In a dream once, a former Senator explained – people who have the courage of their convictions need not be argumentative nor quarrelsome.
We want to extend a huge thank you to our volunteer Gerald (Jerry) Bernstein who has given so much of his time and service to IPL. Jerry embodies the spirit of generosity and living his conviction with courage. For 5 years, Jerry served IPL by being a judge in the Cool Congregations challenge and helping congregations assess solar feasibility and financing. We sat down with Jerry and interviewed him about his illustrious life, how he became involved with IPL, and what motivates him to be part of the climate movement.
What was your upbringing like and what was unique about it?
I grew up in Maine; that’s my touchstone. It was a great place to grow up with the four seasons and activities– canoeing, skiing, camping: all good stuff- open fields and woodlots near where we lived. Not a lot of wealth disparity– we all thought of ourselves as middle class.
The unique part of my upbringing was my dad. Even though we were Jewish, my dad took me to different churches many Sunday mornings during my pre- and early-teen years. Jewish services were only available on holidays in our city at that time, so this was his way to fill in the gap. This gave me exposure to Catholic, Methodist, Congregational and Unitarian services, which were prominent in that area.
How did religion play a role as you grew up?
The question that evolved for me attending a variety of services was I heard everyone praying, and through prayer expressing thanks, joy, adoration, requests for intercession, but I didn’t hear the listening part. I heard heartfelt verbalizing, but what seemed missing was listening to God’s response. That became an early question for me.
Later in college, when I learned about Buddhism, it attracted me religiously as it involved silence; it seemed Buddhist meditation was a form of listening. (As an aside, I’m talking about the 1960’s and early ‘70’s; since that time I think many mainstream religions have incorporated formal meditation or expanded silent contemplation which was not the case then.)
I was a Conscientious Objector and Army medic during the Vietnam era. My last duty station was in Germany. From there, I went to England, and I started studying with Buddhist and Hindu teachers. I started a daily meditation practice, but after moving back to Maine years later, this devolved as there was no-one to practice with. (For younger folk, there was no internet and Google then!)
How did you get into climate work? Your career was in aeronautical engineering, is that right?
Yes, in high school, I was always interested in science and math. I’ve two engineering degrees, a Bachelor’s in Aeronautical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic institute (RPI) in upstate New York, and, later, a Master’s in Civil Engineering from Stanford University. My first job out of college with my BS degree was engineering-oriented airport location studies.
But after serving as a medic in the Army, I came back to the States and thought of a medical career as I found this work more alive than my engineering work. I took biology and psych courses, worked at a psychiatric hospital, and later worked as a respiratory therapist (a skill I learned in the Army). But eventually didn’t see this becoming a career.
I took a position as a City and Regional Planner as it seemed to combine my interpersonal and analytical skills. After a few years of this, to move my career along, I applied to graduate school and was accepted at Stanford, which is what brought me to California. At Stanford, I got involved in transportation consulting and research, working mostly with faculty on air transportation issues.
Was this the point where you started your professional career?
Yes, after Stanford, I talked my way into a position at the consulting firm SRI International (previously Stanford Research Institute). I consulted for transportation companies, airlines and aircraft-manufacturing companies worldwide. After 16 years of progressively increasing responsibility during which I became a Department head spending more time on staff problems than those of the clients I enjoyed working with. So I left SRI and with a few colleagues started the consultancy Stanford Transportation Group; we continued with existing and new clients – US, European, Japanese, Canadian, Brazilian.
In the meantime, I was chairing committees for the National Academy of Science and National Academy of Engineering; one Economics committee I chaired for 6 years. During this time, I also organized conferences for the FAA and the General Accountability Office (GAO). They’d ask if I’d run conference for different air transportation subjects, so I did.
So, then what happened?
Well, there were always two routes in my life – the searching route and the professional route.
By the early 2000’s, I had 20+ years of experience. But as I read more about climate change, I became increasingly concerned about environmental issues– carbon reduction rather than carbon production. I recognized what I was doing was reinforcing carbon-producing activity. The dissonance between what I was doing, and my convictions was growing.
In 2007, an acquaintance at City College of San Francisco ran a program that had to do with transportation-related job training throughout the San Francisco Bay Area; she was going on sabbatical and asked me to watch-over her program while she was away. I took it over and found it interesting as I worked with faculty to upgrade programs for students in traditional automotive technology to add hybrid repair skills. When she came back, she no longer wanted the program, so I took it over full time and started winding down my consulting practice.
So, you became involved in environmental programs at the college system. What was that like?
