Joseph Bernstein, a family man and a local leader for the Jewish community, a man whose humor and wisdom combined to better those around him, died Nov. 28, 2018. He was 80.
Bernstein served as president of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, chairman of the Jewish Community Foundation and president of Jewish Family Services, among many other leadership roles. He was also a top lawyer in estate planning, having joined Milwaukee’s nationally ranked law firm, Godfrey & Kahn, in its early years.
“He was a very smart man. It was just apparent,” said former Jewish Community Foundation Executive Director Bert Bilsky, who considered Bernstein a mentor and a friend.
In fact, when Bilsky was named the foundation’s first executive director in 1980, Bernstein became a go-to source of advice for Bilsky. Bernstein will be remembered as one of the key architects of the Jewish Community Foundation, which is now approaching the $200 million mark in managed assets, Bilsky said.
Bernstein was a source of advice and wisdom for others, too. “He had tremendous influence on people and their charitable giving,” said Mark Brickman, a past president of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
Brickman and Bernstein were friends for about 50 years, golfing and family-traveling together. “He was a great human being and wonderful father and wonderful husband,” Brickman said.
“He extended himself selflessly for his clients, co-workers and friends, often taking on their problems personally and carrying them on his shoulders,” said attorney Richard Marcus, a longtime friend and colleague. “As important a figure as he was, he was very down-to-earth and approachable, with his easy-going, friendly way. He will be sorely missed by the many, many people who felt close to him.”
Bernstein graduated from Washington High School, earned his undergraduate degree at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and a law degree from University of Wisconsin – Madison.
Bernstein was generous with his giving and inspired others to be generous. In addition to his philanthropy and a great deal of committee work, he’d served as board chair of Lubavitch of Wisconsin, Mount Sinai Hospital and the Milwaukee Jewish Community Relations Council. He served on secular boards too, including the Blood Center of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Public Museum.
He had a way with meetings. He’d silently listen, taking it all in and processing everything. Then, he’d own the room with a bolt of humor and wisdom.
“People had so much respect for him,” Bilsky said.
“He was very quiet, very unassuming, but boy, when he spoke people listened and they did what he suggested,” recalled Brickman.
Bernstein was a connoisseur of gourmet food and fine wine. He’d call Brickman: “Where’s your car? I’ve got a case of wine for you.”
He’d slip it into his friend’s car: “This is the good stuff. Enjoy it.”
In his final days, Bernstein was still making people laugh. It was his nature.
“That’s the way I want to remember him,” Brickman said. “He loved life and he savored it to the end.”
Bernstein is survived by his wife, Audrey (nee Kracower); children, Deborah (Marc) Zionts, Robert (Jill) Bernstein, Stephanie (Alan) Wagner and Adam Bernstein; grandchildren, Arielle, Sabrina, Jacob and Zachary Zionts; Ben, Sophie and Emma Bernstein; Julia and Laura Wagner; and Matthew and Jordan Levy; siblings, Carol (Sheldon) Glusman, Nat (Peggy) Bernstein and Steve (Sharon) Bernstein; and brother-in-law, Allen (Caryn) Kracower. Preceded in death by his parents, Florence (nee Hack) and Julius Bernstein.
A funeral service was held Dec. 2, followed by interment at Mound Zion Cemetery. The family has established the Joseph M. Bernstein Memorial Fund at the Jewish Community Foundation of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. The fund will be used to help individuals in the Jewish community who are struggling with poverty, hunger, disability, aging, mental health issues and other challenges. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions to the fund are appreciated at MilwaukeeJewish.org/JMB or the Joseph M. Bernstein Memorial Fund, Milwaukee Jewish Federation, 1360 N. Prospect Ave., Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202.