Beth Bernstein

S.C. legislator shares the importance of her family's Jewish heritage

Karen Floyd: So you were number five of six children?

Beth Bernstein: Yes, but I am a twin. I have an identical twin sister.

Q: Do you all have a special kind of a bond?

A: We do have a special bond. If I’m feeling pain, do I feel her pain? Maybe emotionally I do, but not physically. But we are extremely close. We talk every day. We went to college together at the University of Georgia. She graduated early. I took a semester abroad. So we weren’t there necessarily for four straight years. We always lived with each other and with other girls. But we haven’t lived in the same town since 1991.

Q: Tell me about your husbands?

A: It takes a special person to marry a twin, though. It really does. You have to be very secure and confident. My husband is a lawyer. I practice law with him, and he went back to law school. So he graduated after I did. Ann’s husband is in the car business. So he’s a wholesaler.

Q: You grew up in Columbia?

A: I did, born and raised. Actually I have lived in the home I live in now, in the Forest Lake area, since I was 7. I moved home after my mother died in 2003. My father was, at that point, in his early 80’s so we moved into my father’s home so I could help care for him until his death in 2010. I was pregnant and newly married, and my husband had just started law school.  They say there are three things you shouldn’t experience in the same year: the death of a parent, marriage, and changing residence.

Q: Why is cancer one of your philanthropic causes?

A: My mother died of leukemia. She had a blood disorder that transformed into leukemia, and hers was rather sudden. But daddy suffered from dementia. So aging issues in our elderly population have also become a cause that I care very deeply about. I need to figure out what I can do legislatively to promote that.

Q: When were you elected?

A: In 2012, I was elected in a pretty contested race. I beat an eight-year Republican incumbent in probably one of the few districts that’s considered swing. It was a tremendous accomplishment for me. I really worked hard. I believed in what I was doing, and I think that resonated. So I did door-to-door, a lot of grassroots and fundraising. Mine was one of the more costly races that year.

Q: On what committees have you served?

A: When I first was elected, I was put on 3M Committee, which is where most of the freshmen go, and then this second term, I was very fortunate when the speaker put me on judiciary. I was also elected by the body to serve on the Ethics Committee. So I serve on ethics and judiciary.

Q: Was there a person in your formative years, other than your mother and father, who really helped mold you into who and what you are today?

A: I think it was mama and daddy really. I mean, they brought significant things to the table. Mom was somebody who, as a woman, really broke down barriers, within our religion in particular because she was the first woman president of our synagogue. She was the first woman to sit on the bimah in the synagogue, and she was always involved in the community. She was very educated, but she gave up her career and raised children. She was from New York. She went to NYU and Columbia Graduate School. She had a master’s in English, but then she started having children and moved to South Carolina. And this was in the 1960s. Growing up, she had always talked about maybe going back to law school, but it just never transpired. I think she felt fulfilled in having six children. Mom really excelled in the civic aspect and giving back to the community. Both parents emphasized education, and daddy worked hard. I mean he was a product of the Depression. He was born in 1922. Self-made.

Q: How has the Jewish faith helped to form you?

A: You know, everything that I do is a reflection of my parents. I don’t necessarily think that’s a trait that’s isolated just to being Jewish. I think the family connection, being in a Jewish household, is something that makes me who I am. My cultural heritage of being Jewish is different. Because we are very few in number, we tend to stick together, especially in the South.

Q: You do a lot of things with your daughters in politics?

A: Well, it’s important to me also because, since I am a mother of two girls, I also want them to see a woman who is trying to break down barriers and that women can do what they put their minds to — you know, when they set out to do something, that they can. If they work hard and set a goal, and I think it’s just an excellent role model for them. That was another factor that went into me running, and I got that from my mother because I saw her in leadership positions, and I saw her making a difference. I hate to say she was a maverick necessarily, but, to me, she was. In Columbia, S.C., as the first woman president of the Jewish synagogue, I can promise you that’s a little maverick.

S.C. Rep. Beth Bernstein with her family.

