In their roles, Matt Lester and Dennis Bernard will work to ensure the needs of Detroit’s Jewish community are met and its assets safeguarded.
On Oct. 1, Matt Lester and Dennis Bernard were installed as presidents of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and the United Jewish Foundation, respectively. In their roles, they will work to ensure the needs of Detroit’s Jewish community are met and its assets safeguarded.
But this is not the first time the two have worked together. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, the two men have co-chaired Federation’s COVID emergency taskforce. Lester led the campaign to raise more than $7 million to meet the community’s needs, allocating money to both Federation and non-Federation agencies.
“Even though we’re going through a traumatic period, our community opened up with their hearts, their brains and their wallets,” Bernard said. “We raised a lot of money from very good people and foundations to do emergency funding. Bernard added that the taskforce continues to work with agencies to ensure efficiencies of both dollars and services, including child care, food and mental health care for those who need it.
The COVID emergency campaign still has significant resources to meet the community’s needs. “We are going to need them, make no mistake about it,” Lester said.
According to Bernard, the crisis provided Federation and the Foundation with a shining moment. “We were hit with a once-in-a-generation pandemic. This community quickly pulled together,” he said. “Everyone was focused, and everyone was committed to the right ideas. People who had historically been involved and people who’d been less involved in the Federation process stepped up.”
Lester added, “COVID demonstrated and reaffirmed that Federation is the central address for the community. I did not imagine the degree to which this community would engage in collaboration with one another, sharing ideas, sharing resources.”
In addition to co-chairing the COVID Taskforce, Bernard and Lester have been friends for more than 20 years. “We’ve done business. We’ve argued together. We built things together,” Bernard said, adding he hoped their friendship would enhance collaboration between Foundation and Federation.
“Dennis is a man of the highest intellect and integrity and passion for our Jewish community,” Lester said, adding that they have complementary skillsets. “He is very detail-oriented. I’m more big-picture.”
Federation’s ‘Three-Legged Stool’
“I have believed, truly, in my kishkes, that Federation was the best place for me to have a positive impact on our Jewish community, the Jewish people and the world,” Lester said. “If more people believe that, if more people feel that way, then we are going to grow the tent.”
Lester said he sees the Federation as a “three-legged stool.” One leg of that stool is Federation’s role as the central fundraiser for the Jewish community.
While Lester was raising funds for the COVID emergency campaign, he said he made it clear that gifts to the emergency fund could not impact gifts to Federation’s annual 2021 campaign to ensure there would be no funding shortfalls for agencies’ ongoing needs.
Another leg on the stool is allocations. “Our allocations assist agencies and their mission to take care of the most vulnerable and to provide for welfare, education or identity within our community,” Lester said.
The third leg of that stool is something Lester calls “stewardship”: “helping members of the Jewish community to enhance their identity, enhance their participation, come into the tent, not feel as though the tent was reserved for the big-bucks donors only.”
One of his main goals as Federation president is to enhance the “return on philanthropy.”
“I want Federation and our agencies to be the primary institution by which people can have a positive impact on the Jewish world,” he said.
Another short-term priority for Lester is building the bench of talent and leadership at Federation. “We’ve got a lot of talent at Federation,” he said. “I want them to, in some ways, create their replacements. Over the next five-plus years, people who hold important positions are going to retire. I don’t want there to be a void.”
The United Jewish Foundation is the steward of the Detroit Jewish community’s money and assets, totaling more than $450 million, including real estate assets and community endowment funds. It is also the steward of Federation’s general fund, the rainy-day fund for the community.
The Foundation is responsible for investing that money safely and making sure the proceeds from those investments are sent to the proper agencies.
“We’ve been on an investment rollercoaster,” Bernard said. “In March, the market was hitting new highs, then by April and May, new lows. And now it’s climbing back up again. So we’ve had the challenge of making sure we allocate our assets appropriately in different kinds of investment funds.”
Bernard said he follows the words of Winston Churchill, who said, “Never waste a good crisis.”
“We’re taking the COVID crisis as an opportunity to relook at all our investment strategies and investment partners, to ensure our endowment funds are secure and going to the right places, and they are,” he said.
“Now we’re working with all the agencies and Federation to make sure all our real estate is still relevant, in good condition and still serving its purpose. It was a great opportunity for us to do a gut check.”
According to Bernard, the community’s real estate has never been in better condition. “We’ve done a lot of capital improvements,” he said.
Bernard has also spent time ensuring funds are secure. Earlier this year, hackers stole $7.5 million in funds from Washington, D.C.’s Jewish Federation. That incident weighs on his mind as he thinks about Foundation safeguards.
“There has been an increase in cybertheft during COVID, and we were constantly updating our cybersecurity, our insurances, our protocols,” Bernard said. “We brought in an expert and were fortunate to learn we didn’t require any changes.”
Lester and Bernard speak daily as co-chairs of the COVID taskforce. “It’s second nature for us to include each other on each decision. We have come up with combined strategic goals for our presidencies,” Bernard said.
Both the Federation and the Foundation continue to work with various agencies on opportunities to collaborate or consolidate. “Everything’s on the table,” Bernard said.
