Sanford Bernstein’s Second Life


Zalman Bernstein did not make the front page of The Jerusalem Post until he died. Mr. Bernstein, a successful Manhattan investment broker and one of the Modern Orthodox movement’s most prominent philanthropists, kept as low a profile in Jewish circles in his native New York, where he died of lymphoma last week at 72, as he did in Jerusalem, where he moved a decade ago and was buried.

A front-page death notice in the Post, on the day of his funeral on the Mount of Olives, saluted Mr. Bernstein as an "ebullient, effervescent, eclectic, energizing, evolving and excellent human being." The notice was placed by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, now spiritual leader of Efrat and formerly of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan when Mr. Bernstein made a midlife return to Jewish observance.

The death notice probably marked the first time his name appeared on the paper’s front page, said Jeff Barak, Jerusalem Post editor and a staff member for 12 years. "To the general public, he was unknown."

It seemed as if he led two lives: Sanford C. Bernstein, who named his enormously successful New York-based securities firm after himself, and later, after the return to observance, Zalman Chaim Bernstein, the Jerusalem-based philanthropist who devoted vast sums of his fortune to Jewish charities he founded.

To his friends, Mr. Bernstein was a gruff-speaking, cigar-smoking iconoclast who relentlessly pushed his vision of inclusive Judaism, a micro-manager who bowed to the wishes of his foundations’ boards of director, a multi-millionaire who made his name synonymous with his business but kept it out of his philanthropic life.

"He was a man of contrasts. He was a character," said Marvin Sussman, a longtime friend. "His main goal was to bring all types of Jews close together."

Yet at the same time, friends acknowledged that his personal style could be combative.

"He was a contrarian in many ways," said Avraham HaCohen, the original executive director of the Avi Chai Foundation, which Mr. Bernstein founded in 1984. "He needed people with different views."

Mr. Bernstein’s anonymity in his native and adopted cities belied a philanthropic career that made the Avi Chai Foundation one of the leading proponents of traditional Judaism in the United States and of intergroup tolerance in Israel.

The foundation funds Jewish educational organizations of all denominations in this country, and supports activities in Israel to foster closer relations among various social and religious groups. Recipients, according to its mission statement, must "express a positive attitude toward the State of Israel and do not reject the value of secular education."

"If you ask people in the [American] day school movement if they know what Avi Chai is, the answer will be yes," HaCohen said. "If you ask the people if they know who Zalman Bernstein was, that answer will not necessarily be yes."

"He wanted to get things done, not to get noticed," said Ruth Wisse, an Avi Chai trustee from Boston. "He saw himself as an instrument of action. He saw that one could be more effective if one stayed in the background."

Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, said Mr. Bernstein founded Avi Chai, despite a plethora of Jewish American organizations with similar goals, to put his imprint on the definition and solution of communal issues. The organization, she said, "took it upon itself to define the problem." Before awarding grants to day schools, for example, the philanthropy commissioned a study of the number and funding of day schools in the U.S.

In addition to Avi Chai, Mr. Bernstein, who gave away hundreds of millions of dollars, was a founder of the Tikvah Fund, which aids start-up businesses in Israel, and the Shalem Foundation, a conservative, public policy think tank.

Among the organizations that remembered Mr. Bernstein in death notices in The New York Times were the Orthodox Union, Yeshiva University and the National Jewish Outreach Program. Death notices for him in The Jerusalem Post were taken out by Bar-Ilan University, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, the Bank of Jerusalem and Shaare Zedek Medical Center.

"He was Modern Orthodox, a centrist: he was not at the edge of the Modern Orthodox progressiveness," Sussman said. "He was definitely a Zionist."

Though self-effacing in philanthropy, he was equally brazen in business. He named his new securities firm simply Bernstein in 1967, announcing it in prominent newspaper ads.

"He felt that would help professionally: he had to make his firm well known," Rabbi Riskin said in a telephone interview from Israel. "He was a very strong personality."

His firm, now named Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., subsequently added offices in seven U.S. cities and has grown into one of the world’s largest independent investment companies, managing more than $80 billion in securities for 25,000 private and institutional clients.

Mr. Bernstein retired in 1993, returning frequently to New York as chairman of the firm’s executive committee, and quietly spending his time in Jerusalem on his philanthropic causes.

"In Torah," Rabbi Riskin said, "he wanted it to all be l’shma [for its own sake]."

Mr. Bernstein turned down requests to be honored at dinners, to receive awards, to have buildings bear his name.

"Every organization was after him," Rabbi Riskin said. "He never allowed his name to be used. I tried dozens of times. He would say, ‘That’s not my style.’"

The Avi Chai Foundation, Hebrew for "my father lives," was named for Mr. Bernstein’s father, whose death in 1978 prompted his interest in Judaism.

Mr. Bernstein, "far removed from the Jewish community," Rabbi Riskin said, came to Lincoln Square after his father died to hear a lecture by the rabbi, and stayed afterward to recite Kaddish during maariv services. Rabbi Riskin offered private lessons on basic Judaism. Mr. Bernstein, then 52, agreed.

"He was searching for some kind of meaning," Rabbi Riskin said. "The learning grabbed him."

The story goes that during the rabbi’s first visit to Mr. Bernstein’s office to study Jewish texts, he was taken aback by his new student’s coarse language. The rabbi reportedly asked him not to curse during their sessions, and when that did not work, subjected him to a fine for every curse word Mr. Bernstein uttered. At the end of the hour, according to the story, the rabbi walked out with a large check to be used for charity.

As he turned to traditional Judaism, Mr. Bernstein dropped the English name Sanford for his Hebrew name, Zalman Chaim. "He felt he should have a Hebrew name," the rabbi said.

A supply corps officer in the Navy during World War II, he studied at New York University and Harvard, spending three years with the Marshall Plan in Europe as an industrial economist. He worked for other securities firms before establishing his own firm with his brother, Paul.

Besides his brother, Mr. Bernstein, who was married three times, is survived by his wife, Mem; two sons, Claude of New Canaan, Conn., and Geoffrey Dryan of Jerusalem; four daughters, Rochel Leah and Leslie Bernstein Armstrong of New York, Suzanne Dryan Felson of San Francisco, and Jennifer Dryan Farkas of Sydney, Australia; his mother, Martha, of New York; and three grandchildren.

His funeral was conducted, at his request, without eulogies.

"He felt that eulogies tend to exaggerate or only speak about one dimension of a person," HaCohen said. "What would be said would not be honest. He had no tolerance for falsity: if anything, he was accused of being brutally frank, which he was in terms of himself, too."