San Francisco attorney Ray Bernstein could have been a swashbuckling trial lawyer, winning big cases and raking in big bucks. But that would have required a taste for the blood sport of litigation, and that just wasn’t him. He was much happier on the faculty of the Santa Clara University School of Law, or offering up insights during Torah study at his S.F. synagogue, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav.
Bernstein died on Dec. 18 from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident. Though he set off riding with a friend and was wearing a helmet, there were no witnesses at the moment of the accident, which took place Dec. 3 in the Marin Headlands. He was 56.
“There’s a quote in the Talmud,” noted Sha’ar Zahav past president James Carlson. “When the righteous are born, no one notices, but when they die, everyone feels it. And that’s really been true for Ray. People have been coming forward and expressing how much he meant to them.”
Bernstein had a sterling legal resume, starting with his winning the moot court competition at Yale University Law School when he was a mere first-year. Though he served as a trial lawyer for a time, it was as an associate law professor that he found his true calling.
His colleagues at Santa Clara paid collective tribute to him in a statement. “Those of us who had the privilege of working and teaching with Ray at Santa Clara Law loved him for his kindness, his wit, and his determination to make the world a more just place,” they wrote. “He spent his career working on behalf of students, colleagues, clients, and causes he believed in. We miss him deeply.”
Over his career, the Detroit native won numerous Bar Association awards for his pro bono work for the homeless, and for other volunteer efforts. Not all of it was legal in nature; Bernstein also dedicated time and energy to his synagogue, participating in Torah study and coaching b’nai mitzvah students.
“When he was scheduled to deliver a Friday drash [Torah interpretation], there was a sense that everyone was paying attention,” Carlson recalled. “They listened to Ray because his approach to the parashah of the week was unique, insightful, funny, and he made you think about it in a very different way.”
Bernstein was a law student at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, when he met his closest friend, fellow attorney Susan Mizner, about three decades ago. They fell in love and became partners. Mizner moved to California in 1988 to attend Stanford University Law School, and Bernstein joined her a year later.
Bernstein, assigned female at birth, transitioned in 1997. Earlier, as a queer couple at Stanford, Bernstein and Mizner successfully changed university policy to recognize domestic partnerships.
Once settled in the Bay Area, Bernstein’s legal career took off. After serving as a clerk for a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, he served as senior staff attorney for its Criminal Research Division. Still, Mizner recalled, the job did not suit his gentle constitution. “He hated litigation, he hated conflict,” Mizner said.
“He had one case against the Catholic Church for the way they covered up pedophilia. I remember him coming back from discovery one day in tears because he had seen that they had taken this priest who was abusing young boys and moved him to an orphanage in Mexico, a place with no parents to stand up for the children.”
It wasn’t long before Bernstein joined the faculty at Santa Clara. “He really loved teaching,” Mizner said. “That was very much his calling.”
Though identifying as a lesbian for years, Bernstein recognized a deeper truth and began the process of transitioning to male. “It was always the right thing for him,” Mizner added. “He had no question that it was exactly what he wanted to be doing.”
The two would separate but stay family, as Mizner put it, and her son Jonathan grew up close to his Uncle Ray. Bernstein, who attended Jewish day schools as a child, helped bring Mizner and her son closer to Jewish observance and activism at Sha’ar Zahav.
“He was a very typical Jew in wrestling with the concept of God,” Mizner said, “but he was also the gentlest Jew. I am the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who renounced religion. [Ray] would very gently answer my questions. I became much more observant because of him.”
Bernstein was an avid amateur painter and enjoyed cycling. According to those closest to him, his primary passion was helping others.
“I don’t think you will find a person who experienced [from Ray] any anger or harsh words or meanness or gossip,” Mizner said. “He took seriously the need to repair the world.”