“We’ve made a list of lingering issues in this community that need to be solved,” Bernard added. “We’re going to tackle problems that need to be tackled. We hope by the end of our combined presidency to check off many issues that involve hard decisions.”
Another shared priority is “widening the tent,” Lester said, “empowering our contemporaries, as well as young people, to support Federation with their own type of energy and way of expressing their Judaism.
“There are countless examples of people who influence the direction of Federation and our Jewish community in wonderful, positive ways through passion and volunteerism as much as through dollars,” Lester added. “ I can tell you, unequivocally, that those people who roll up their sleeves and come to work with a love of the Jewish people and a love of the Jewish community and a passion for our Federation will find themselves in positions of influence and power and steering the ship as much as anybody.”
Lester summed it up like this: “We want people to find joy in being Jewish and, in turn, live an enhanced Jewish life.
“The way to do that is through meaningful participation in our agencies and those organizations underneath the Federation umbrella that do incredible work on behalf of the Jewish people and on behalf of all mankind.”
Meet Matt Lester
Matt Lester was born and raised in Franklin, leaving Michigan for only three years during college. He shares Bernard’s philosophy of a life based on family, business and community.
Lester said he comes from a family that always emphasized giving back, and he’s involved in many community organizations, including the DIA, DSO and Forgotten Harvest, among others, in addition to Federation. “For me, I found meaning and enjoyment in living a Jewish life and getting involved in the Jewish community,” he said.
His Jewish journey began, he said, with a Federation young adult mission to Israel in 1999. Later, he participated in the Grosfeld Mission, which he eventually went on to lead. Then he was asked to join Federation’s Israel and Overseas Committee, the Blumenstein Leadership Institute, the Sherman Leadership Institute, Federation’s Annual Campaign Chair, numerous boards, including the American Joint Distribution Committee, Jewish Senior Life, Kadima, the Jewish Fund, BBYO, Yad Ezra, Forgotten Harvest, Tamarack Camps, United Jewish Foundation, etc. The list is long.
“I doubt there’s a Federation president who has had more or better mentorship and opportunity to grow as a Jew and to get to know, understand, and love and care about their Jewish community than I have,” Lester said. “And it’s thanks to a countless number of Jewish leaders too numerous to mention, although I often start with Jane Sherman, Nancy Grosfeld and Penny Blumenstein, three matriarchs of our community.”
He and his wife, Nikki, have two children: Ella Rose, a senior at Cranbrook, and son Richard, a freshman at Cranbrook. Lester is founder and CEO of Princeton Enterprises, a real estate company that has expanding property operations in 16 states across the Midwest and Southeast and employs 1,000 people. Lester said he considers his business to be “like a third child.”
A former competitive skier, Lester is working on becoming one again at 55, which is “a new trick for me,” he said. “I’m literally training with a senior champion world-class cross-country ski racer, but I’m a downhill skier.”
Lester says his priority is spending quality time with his family and enjoying the outdoors on their family lifestyle farm in Charlevoix, where they grow all kinds of crops and raise chickens. The farm can house more than 30 people. “The best part about the farm is being able to share it with others, which we do every year,” he said. “It’s most fun for me when the farm is packed with families and kids running around and learning about the farm and exploring.”
Meet Dennis Bernard
Dennis Bernard, who was born and raised in Cleveland, moved to Detroit 34 years ago to be with his eventual wife, Hadas. He said he was inspired by his great-uncle, a role model, who told him a successful life was “built like a three-legged stool — family, community and business — and to try and give equally and in a coordinated way to each one.”
He took his uncle’s advice and was involved in Cleveland’s Federation before moving to Detroit. A few years later, he became involved in Federation’s Young Adult division and began to join agency and community boards.
One of the first people he met was the legendary David Hermelin, Detroit-area philanthropist and U.S. ambassador to Norway. Hermelin was “the godfather to so many young men and women to help them become part of the community,” Bernard said. “David took me further and helped me build my business by giving me an opportunity early on, but also teaching me that at the same time to give back, to be involved, to use the skillset I have to help others.”
Bernard is the founder and CEO of the Bernard Financial Group, Michigan’s largest commercial mortgage banking and servicing firm, which has been intimately involved in the comeback of Detroit.
He lives with his wife, Hadas, in Birmingham. They share an interest in philanthropy, focusing on at-risk people, such as those with developmental disabilities, chronic mental illness, drug addiction and suicide risk. Bernard has served on a state task force on community mental health funding now for three governors.
He and Hadas have three grown children, who call them every day wherever they are in the world. They have a close family, who spend time together often. “We are all big personalities. We fight, we argue, we laugh, we make fun. We play tricks on each other and nobody takes it personal. We have a riot.”
Bernard, who used to be an avid mountain biker, says he has two hobbies that helped keep him busy during the lockdown. “I have a large train room in my attic that I started building with my kids when they were young, that I continue to build, and it gives me a lot of time to get away from business, community and family issues,” he said. “The other thing I do is make Shutterfly books for the family. I digitized all these old photos from 32 years of marriage and family am in the process of making a Shutterfly book for every year, a legacy for my family.”