by Annette van de Kamp-Wright, Jewish Press Editor
In his eulogy for Sheldon Bernstein, Rabbi Steven Abraham spoke of the upcoming Seder and the reading of the Haggadah. “In a way,” he said, “a eulogy is a Haggadah, a retelling of the life tale of the deceased.”
And the story of Sheldon Bernstein’s life is quite remarkable, not just for its length, but for its many different chapters. Born in 1922 to Sarah and Joseph Bernstein, he started his life in Omaha as so many others: as a young man, he worked at a variety of jobs, including Bakers Shoe Store and several meat packing plants. He enrolled at Creighton University in 1940 and majored in accounting and economics. While at Creighton, he joined the infantry ROTC; when he graduated in 1944 he was sent to Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Three months later, he found himself aboard the Queen Mary, on his way to Scotland. He immediately participated in battles in France and Germany; and by early 1945, his unit joined up with the American Third Army, commanded by General George Patton.
Bernstein was part of a special combat unit that was tasked with holding the town of Bonnerue, Belgium. His unit suffered heavy casualties and by the end of the battle, the Germans captured him, along with 17 of his soldiers. He was beaten by the Nazis for being Jewish, until a German General interceded on his behalf and had him taken to a field hospital. There, he met up with other prisoners.
In March of 1945, Bernstein escaped, along with a number of other American officers. They were recaptured and taken to a special camp for allied officers. American forces helped them escape later that spring, and Bernstein made his way from Germany to France, and from there back to the United States. He served out his time at Camp Robinson in Arkansas and was released from active duty in February of 1946. He earned the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, a Purple Heart and various battle stars, including for the Normandy Invasion and the Prisoner of War Medal.
The next chapter of Bernstein’s life involved a career as a CPA, where he distinguished himself as the president of the Nebraska CPA Society. He then became the president of the Central States Council of CPAs. He was a partner in two Los Angeles CPA firms before returning to Omaha in 1992. Jerry Rosen, the first Director of the Jewish federation of Omaha Foundation, passed away that year, and Bernstein was selected to fill his shoes.
The Foundation, which was established only eight years earlier, grew significantly during Bernstein’s tenure. It had approximately $10 million in assets in 1992, and Bernstein had almost tripled that by the time he left six years later.
“All of us who worked for the Foundation loved what we were doing,” he said at the time. “It was easy to help it grow.”
Marty Ricks, who took over after Bernstein left in 1998, recalls Bernstein’s strength in connecting to the donors.
“He was out there, connecting on a personal level with the community. He did a great job educating people about all the different opportunities the Foundation offered. When I arrived, I had such a strong base to work with, because Sheldon laid the groundwork. He had a great way with people, he had this beautiful subtle sense of humor, and knew everybody because of his many years in Omaha.”
Today, the Foundation has numerous endowment funds from college funds to the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home, from the Jewish Press to the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society. Marty credits Bernstein for that.
“He had a sheer passion for the Jewish community,” Marty says. “He was a person who could not sit still, even when he moved to Oceanside, California. He stayed busy and involved. His idea of retirement? Being the Treasurer for his Home Owner’s Association as well as for the Master Home Owner’s Association, which covered several additional developments. He just really enjoyed volunteering.”
In 1995, Bernstein and his wife, Lorrie, established the Sheldon A. and Lorrie Bernstein Endowment Fund at the Foundation. The purpose of the fund is to support the annual Grandparents Day programming that benefits the residents of the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home. In spite of moving to California, Bernstein always felt a special connection to Omaha.
“Omaha is where I was born and grew up,” he once said, “so we arranged this fund to support Omaha’s Jewish community.”
“I’m grateful for everything he taught me,” Marty says. “Even after he left, he was never far away in spirit. He would call regularly and come back every few years to make sure I was okay. Over time, we became good friends.”
Sheldon Bernstein is survived by his wife Lorrie, daughters Sharon, Sandy, Sue, Nikki and Sunni, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.