Q: Did you watch her struggles, and did that ever empower you, or was that just something that you kind of took in and realized would be part of the journey?

A: Probably it was a combination. You know, what I remember is, to this day, and I don’t want to go too much into the religion, but I belong to the conservative synagogue. I mean, it’s more traditional. It’s not as observant as Orthodox and more so than the Reformed. But then women weren’t really treated as men within our synagogue. Now we’ve evolved, the conservative movement has evolved. But mom, by sitting up on the bimah in a place of holiness, was not uniformly accepted. I mean it shifted that community. So there was a rift between my uncle, who was pretty observant, and daddy, who was observant growing up, too. I remember hearing conversations in our den, in our kitchen, and it was a struggle. But, you know, daddy stood by mom, and they thought it was the right thing and that she should be doing it. Now 20 years later, girls are doing Saturday morning service, reading out of the Torah. More than 20 years, but yes.

Q: I’m fascinated by how grueling politics is and how the general public really is not understanding of how hard legislators work. It’s not all glamour. I watched your budget last week and …

A: The flag debate.

Q: That’s right.

A: That was until 1:00. I’m very grateful for being able to do what I do in the Legislature. I mean, it really is an honor and privilege. I don’t take that for granted. I want to stay connected to the community. I do this because it really is about my children and our future generations because I love South Carolina. I love Columbia. I want to be proud to be from here, and I want them to come back because, in all likelihood, you know, they might not.

Q: Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

A: I would say, between those two, an extrovert.

Q: Did you have a childhood memory that was life altering?

A: You know, sometimes the harder things make you who you are today, the difficult events. When I was 11, my brother was killed in an automobile accident. He was 18. He was a freshman in college, and to experience death at such a young age, and the way we deal, as a religion, with death is very different. It’s ritualistic for sure. And how it affected my parents, but they remained strong because they had five other children they had to raise. He was the second child. Thirteen months younger than my eldest sister, Michelle. It really affected my sister who was in high school and my brother. It changed us for sure. I think, in retrospect, my parents kind of shut off a little bit. That’s where I think Ann and I started becoming a little bit more independent, started doing stuff for ourselves more so.

Q: What’s your greatest accomplishment to date?

A: That’s hard. I’m very grateful for what I’ve been doing and maybe really putting my mind into something without having any political background besides general interest.

Q: Did that experience toughen you?

A: Actually, serving has toughened me.

Q: More than the experience of getting elected? I think there’s a difference between getting elected and serving.

A: Yes, I’ll tell you why, because actually knocking on doors and doing all that was great. I really got to know people in my community. I’d lived there my whole life, and I’ve always remained involved and active, but there were so many people I didn’t know. You don’t realize what the extent of 16, 17,000 people coming out to vote is. But it really gave me an opportunity to understand all of the different areas of the district that I represent. So it was a way to connect with people. Serving is different. I can’t underestimate peoples’ intentions. This might come across as wrong, but it’s hard to trust a whole lot of people, particularly in politics. The longer you’re there, and I’m not trying to say it’s a bad environment, but, you know, you learn quickly.

Q: What’s your favorite destination or a vacation spot?

A: Well, my Liberty Project and my Liberty Globalization was South Africa.

Q: Are you a morning person or a night person?

A: I use to be a night person. Now that I have children and that I like a bedtime ritual, usually after a long day, I end up going to sleep when they do. So I’m probably more of a morning person now.

Q: And do you exercise and, if so, when?

A: I find that if I exercise in the morning, I’m more likely to keep a habit and a good schedule of exercising. Things always come up in the afternoon and at night, so I like to run in the mornings, and I haven’t been as devoted to it as I should be. But I used to, three, four times a week.

Q: How much alone time do you require, or do you get alone time?

A: That’s hard. I don’t get alone time. So lately Rip, my husband, has been taking the girls to school. We used to carpool, and with all of the dam issues, flooding that we’ve had, it’s hard to get to our house right now. So we don’t carpool. But the little bit of time after the kids are out the door, and before I get in the shower and get ready to go to the office, is good quiet time for me. It’s probably 20 minutes.

