Rebecca Thurman Bernstein
Rebecca Thurman Bernstein was lauded by local and national organizations for her efforts to improve health care, literacy, and Jewish life in Portland, Maine. Bernstein earned two law degrees from Boston University in 1917 and 1918 and worked for a law firm before shifting her focus to volunteering. She was an early member of the Birth Control League and a board member of both Maine Medical Center and Portland’s Child and Family Services. She served on the national board of the National Council of Jewish Women and was the vice president of the Jewish Federation and life director of Portland’s JCC. Among her many commendations, she received the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanities Award in 1968 and the University of Maine’s Distinguished Community Service Award in 1969.
In 1968, Rebecca Thurman Bernstein was awarded the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanities Award by the Israel Bond organization. She was cited in the November 19, 1968, Portland (Maine) Press Herald for “her outstanding contributions over many years to the human values of the people of Portland.” Concern for the human condition was the focus of Bernstein’s long and productive life.
Early Life and Education
Rebecca (Thurman) Bernstein was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on April 14, 1896, the second child of Russian immigrants, Jacob and Bella (Rabinowitz) Thurman. Jacob was a flour merchant and founded Thurman and Company, which is still operated by family members. She had an older sister, two younger sisters, and two younger brothers.
Jacob believed that his daughters, as well as his sons, should be well educated; thus five of the six children earned graduate degrees. Rebecca’s older sister, Anna, was a dentist; younger sister, Esther, was a schoolteacher; brothers Aaron and Harold were a doctor and merchant, respectively. One sister, Sarah, married and did not go to college.
Rebecca attended Boston schools. One of ten women in a class of 113, she received her LL.B. from Boston University Law School in 1917, graduating magna cum laude, and received her LL.M., also from Boston University, in 1918. She was a member of the Massachusetts and Maine bars.
Career and Community Work
For several years after her graduation Rebecca worked for Thurman and Company. On June 24, 1922, she married Israel Bernstein, a Portland, Maine, lawyer. After she married, Rebecca Bernstein devoted her life to her family and to the Portland community.
Bernstein was proud of her Jewish heritage and worked for many Jewish causes, but her interests were not limited to or by her Jewishness. She was admired and respected by the greater community as well as the Jewish community. She belonged to the National Council of Jewish Women and served as president of the Portland and New England Sections and also on the national board. She served as vice president of the Jewish Federation, and as a life director of Portland’s Jewish Community Center.
Health and social issues that affected all citizens were her prime concern. She was an early member of the Birth Control League. She served as a director of the Community Chest, the precursor of the United Fund. She was a life board member of Child and Family Services and a member of the women’s board of Portland’s largest hospital, Maine Medical Center.
An accomplished speaker, Bernstein frequently addressed community groups about health and social issues and often testified before legislative committees about those issues. She received many honors and commendations for her work, including Portland College Club Woman of the Year (1966), Eleanor Roosevelt Humanities Award (1968), Distinguished Community Service Award from the University of Maine (1969), and from the Portland Section of the National Council of Jewish Women (1975). She also served on the boards of the Portland Public Library and Westbrook College.
Bernstein was a member and director of the College Club of Portland. She established the College Club Remembrance Fund for gift scholarships, requesting that, in addition to memorial gifts, people donate to the fund to celebrate happy events. The interest was to be given to female scholarship students so that they might enjoy small luxuries not otherwise available to them. This thoughtful gesture epitomizes Bernstein’s care for and affirmation of the human spirit.
Rebecca and Israel Bernstein had two children. Their son, Sumner Thurman Bernstein, is a lawyer and senior partner of Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer and Nelson, the Portland firm founded by his father. He is, as was his mother, active in civic affairs. Their daughter, Helen Barbara Bernstein Wasserman, is a community activist and volunteer.
Rebecca Thurman Bernstein died at age ninety-one on December 22, 1987. Her husband died in 1967.
Bernstein, Sumner T. Interview with author, Portland, Maine, August 1, 1996.
College Club of Portland. Mosaics of the College Club of Portland 1900–1995 (1995).
Hagopian, Margo. Telephone conversation with author, Portland, Maine, August 23, 1996.
“Local Woman to Receive Eleanor Roosevelt Award.” Portland (Maine) Press Herald, November 19, 1968.
“Rebecca Bernstein, Community Leader.” Portland (Maine) Press Herald, December 23, 1987.