceding that statement he said, "Most of these addresses ... are fit for publication as they appear [amended to: are written]. As a matter of fact, a number of them have actually been published in magazines as articles." He also told this joke on himself: "My son was asked whether his father ever preached the same sermon twice. ‘Yes,' he replied, ‘but he yells loud in different places.'" Subjects, Jewish wit and humor.

[49] Publications, Box 1.