Reena Bernards

Reena Bernards

“Until there's peace, there is the need to continually educate and continually bring people together.”

Peace Activism
1981 to the present
Dialogue Group
New Jewish Agenda

Interview Date
October 1, 2013

Interviewer
Aliza Becker

The Interview

Reena Bernards learned about the two-state solution after Egyptian Prime Minister Sadat made his historic 1977 trip to Jerusalem. She decided then, “that's where I want to put my energies.” It would become a major emphasis of her activism– first as the National   Director of New Jewish Agenda (NJA) from 1981-86, and then in 1988 as co-founder of the Dialogue Project.

NJA’s motto was to create “a Jewish voice in the progressive community, and a progressive voice in the Jewish community.” The multi-issue grassroots group addressed issues ranging from Jewish feminism to Central American solidarity. For Bernards, the group’s “key mission” as a Jewish organization was to work for Middle East peace.

NJA’s Middle East Task Force faced an internal conundrum throughout its existence: how to bridge an organizational split on strategy. Some viewed their role as pragmatic. They sought ways to effectively garner support within the American Jewish community for peace and reconciliation with Arabs. Others saw their role in moral terms, wishing to make a declaration in support of Palestinian rights.

Bernards was in the former camp, believing that Jews have something “unique” to say,” a “responsibility” to work for peace, and “a special opportunity” to strategically impact U.S. government policy. She believed that NJA should prioritize working in the mainstream American Jewish community, because “If we're not talking with and impacting our own community, then what good are we?”

Bernards used a “Moses versus the prophets metaphor” to explain her position. “Moses got the Jews out of Egypt. He was a great organizer. The prophets held up a moral compass and talked about the dangers that would happen if the people didn't change their course of action. Those roles are very different, and I was always on the side of wanting to be more like Moses.”

NJA’s most important contribution, Bernards believes, was bringing the perspectives of Palestinians and of the Israeli peace movement to the American Jewish community during “the very difficult times between 1981 and Oslo.” A 1984 NJA tour of Knesset member Mordechai “Morele” Bar-on and former West Bank Mayor Mohammed Milhem was particularly exciting for her, because it was “the first time a lot of Jews had met a Palestinian.” PBS Frontline filmed the tour and made it into a special: "The Arab and the Israeli."

Biography

Reena Bernards was born in 1954 in Schenectady, New York and spent much of her childhood in Rockaway, Queens. She has a large extended family in Israel: seven of her grandmother’s nine siblings immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in the 1880s. Her mother spent her teenage years in Tel Aviv and shared stories about how exciting life was around the time of the founding of the State. Bernards’ father was a Conservative rabbi who had marched in Selma with Martin Luther King.

Bernards attended Brandeis University as an undergraduate and received master’s degrees from Harvard University and the University of Maryland at College Park. After working as a community organizer, Bernards served as the national director of New Jewish Agenda from 1981 until 1986. In 1988 she founded the Dialogue Group bringing together prominent Jewish and Palestinian-American women. The group met regularly until 1993 and then had a final meeting in 2002.

For many years, Bernards worked as a consultant in conflict resolution, multi-cultural diversity, and organizational development in North America, Europe, and the Middle East. She presently works as a family therapist, counselor, and diversity trainer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.

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