Robert L. Bernstein Recieves the 2013 Dr. Bernard Heller Prize from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D., President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), awarded the 2013 Dr. Bernard Heller Prize to Robert L. Bernstein, Founder of Advancing Human Rights, for his leadership in the development of the international human rights movement. The award was presented at the HUC-JIR/New York Graduation Ceremony on Thursday, May 3 at 4 pm at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, 10 East 66th Street, New York City.

Click here to read Mr. Bernstein's response.

Rabbi Ellenson noted, “Robert Bernstein has transformed his professional expertise as an acclaimed publisher into a sacred mission of defending freedom of expression and protecting victims of injustice.  His catalytic role in establishing the Fund for Free Expression, The Helsinki Watch, America’s Watch, The Human Rights Watch, and Advancing Human Rights reflect his dynamic leadership.”

Robert L. Bernstein, publisher and human rights activist, has devoted his life to the active defense of freedom of expression and to the protection of victims of injustice and abuse throughout the world.  As one of the most influential voices in American publishing for over three decades, he is also a dominant force in the development of the international human rights movement.

Mr. Bernstein started as an office boy at Simon & Schuster in 1946, moved to Random House in 1956, and succeeded Bennett Cerf as Chairman and President in 1966.  In the 25 years that he headed Random House, its list featured many great American authors, including William Faulkner, James Michener, Dr. Seuss, Toni Morrison, and William Styron.

In 1970, he was invited to the Soviet Union as part of a delegation from the Association of American Publishers to convince the Soviets to join the international copyright union. Starting with Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner, he became interested in writers whose work could not be published in their own countries. Besides many Soviet dissident writers, he ensured that authors like Vaclav Havel, Jacobo Timerman, and Wei Jinsheng were all published around the world.

After his experience in Moscow in 1973, Mr. Bernstein returned to the U.S. and established the Fund for Free Expression to make the names of dissident writers prominent. This led to his founding of Helsinki Watch, America’s Watch, and the other watch committees that were merged into what is Human Rights Watch today. Human Rights Watch is an international organization known for research and effective advocacy on a broad range of issues, including women’s rights, children’s rights, international justice, the human rights responsibilities of corporations, refugees, arms transfers and free expression everywhere.  Mr. Bernstein served as Chair of Human Rights Watch for twenty years and in 1998 became Founding Chair Emeritus, a role he still occupies.  He also has been very active with the largest Chinese human rights organization, Human Rights in China, where he remains Chair Emeritus and a member of the Board. The organization has offices in New York and Hong Kong.

In 2010, Mr. Bernstein founded a new organization named Advancing Human Rights. The organization now has two major divisions, CyberDissidents.org and Movements.org. The organization was founded to use new technology to more effectively open up closed societies, by giving dissidents in those societies a place to publish their ideas and gain support from the free world.

Mr. Bernstein holds a B.S. degree from Harvard.  He has won numerous awards from the New York Civil Liberties Union; the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights; People for the American Way; Barnard College; the Association of American Publishers; and Partnership for Children’s Rights; and received honorary doctorates from Yale University, Swarthmore College, The New School, Bard College, Hofstra University, Bates College, and Tougaloo College. In 1998, President William J. Clinton presented him with the United States’ first Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award.

At Yale, Mr. Bernstein has been honored by friends and colleagues with the establishment of the Robert L. Bernstein Fellowships in International Human Rights at Yale Law School.  The fellowships are awarded annually to two or three Law School graduates devoted to advancing human rights protection around the world.  Mr. Bernstein has also lectured at Yale and served as a Gordon Grand fellow. At New York University Law School, the Robert L. Bernstein Fellowship entitles a New York University law graduate to a year-long internship at Human Rights in China.

Ruth O. Freedlander, Co-Trustee of the Dr. Bernard Heller Foundation, will present the prize. The Dr. Bernard Heller Prize in Arts, Letters, the Humanities, and Religion is an international award presented to an organization or individual whose work, writing, or research reflects significant contributions in these areas. Previous recipients include Dennis B. Ross, Special Middle East Coordinator in the U.S. Department of State; Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, chief negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords; Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Treasury and advocate for Holocaust restitution;  Count Folke Bernadotte, posthumously, for rescuing thousands in the concentration camps during the Holocaust; and Shimon Peres, President of the State of Israel, for his exemplary leadership, wise statecraft, and moral leadership for over sixty years.

The Dr. Bernard Heller Prize was established by the Co-Trustees of the Dr. Bernard Heller Foundation to honor Dr. Bernard Heller's memory, life, and belief in the Jewish tradition. Dr. Bernard Heller was ordained at Hebrew Union College in 1949, served on the faculty as Visiting Professor of Jewish Ethics and the Philosophy of Religion at HUC-JIR/New York, was the Director of Restitution of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc., the agency charged with the restitution of cultural property seized by the Nazis from European Jewry and Jewish institutions, and served the only liberal Jewish congregation in India, the Progressive Union of Bombay. Dr. Heller pursued his interests in business as one of the founders of the predecessor to the United Brands Corporation and the West Indies Investment Company in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Click here for more information on the HUC-JIR Graduation and Ordination ceremonies in New York, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati.


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is the nation's first institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu