Activist, Teacher, Friend: Juliet Bernstein Remembered

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Aging , Local History

Juliet Bernstein. PHOTO COURTESY OF ELA BERTOWSKA

Chatham's Oldest Resident Dies At 108

CHATHAM – One of Juliet Bernstein's most cherished memories was accompanying her mother in a horse-drawn surrey so that she could vote for the first time following the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920.

"I was 7 but it truly impressed me," Mrs. Bernstein said in a 2020 interview. That experience helped shape a dedication to equality and social justice that followed her throughout her long life.

Mrs. Bernstein, the town's oldest resident, passed away last Thursday at the age of 108.

In the years after she moved to Chatham in 1971, Mrs. Bernstein became something of a social conscience of the community, taking on institutions like the Chatham Band, where she challenged the exclusion of female musicians, and issues such as nuclear proliferation, sponsoring a bylaw to make the town a nuclear-free zone. She championed peace, civil rights and women's issues, and in 2019 she was named the Mercy Warren Otis Cape Cod Women of the Year. Her activism stretched back to the 1930s, when she was involved in labor unions in New York City.

“She was way ahead of her time in so many different ways,” said her youngest son, Bruce.

She kept up with current events, both local and national, and continued to use email until just recently. Intent on staying in her house in Riverbay and not going into a nursing home, she asked Bruce to establish a Go Fund Me campaign earlier this year to raise money to cover the cost of the increasing amount of care she needed, which her small pension and Social Security could not keep up with. After gaining attention in the local and regional press, the campaign raised $133,000, “almost exactly the amount we needed,” said Bruce Bernstein.

Born Juliet Relis on July 2, 1913 to Russian immigrant parents, Mrs. Bernstein grew up on a farm in Bethel, N.Y., that her father and uncles bought with money from a fund set up to help Jewish immigrants resettle. On the first day of school every year, her father took her in their horse-drawn wagon. Every other day she walked the three-mile distance to the one-room schoolhouse.

Education was an important value in her family, and Mrs. Bernstein graduated from Brooklyn College and the Columbia University Teacher's College. She taught home economics at a high school in Queens for many years. She instituted the school's first-ever cooking class for boys, said her son.

“That received quite a bit of flack,” he said.

During her early years as a teacher, Mrs. Bernstein was involved in New York teachers unions. She met her husband Selig Bernstein, a math teacher, when both were members of the same Communist Party unit; they attended protests together, became engaged and married in 1937.

Mrs. Bernstein was raising the couple’s three children – Ellen, Robert and Bruce – when her husband lost his job during the Communist purges in the late 1950s. She had to go back to work, although Selig gained his job back about four years later. He passed away in 1993.

She was a dedicated teacher, said Bruce Bernstein.

“Her work was really important to her,” he said.

In 1971 the couple decided to take a drive around the Cape while waiting to go to Martha's Vineyard. They saw a newspaper ad for a new housing development in Chatham called Riverbay and decided to drop plans to retire to Pennsylvania and move here, Mrs. Bernstein said in a 2019 interview with The Chronicle.

“We came here quite by accident, really,” she said.

Mrs. Bernstein had always supported progressive causes, and after the couple moved here she decided to attend a meeting of the League of Women Voters of Cape Cod. She was 57 at the time and the youngest person in the room. She eventually served as the group's president, but later had a falling out with the organization. Former Chatham Selectman Florence Seldin recalled that when she began as president of the League in the late 1990s, she noticed Mrs. Bernstein's name on a list of former presidents who were no longer members. She learned that Mrs. Bernstein had written a pro-choice letter to the editor as president of the League but had not followed policy by getting the approval of the board of directors. After she was chastened for her action, she resigned.

“She was never a member of the League again,” Seldin said. “Nobody was going to tell her what to do.”

After learning that the Chatham Band did not allow women to join, Mrs. Bernstein teamed up with Josephine Ives in 1981 to pressure the local institution to open its membership. Because the band accepted town funds, not allowing women was discriminatory and against the law, they argued. They wrote letters to the Attorney General, and eventually the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union got involved. The story received national news coverage, and in 1982 the band changed its bylaws to allow women. Although it wasn't until 1992 that the first woman joined, today half of the musicians in the band are female.

In the mid-1980s, Mrs. Bernstein led an effort to have Chatham declared a “Nuclear Free Zone.” After failing at town meeting once, the measure was approved, but signs announcing the town's status kept disappearing. Eventually a poster of the declaration was framed and hung at the town offices, where it remains today.

“Obviously she was unafraid to state her opinion,” said Moderator William Litchfield, who was a selectman at the time. They met while working Gerry Studds' campaign for Congress in the late 1970s. Even when she was passionate about an issue, Mrs. Bernstein was always polite and willing to engage others in discussions. “She was invariably civil,” he said.

“She had a wide panoply of concerns and she was devoted to them all,” Litchfield said.

Mrs. Bernstein was active in the peace group the Fellowship of Reconciliation for many years, writing the local chapter's newsletter even as she passed her centennial. She and her husband often hosted foreign scholars visiting the United States. The Fellowship established a youth award in her name. For many years, she marched in the town's Independence Day parade with the Fellowship. She was honored as the parade's grand marshal in 2003.

She wrote a cooking column for The Chronicle and her letters to the editor appeared regularly in the paper's pages. She had a cable access television program while president of the League of Women Voters. She started a peace poetry contest for Nauset Middle School students, and held many candlelight vigils over the years, even when denied permission to do so by the selectmen. The Bernstein home hosted one of the first solar panels in town.

In 1993 Mrs. Bernstein was honored by the Cape Cod Chapter of the NAACP for her “unyielding dedication to human rights.” In 2016, at 102, she received the Boston Post Cane as the town's oldest resident. She was named the Mercy Otis Warren Cape Cod Woman of the Year in 2019. Just recently she learned that she was named ex officio chair of a committee working to erect a statute of Mercy Otis Warren at the statehouse in Boston, said her son.

Coming of age during the Depression left a lasting impression on her. Anne-Marie Litchfield sometimes had tea with Mrs. Bernstein. “She'd always look at me and say, 'shall we share a tea bag?'” she recalled. “Her frugality lived on through her life.”

While activism was “built into her,” Mrs. Bernstein's friend and neighbor Nancy Erskine said she also had an artistic side. She painted and did bird carvings. She also collected elephant statues. Erskine recalled shopping online for her grandson and coming across an elephant teddy bear, which she purchased for Mrs. Bernstein. She wasn't sure what kind of a reaction the gift would receive.

“She said I never had a teddy bear as a baby,” Erskine recalled. “That teddy bear stayed on her bed until she went.”

After the Go Fund Me campaign was launched in July, community members threw Mrs. Bernstein a 108th birthday party at her home. A parade of police and fire vehicles touched Mrs. Bernstein, said Erskine.

“She really loved them,” she said of the town's public safety personnel.

“We had a lot of fun together,” Erskine added. “We laughed a lot. She loved to laugh.”

“She was a good lesson in how to live well and enjoy life no matter how old yet get,” said Tony Guthrie, who helped organize a 108th birthday party for Mrs. Bernstein last summer. “She was an amazing part of the fabric of Chatham.”

Mrs. Bernstein was an inspiration for many because she acted on her principles, said Seldin. “She believed strongly in democratic values and did what she could to stand up for them. That's inspiring for anybody.”

“She had this knack for presenting progressive issues in a very sensible way,” said Bruce Bernstein, “in a way that people could really grab onto and understand.”

A memorial service will likely be held later this winter, said Bruce Bernstein.