Irving Bernstein, a key player in building the UJA, dies at 76

He attended City College of New York and, in 1942, enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in England.

In 1945 he returned to New York and enrolled in Columbia Teachers' College on the GI Bill. After a short time in the public school system, he became a social worker.

"At the end of 1946, my supervisor, Fannie Meirowitz of blessed memory, called me in, told me I was the best social worker in her unit of 20, and, in the same breath, fired me," Bernstein recalled in a recent interview for Lifestyles magazine. "Startled, gasping, I finally asked her, `How could you?'

"I'll never forget her reply: `Because you will end up like the rest of us,' she said, `overwhelmed, overworked and frustrated. You are always talking about the Holocaust and the meaning of a Jewish state. I urge you to go to UJA or another agency that needs you more than we do.' "

He took her advice and, in 1946, began working for the UJA in what would become his life's mission.

For two years he traveled across America, raising money to settle European Jewry in Palestine.

UJA asked him to return to New York in 1950 to train other fund-raisers.

Bernstein was transferred to a management position in Los Angeles in 1953. He raised funds there to rescue Jews in Arab lands through Operation Magic Carpet and Operation Ezra.

He returned to UJA headquarters in New York in 1961.

Along with Rabbi Herbert Friedman, then the UJA's national chairman, Bernstein created the Young Leadership Division, the Israel Education Fund and a host of other programs that laid the foundation for the continuing rescue of world Jewry.

In 1971, Bernstein was elected national executive vice president, a position he held until 1984. Under his leadership, the women's and young leadership divisions were strengthened.

He shaped the infrastructure in UJA for what would become operations Moses and Solomon — the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry — and Operation Exodus — the rescue of Soviet Jewry.

In recent years, Bernstein was a visiting professor at Brandeis University, where a new center to train Jewish leaders and fund-raisers was recently named for him and for philanthropist Max Fisher.

Bernstein deplored U.S. Jewry's lack of knowledge about Jewish history and tradition.

"To be a Jewish leader," he told Lifestyles, "one must have Jewish education, one must know Jewish tradition, heritage and history. If you don't have it, `Jewish leader' becomes a title without substance."

His half-century of involvement in Jewish life was chronicled in a book, "Living UJA History: As Told Through the Personal Stories of Leaders of Israel and Founders of United Jewish Appeal," that was released in October.

In addition to his lifelong work with UJA, Bernstein served on the boards of the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the United Israel Appeal and several other Jewish communal organizations.