Phillip S. Bernstein Papers
Bernstein saw himself as an advocate of woman's emancipation and Negro American rights in the 1930s and 1940s. Primarily a liberal paternalist, even on that basis he was nonetheless often several strides ahead of Rochester public opinion. In the early 1930s, he and David Rhys Williams both invited Margaret Sanger to speak from their pulpits. They publicly defended her and the birth control movement against charges of obscenity, a stance which cost Bernstein some important Temple members. As a Reform Jew in the 1930s, Bernstein advocated the emancipation of women from traditional restrictions on their autonomy and development, and was impressed by the achievements in that area in the young Soviet Union. In 1960 he boasted that one of Reform Judaism's unique contributions had been the achievement of equality by women, pointing to the establishment of Confirmation for girls as well as for boys, and the permitting of women in the pulpit. However, he was relatively silent on the issues of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s.
Much stronger was Bernstein's outspokenness on civil rights. From 1936 to 1940 Bernstein was Chair of the Rochester City Planning and Housing Council. From that position he argued for integrated neighborhoods and the construction of affordable, integrated residences for low-income families. He was also active in the Rochester City Club, and was its president from 1932 through 1933. He often pressed his causes in addresses to the Club. A sense of humor accompanied his moral earnestness. He wrote to David de Sola Pool in 1946:
"This seems to be 'TESTIMONIAL DINNER TO BERNSTEIN MONTH.' … On Wednesday there is to be a Chamber of Commerce interfaith brotherhood luncheon in my honor at which I plan to tell them that brotherhood has no meaning unless Negroes are permitted to live everywhere in Rochester. I think that will end 'TESTIMONIAL DINNER TO BERNSTEIN MONTH.'"
In that same year, in a more serious vein, he forecast: "The fate of the Negroes in the United States for the next generation will be determined in these coming months." He continued to speak out on civil rights, with increased vigor, for many years. When he received the 1958 Rochester Rotary Club award, for example, he charged that the construction of the low-cost Hanover Houses project "in the worst slum area of town" amounted to a "surrender to bigotry" on the part of the city. But one can perhaps hear a note of resignation or withdrawal in his 1966 claim that "as the Jews emancipated themselves from [the ghetto north of the railroad tracks, where most Jews lived in the first part of the century] and other ghettoes, the Negroes can and will [also emancipate themselves]." By then Bernstein was seeking solutions more often in the management skills of social and political elites, whom he hoped to morally awaken, than in grassroots organizing. Not surprisingly, he was also distinctly uncomfortable with black nationalism. Still, in his public addresses and private correspondence, especially in relation to the local Rochester organization FIGHT, Bernstein maintained that black anger had its roots in palpable inequalities whose reform could not help but upset the economic and political arrangement of things by whites. He put it bluntly in the spring of the turbulent year 1968: "The first [of ten commandments for Black-White relations] is the acceptance of White guilt for the problem that confronts us."
Bernstein's removal from his congregation in Rochester during the war was to fill two prominent national positions—both, ironically, serving in a supportive role to the U.S. armed forces. For almost two decades after his enthusiastic enlistment in the army in 1918, PSB had been a staunch pacifist, speaking out frequently and fervently against the evils of war and the economic and social conditions that he saw contributed to war. From 1936 to 1938 he was chairman of CCAR's Committee on International Peace, and had lectured President Roosevelt on the evils of arms buildup. However, the unrelenting growth of anti-Judaism in Europe, especially in nazi Germany, forced him to reluctantly give up his pacifism, although he never became a hawk. When World War II came to the U.S., Bernstein responded.
(excerpt from an essay was written by Walter F. Nickeson and Laura Graham (1995–2000), and offers biographical information about Rabbi Bernstein and his life's work in connection with the Rochester Black Freedom Struggle.