My timing was great. I brought in grants to expand hybrid vehicle training for college autotech programs around the San Francisco Bay Area. Due to my interests, I had a solar PV system installed on my roof. Then the community college system added energy-related technical education to the program’s transportation focus. Though we started with local funds, grants became available to help faculty create solar-installer courses; this included PV-related training for electrical faculty and purchasing equipment (panels, mock roofs) they needed to train installers. Due to my experience, I was asked to take charge of a 5-year, multi-state Department of Energy grant that supported expansion of solar PV instruction to about 50 community colleges in California and Hawai’i.
Those are the carbon-reducing and job-training efforts and I found ethically more gratifying.
How did you come to IPL?
As I mentioned, years earlier my meditation practice waned. But when my youngest son went off to college, I had time to reconnect with it. I participated in programs at the San Francisco Zen Center, returning to a meditation practice. While I continue to celebrate the Jewish holidays with family and friends, I have a daily meditation practice in the Zen tradition.
I stayed with the community college for 10 years, at which point I was reaching retirement. A Zen Center priest had been on the IPL Board and gave me an introduction to Sally Bingham and Susan Stephenson. I introduced myself and haven’t looked back; I’ve been at IPL since 2017, filling some niches and creating others.
I’ve had a great time working with congregations around the country, helping them move toward solar energy if it makes sense for them environmentally AND financially. If a congregation has a green team or some interested individuals, I run the numbers with them to provide a preliminary analysis as they may be hesitant, not having done this before. We review their utility bills; using on-line software, I can sketch out a PV system and estimate what it would cost, and what financing alternatives would look like. All my work is estimating, but my estimates have been within 10% of the installer proposals when they proceed. When these preliminary results are positive (they aren’t always), and the team gets Board or Elder or Diocese approval to take this further, we put them in touch with people who do the financing. A Solar PV system doesn’t have to be a fund-raising challenge; with the financing available (and new options coming out in 2023 due to the Inflation Reduction Act) total monthly electrical payments can be reduced, providing the congregation funds to put to other uses. This support is the niche I’ve created at IPL– providing support to congregations to help them assess the financial viability of a solar PV system.
Solar PV systems don’t provide financial benefit in every state. Some states have higher electricity costs, others lower. For example, California and the northeastern states have high electricity costs; Hawai’i has an enormous cost. So you find a lot of PV in these states. But it’s not entirely economics; only two states (Mississippi and Wyoming) don’t have a congregation with a PV system. Even Alaska has one!
Secondarily, I’ve improved our effort at tracking congregations who have installed such systems. Several years ago, the IPL database had 350 congregations with PV systems; I’ve improved the collection effort by regularly adding congregations to the database– we’re now tallied over 1200 that have solar PV systems.
What’s kept you going all these years?
Being with people that have a shared ethos. I mean that in terms of staff and in terms of congregations we work with. Because they recognize the importance of taking action to save Creation, or heal the earth, or maybe it’s for whoever comes after them. They want to make this world a better place. I have children and grandchildren; I do this because there’s a future I want to make as viable as it can be.
We try to work with and support the efforts of those who are trying to do the right thing.
How does your spirituality play a role in your motivations?
I consider myself Jewish and Buddhist; I find no conflict. This goes back to my childhood question– the desire we have to express our gratitude, joy and sorrow, and to learn to listen and be open. I have my feet in both worlds – one in prayer and one in meditation.
Because we are responsible. This is our one planet; this is one universe. We are all connected; we try to make a positive difference.
What’s been the highlight of your career and work here at IPL?
I had a couple great careers. The creativity at SRI was enormous: great people. The people I worked with loved being there; these were all people who were doing what interested them. The college was similar in that the faculty was dedicated to improving training and skill development so students could acquire and hold good jobs as they moved into the world.
IPL is similar. We are and we work with people who are strongly motivated by their faith and passion to make a better, more just world; colleagues, associates and affiliates have a positive outlook. The focus, goals and objectives of the organization are critical in today’s world. I enjoy being part of making this positive contribution.
Likewise, being able to work with people in congregations who are trying to do the right thing provides satisfaction. I enjoy using my skills and experience to support individuals and teams who can benefit from a bit of technical support to achieve their environmental ambitions. I’m able to combine analytic work, which I’m good at and enjoy, while working with others who are faith and environmentally like-minded.
What do you do in your free time and what’s most important to you?
Family is most important to me; I cherish the time I spend with my sons and grandkids. I have sons in two states, both with families. When my parents were alive, our family went back to Maine each summer. A lot of back-and-forth in my life. My wife and I enjoy international travel, also; we now buy carbon offsets to balance the emissions produced. Fortunately, I’ve a lot of local friends for outings, hikes and luncheons!
I’ve self-published a couple books on different parts of the country, encompassing a variety of forest and climate biomes; these are photo albums with text that describe the environments I’ve visited and photographed from deserts to swamps to redwood forests. I probably delve too much into geological history, but that’s part of the charm and learning experience for me. I have these books printed for friends as Holiday presents.