Q: What’s your favorite book?

A: Oh, maybe “Beach Music” probably, and Pat Conroy just died.

Q: And movie.

A: “Life is Beautiful.”

Q: If you could have a conversation with any human being who has existed to date, who would that be, and why?

A: Margaret Thatcher. Or Gandhi. Margaret Thatcher because she was a woman, and I’d love to just know her journey and her struggles. Parliament is a whole different kind of animal, too. Just the things she accomplished in her prime. And then Gandhi because of his ability to galvanize people. As someone who wants to be a leader, you want to look at leaders who have accomplished significant feats, and Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher did.

Q: Who do you go to for advice?

A: Politically, anything — my mentor is Senator Joel Lourie. I mean, he’s like my brother. His best friend growing up was my brother Sam, who was killed in the automobile accident.

Q: So if there were a celebrity you could visit with, who would that celebrity be, and why?

A: George Clooney.

Q: And why?

A: Because while he’s an actor, and he’s in the limelight, he has a purpose for what he’s doing, and the purpose is good. He always has an issue or doesn’t get caught up in the shallowness of what I think being a celebrity could be. I mean, he’s trying to do something good.

Q: What’s your favorite thing to spend money on?

A: Probably jewelry or clothes, dresses.

Q: Was there a childhood dream that you have not realized and, if so, what?

A: I mean, I never dreamed to serve in political office really. So I always thought I was gonna be a lawyer. If I wasn’t a lawyer — I mean I grew up among lawyers and, you know, I think from an early age I liked to argue for things I thought were for the right thing, and I was told, “Oh, you’d be such a good lawyer.” So maybe that’s why my path went that way, but if I didn’t do that, I don’t know. Maybe media journalism.

Q: If you could ask God one question, what would it be?

A: It would have to be about will I see my parents and my brother and be reunited with my family after I’m gone. Something like that, you know.

Q: If you could give others the benefit of a lesson that you’ve learned, what would that be?

A: This is going be so basic. I think it’s really an important lesson. You really want to treat people the way you want to be treated. Try to do the right thing. I try to impart that to my children, and I know it’s just a basic thing, but it’s important.

Q: Do you have something you want to be remembered for?

A: Being a good daughter and a good mother.

Q: And 20 years from now, where will you be?

A: Practicing law in some capacity. I think one thing about practicing law is you can practice it into your 80s, so I don’t see myself ever not working or doing something. I don’t even call it work. Going to the office. As far as the political aspect of my life, I have no idea. You know 20 years I hope I’m here. I hope I have my mind. That’s the one thing.

Q: So you’ve accomplished a tremendous amount in what I call the first half of your life. The second half, what do you want to accomplish?

A: I’m 46, and in my 40s, I’m starting to feel more comfortable in my skin. I think in my 50s I will care more about the simpler things in life. You know, being with my family, having health.

Q: Do you think a lot about health?

A: I’ll tell you, so I was 34. I just turned 34. My mother died. I was pregnant, and I started to care for daddy. So I really got to see that circle of life. And also to see someone who was so intelligent and smart and worked so hard and was such the caretaker, to turn around and be the infant and the child. Dementia — not having a sense of where I am or who I am — it’s a scary prospect for me. So that’s why I think about health. Not that I’m not going to be healthy in my heart, you know, back or heart issues or anything like that. It’s more about my mind. As I get older, I’m gonna be thankful for every year I have.

Q: Do you have a favorite word?

A: Resilience.

Q: And what is your least favorite word?

A: Shut up.

Q: What inspires you?

A: It might be music. You know, I’m not someone who has studied music. I don’t even know how to play an instrument. Music gets me motivated. It gets my psyche back.

Q: What do you want young women to know that you weren’t privy to knowing?

A: I want to encourage women to run for office. They shouldn’t have to be asked to run for office. Just like the boy in the classroom who grows up thinking he’s going to be president, the little girl should grow up thinking that too. But with women, it’s more about being asked. I wish they automatically knew that they can do it. You see the difference?

Q: I do. I think that’s a great way to end the interview.

A: Thank you.

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