Leonard Bernstein, mensch not composer, dies at 82

This Leonard Bernstein wasn’t a famous composer, but he was devoted to creating harmony for the underprivileged in his job as Northern California regional director of B’nai B’rith. He held the position with the Jewish service organization for 25 years before retiring in the early 1990s.

Bernstein died May 28 after a bout with cancer. He was 82.

“He was a wonderful mensch, never said a nasty word about anyone,” recalled Bernstein’s wife, Marion. “He did things behind the scenes without wanting any accolades … He was a very good soul.”

Marion Bernstein said her husband was particularly devoted to feeding the hungry on Jewish holidays. “He’d say, ‘It isn’t fair for people to fast on Yom Kippur if they haven’t had a decent meal [to begin with].'”

That project was known as the Tenderloin Seder since it took place in San Francisco’s infamously downtrodden district, according to Warner Oberndoerfer, former B’nai B’rith local district president who worked with Bernstein for three decades.

“He was a real first-rate social worker of the old school,” said Oberndoerfer, who praised Bernstein’s many projects, which also included the East Bay Holiday Meal Program, Operation Warm Up (which collected coats to distribute in the winter) and the Harvest Ball and Sweepstakes.

Bernstein also organized the Institute of Judaism, which included multiple study sessions with a scholar in residence and a Saturday evening get-together after Shabbat. “It attracted lots of people and went on year after year,” Oberndoerfer said. “He not only was a pro, but he also joined as a member. The people who were his clients were also his brothers — he rarely differentiated. B’nai B’rith was his life.”

Bernstein was born Nov. 7, 1925. He and Marion both hailed from Buffalo, N.Y., where he earned a degree in social work from the University of Buffalo. He then earned a master’s in social work from the University of Chicago before taking a job with Planned Parenthood back in Buffalo. Bernstein also served in the Army during World War II.

Leonard and Marion married July 4, 1958 and had three daughters before moving to San Francisco in 1968, when he took the job with B’nai B’rith as the central area regional director for District 4. The Bernsteins also belonged to Congregation Beth Sholom in S.F. for more than 40 years.

Bernstein, who was also a staff specialist for leadership training and development, was honored by B’nai B’rith at the organization’s 1993 district convention, where he was described as a “a modest and self-effacing individual with a deep sense of integrity.”

Longtime friend and B’nai B’rith colleague Harry Gluckman said, “He approached his responsibilities as regional director of B’nai B’rith as a personal battle that was to be won, and earned the respect of his colleague and many friends in the organization that he served as director for 25 years, and many more as a volunteer, even during his terrible illnesses.”

“He never gave up being a social worker … He kept continuously working [even after he’d retired],” said Marion of her husband, who enjoyed stamp collecting, gardening and music of all kinds. And yes, he did receive his share of kidding for sharing a name with the famous composer.

“He had been ailing and was very brave,” his wife added, speaking of Bernstein’s health problems that included two heart bypass surgeries. “He said he’d been living on borrowed time for a long time.”

Bernstein is survived by wife, Marion, and sister Marilyn; daughters Rose, Mindy and Pamela; and four grandchildren.

San Francisco B’nai B’rith, in cooperation with other B’nai B’rith lodges and units in California, is initiating a youth scholarship in memory of Bernstein. Anyone interested in contributing to this fund can send a check, payable to San Francisco B’nai B’rith, to Leonard Bernstein Memorial Scholarship, 616 Sandalwood Isle, Alameda, CA 94501-5642. For more information, call Harry Gluckman at (510) 523-0330 or Irving Abramowitz at (415) 752-9304.