(Editor’s note) H.J. “Jack” Bernstein was a staunch JCC and Israel advocate and lifelong philanthropist with Camp Hilbert bearing his name for his efforts in locating the summer day camp here. As the Federation celebrates 85 years of service in Richmond, we are sharing stories on some of the families, individuals and institutions who were and are the soul and legacy of our Jewish community. This is the fourth in the series. We appreciate Robin Jackson assisting with conducting interviews, contributing information and writing articles. We also thank Beth Ahabah Museum & Archives for providing valuable archival information as well as photographs.
By Skip Kozakewicz
Hilbert Jack “H.J.” Bernstein was a “powerful force in the JCC movement in Richmond” notes a tribute in the Jewish Community Center Book, “The Center: From Generation to Generation published in 2017.”
“Camp Hilbert would not have been possible without Jack Bernstein,” recalled longtime community leader Richard November recently who served as JCC president from 1976-78. “He was the founder of the original Camp Hilbert … his summer home on Old Gun Road in Chesterfield County along the James River. He was the reason we started Camp Hilbert and were able to have an outstanding camp later in Goochland. He donated the land – about seven acres and we purchased another six acres.”
The community leader who did much behind the scenes with little attention also was instrumental in helping the JCC have its first location in the City of Richmond.
The JCC book noted he spearheaded the “transformation of the Idlewood Avenue B’nai Brith building into Richmond’s first Jewish Center. The philanthropist also played a large role in the effort to relocate the JCC from its temporary home to its current location on Monument Avenue.”
As many newspaper articles noted, Mr. Bernstein also was a prominent local developer, founder of LaVogue clothing stores, developer of Willow Lawn and South Side Plaza shopping centers and much more real estate in the Commonwealth of Virginia and elsewhere.
Most importantly, he was a staunch advocate for the State of Israel and carried on many actions and raised funds quietly behind the scenes to assist the development of Israel. He also was involved in the purchase of the steamship in Baltimore, President Warfield, that later became Exodus 1947.
The list of his numerous accomplishments in the Jewish world is remarkable.
Jack Bernstein was one of the founders of the Richmond Jewish Community Council (now the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond) and the Beth Sholom Home for the Aged. In many other endeavors, he helped establish the Boys Club of Richmond and served on the board for many years and was active and became a director of the Richmond Chapter of the American Cancer Society.
On the regional and national level, he served on various boards and committees including United Jewish Appeal and the Anti-Defamation League. He served as Campaign Chair in 1948 of the Industrial Division of UJC.
In 1976, he served as chairman of the local Jewish Welfare Fund-Israel Emergency Fund Campaign.
Granddaughter Teri Cooper shared information various family members had written down over the years. “Pop was born Hilbert Jacob Bernstein in Baltimore on December 31,1899, moving to Richmond in 1935. His parents came to America in October 1899 from Russia with four children. His father was a tailor in Russia and then the U.S. The family moved several times including to Lebanon, Pennsylvania, when he was around 13 where he worked in a general store. The family were Zionists and he was brought up Orthodox. He went to school through the sixth grade.”
She continued, “When he was 21, he married Edith Sith and they later moved to Wilmington, Delaware. He worked with a company that did door-to-door sales, and he later started his own company. They sold silverware, sheets, blankets, and other household things where families bought goods for around 25 cents a week.”
Jack Bernstein traveled up-and-down the East Coast selling door-to-door including driving through and selling in Richmond. “While driving through Richmond, he got a traffic ticket and they had to come back to deal with it. But he felt people in Richmond were so nice that he decided to move the whole family here,” Teri Cooper continued.
In 1942, he bought a dress shop that became LaVogue, she said. Her grandfather soon got involved in many other businesses including construction, homebuilding, bridge building, a boat dealership and much more. The family were members of Temple Beth-El, which then was on Broad Street. He was instrumental in funding the Temple through many years.
He died in February 1982 at age 80.
In a “Tribute to H.J. Bernstein” in the Reflector after his passing, JCC President Helen Horwitz wrote, “In his business life and in his service to his fellow man, H.J. Bernstein was a person of great capacity, talent and success. His acts of charity were many and varied and often known to only a few. The whole city of Richmond will feel his loss.”
She continued, “H.J. Bernstein was a strong supporter of this agency for many years. Tangible evidence of this support abounds including our Day Camp that bears his name. Camp Hilbert and the annual award we present to the outstanding Center volunteer, the highest award we bestow, was named by him in honor of his mother, Esther Bernstein.”
In a letter to the Bernstein Family in 1998 inviting them to a celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the State of Israel to be held at the JCC, Beatrice Fine, Chairman, Israel@50! Committee, wrote, “Over 50 years ago, your father, Jack Bernstein, risked a great deal to offer his support and efforts in the historic development of the State of Israel. We will always be indebted to him for insuring that the homeland of Jewish people be established.”
In another tribute to Jack Bernstein, the Reflector wrote, “H.J. Bernstein was one of the staunchest supporters of the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine in the Richmond community. He worked tirelessly, through a broad network of worldwide contacts to ensure that Israel would become a reality. He helped in the purchase of armaments. boats and airplanes that helped develop the nation’s armed forces. Later these airplanes formed the basis of the early fleet of the national airline, El Al.”
