Remembering Phyllis Bernstein
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Remembering Phyllis Bernstein

The passionate, unorthodox Zionist was a one-of-a-kind philanthropist

Phyllis Bernstein, center, is in Israel with friends and fellow federation members Elyse Deutsch, left, and Carol Simon in 2015.
Phyllis Bernstein, center, is in Israel with friends and fellow federation members Elyse Deutsch, left, and Carol Simon in 2015.

The word “unique” is often bandied about loosely, but when people use it about Phyllis Bernstein, they really mean it. The Westfield philanthropist, who died of cancer on July 29 at 66, made an impression when you met her that only became more memorable the more you got to learn about her.

A passionate Zionist to the end, she played a leading role among Americans striving to win economic support and social justice for all Israelis, working particularly on behalf of Bedouin and Druze communities in the Negev.

The bond she formed was so close that in 2020, during her last visit to Israel— she was there to teach children at schools in the Negev — she decided to be hosted by a different Bedouin family every night instead of staying in a hotel. As the covid-19 lockdown began, Israeli officials had to send someone to find her and get her onto the last New York-bound flight out of the country.

Aside from her activism, Ms. Bernstein was an accolade-winning accountant of national standing, an author of books on finance, and an artist and jewelry maker. Oh – and an expert skier.

And all of that was done in a style all her own, always forthright and friendly. She dressed flamboyantly, in garments as colorful as her paintings, generally went without makeup, and wore her graying hair down to her waist, undyed, and uncut until chemotherapy forced a change.

“My wife was a free spirit and had a joie de vivre that was infectious,” her husband of 43 years, Robert Kuchner, told mourners at her funeral on August 1. “She had no sense of time, but made the best of her time to make the world a better place. Phyllis took ownership of things and really loved getting things done for others. She was the kindest person I ever met. She was unassuming, she was caring, she was humble.”

The couple, who did not have children, met as students at Hofstra University on Long Island in 1975. Phyllis approached Bob, then vice president of the accounting honor fraternity Beta Alpha Psi, and asked if he would tutor her. He agreed, but discovered very quickly that she was in fact an A student “who probably knew more than I did.” A few years ago, Phyllis happily admitted to me that it was just a ploy to get to know him.

It worked. They got married two years later.

You could tell just by looking at them that their union was remarkably harmonious, but they maintained a kind of interdependent independence. For example, while each was equally committed to philanthropy, they held divergent views on a number of issues.

“Where to give tzedakah was always an area of contention, which required us to allocate to different Zionist causes, mine perhaps on more conservative issues and hers into social ventures,” Mr. Kuchner said.

Ms. Bernstein was a board member of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ, and had been president of the JCC of Central NJ. Among other roles, she helped run the JCC’s film festival, art classes, and book programs. She was a trustee of Jewish Family Service of Central NJ and a past president of the sisterhood at the couple’s synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains. Though she regarded herself as less religious than her husband, both also were members of the Union County Torah Center-Chabad, whose leader, Rabbi Levi Block, conducted her funeral.

True to her sense of shared humanity, she served on the federation’s global connections committee and cochaired both its Arab-Israeli committee and the economic development arm of the Social Venture Fund for Jewish Arab Equality and Shared Society.

Phyllis Bernstein and her husband, Robert Kuchner, are in lower Manhattan in January 2020; they’re waiting to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge as part of a huge protest against a rise in antisemitic attacks.

With her husband, she championed the Mack Ness Fund’s developmental work in Israel, led missions to Israel, and served on committees in the United States and Israel. But as closely as they worked, her independence always was evident.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of that came in 2012, when Mr. Kuchner cochaired merger negotiations between the Jewish federations of Central NJ and MetroWest. After lengthy, complex talks, members of the Central federation voted on the proposed move at its annual meeting in Scotch Plains. The vote was almost unanimous in favor of forming the new Greater MetroWest federation, with just one dissenting voice – Ms. Bernstein’s.

Beaming beside her husband later that evening, clearly without any rancor, she explained that she would do all she could to support the transition, but she wanted the concerns of the Central donors and leaders who felt they might be overshadowed by their new, much larger partner, to be on record.

Of all her undertakings, perhaps the effort closest to her heart was the connection that had her almost miss that final pre-lockdown flight. As she had done annually for a number of years, she had spent four weeks teaching English and art in Bedouin schools, among them the Ahed High School for Science.

The founder of the school, Jihad El-Sana, a Bedouin and a professor of computer science and mathematics at Ben Gurion University, welcomed Ms. Bernstein as a colleague and as a guest in his home.

“Phyllis was a well-known figure among social activists and NGOs in Israel,” he wrote in an email. “She was very sensitive to social justice and put great effort into pushing for equality for the minorities in Israel. I think many people admired her work, and she managed to help many projects that have real impact on people in education and employment. I know many Americans who are supporting these causes, but we need more. Phyllis deeply believed in these causes and followed her heart. God bless her.”

Batya Kallus, who is from Massachusetts and now is based in Jerusalem, is the Israel program director of the Social Venture Fund for Jewish Arab Equality and Shared Society. She said, “Phyllis was an incredible force for good in the world. She was indefatigable.”

Ms. Kallus was alongside Ms. Bernstein when she entered the school in Rahat on that last visit, and she saw how the children welcomed her with shrieks of delight. She also witnessed the respect with which adults treated her. “In our meetings she was a constant advocate for the Bedouin community,” Ms. Kallus said. “Her insights were based on her personal knowledge of the field. She was in a certain sense, a ‘local’ from the Negev, even though she lived her life in New Jersey.”

“Phyllis was always seeking to make things better,” her longtime friend Elyse Deutsch of Scotch Plains, said. The two worked together on the JCC of Central NJ’s film festival and on raising funds for Jewish Family Service of Central NJ, traveled together to Israel a number of times, and as Lion of Judah donors to the Jewish Federations of North America shared hotel rooms at the organization’s national conferences.

“Walking into a room with Phyllis was always fun,” she said. “She knew everyone!”

On her last trip to Israel, Ms. Bernstein got to see the fruits of one of her most devoted causes – to get more Bedouin women to vote. It involved awareness and motivation, speaking one to one with women and the men in their lives, also helping to find them transport to often distant polling places.

“I was honored to witness many Bedouin women voting for the first time,” she wrote in a story about the trip that the New Jersey Jewish News published on May 27, 2020. Speaking with men and women, and working with Jews activists, she was part of a sea change. “Yet here’s why I was so proud and happy: This volunteer effort was shared society in action.

“I’m personally glad to see that no matter who will serve as prime minister, the Arab Joint List will have 15 seats in the Knesset,” she concluded. “And I am hopeful that the Knesset will consider the welfare needs of the Bedouin people and work together to provide them with an opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed for integration into Israeli society.”

Her cancer was diagnosed in the spring of 2020. In the hospital, facing a terminal diagnosis, she contracted covid and had to be isolated. But that didn’t stop her. She beat the initial odds and continued working on her causes, even as the illness worsened.

Mr. Kuchner said, “Phyllis was driven and a Zionist to the end.” A week before her death, on her way into New York City for a doctor’s appointment, she joined him in a conference call about economic development supported by the Mack Ness Fund, which they helped establish. “Speaking with friends a couple of days later, she had a rare crying spell,” he recalled. “She said she had so much more work to do and she really wanted to be around to complete it, and to make another trip to Israel.”

Elaine Durbach of Maplewood is a journalist and fiction writer. Her first novel, “Roundabout”, is about a love relationship between an older couple. The sequel, “LAF – Life After Felix,” is due out in September.

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