Granddaughter Teri Cooper recalled, “My mother said he did not talk about this (the purchase of armaments). Men would come to the house, and they would go down to the basement.”
Barbara Bernstein Balser, a niece, said, “He knew what he was doing was against the law and he was careful. There are family stories of the IRS doing audits of both his and my father’s tax returns every year. There are even firm beliefs the FBI had files on them.”
She added, “He was quite a man. He never talked about himself … or wanted to standout or call attention to himself. He always drove a used Lincoln or Packard.”
She said, “He was always thinking and was able to apply his native intelligence in his day-to-day workings in the most incredible ways. He was in so many businesses; businesses he didn’t even know about. He owned a hotel here and a motel in Danville and much more. He even was part of a group who bought a minor league baseball team to Richmond, the Richmond Vees.
In remarks honoring Jack Bernstein on the 50th Anniversary of Israel, longtime community leader Neil November (obm) said, “Jack Bernstein risked a lot for Israel and it is certainly appropriate he be recognized tonight. He was a great humanitarian, philanthropist, backbone of numerous local and overseas Jewish agencies and interests, and a genuinely kind-hearted individual.”
Neil November described in detail how Jack Bernstein aided Jews in Palestine. “Jack bought weaponry from the stacks of surplus war materiel both here and abroad and had it shipped to Palestine clandestinely. He knew if he was caught it meant certain arrest and a prison sentence.”
He also told of how Jack Bernstein and a group bought a mothballed Chesapeake Bay ferryboat and had it converted to a transport to carry displaced Jews across the Mediterranean to the Promised Land. The old ferryboat, was re-named Exodus 1947 as it approached Palestine in 1947 overloaded with the displaced Jews, many from concentration camps.”
In a Reflector article in 2016 written by David Farris, executive director, Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives, he wrote, “In a 1973 interview, he (Jack Bernstein) talked about being visited sometime prior to 1948 by a gentleman in the Haggadah who had come to Richmond to solicit donations. Jack raised $15,000 in cash and gave it to the man …”
The article continued, “Shipping military material to present-day Israel was forbidden by law, but he shipped things to New Jersey from where they were re-shipped by others …
In addition, Jack Bernstein was recognized in the PBS documentary “Above and Beyond.” Neil November is featured in the segment about the history of the bay steamer, President Warfield, and narrates how Bernstein and a small group, including Neil’s father, Israel November, purchased the old ship after it had been used in World War II by the British to transport troops in England to France.
The documentary noted the ship “was tired and in disrepair after its two-year war service … and was now anchored near Baltimore.”
“Richmond businessman Jack Bernstein was sympathetic to the plight of the Jews and set out to secure the transportation they needed to get out of Europe into Palestine,” the documentary narrator explained.
Neil November continued, “Jack got together with some people he knew and was close to, since what he was about to do was illegal. He could be thrown in jail if he was caught. Plus all others who joined him. One of them was my father. They decided to buy one of the ferryboats.”
The group purchased the old boat under the pretense it would be hauling cargo for a Middle East trading company. They knew its true purchase was to transport Jewish refugees to Palestine. These exploits became a major novel and motion picture.
Jack Bernstein through the years was privileged to meet and recognized for his support from Israeli leaders – David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Abba Eban and many others on visits to Israel or in the U.S.
There also are exhibits and photographs at the Virginia Holocaust Museum recognizing Jack Bernstein and his contributions to Israel. Jewish Family Services issued a resolution in May 2002 recognizing the leadership of H.J. Bernstein. It was adopted in conjunction with the community showing of the film, EXODUS.
“Mr. Bernstein’s leadership qualities are evidenced by the many community endeavors in which he has distinguished himself over the years, said RJCC President Jack Kreuter in the Reflector in 1976.
Granddaughter Teri Cooper noted, “He never bragged. And, of course, there were the things (about the arms) that he did not want people to know. He just did it.”
She related that he had many interests and was always buying businesses. Many of the family members worked at the LaVogue stores.
“We were like all other employees and were not treated special in any way in our jobs,” she noted.
“He was always adventuress and into stuff like boating, fishing, airplanes and more. I guess he got bored easily and wanted to try new things. Before I was born, he had a farm that eventually led to him buying the land that became the original Camp Hilbert along the river.”
Teri said his interest in buying the baseball team was not unusual. “He loved baseball, but never played or knew too much about game.”
The group he was involved with bought the team at an auction.
Niece Barbara Balser said her uncle while not the oldest Bernstein brother still was the family leader. “He offered me valuable, life-long advice that I always will remember,” said the former national ADL chairman.
She agreed that her uncle never sought recognition and rarely talked openly about his numerous accomplishments.
Young family members did know his formal name was Hilbert. When they learned the summer camp was named after him, they wondered why it was called Camp Hilbert. Jack Bernstein did not want recognition of his last name so he asked that it be called Camp Hilbert.
While only a few in the community knew about his many accomplishments, countless thousands have benefited for many years.
As niece Barbara noted, “He was quite a man.”