Ask Dennis Bernard how he’s faring Covid-wise and he welcomes the question: “It’s been hard, but I’ve been truly blessed with a remarkable partner in Hadas. I love spending time with her. . . and have no complaints about the past months playing games and watching Netflix together.”

Originally from Cleveland, Dennis followed his heart to Detroit 34 years ago. He had a job opportunity in commercial mortgage finance but, more significantly, he made the move in pursuit of Hadas – the Israeli student at University of Michigan Ross School of Business who would become his bride. Together, Dennis and Hadas have been partners in life, in business, in their volunteer work, in every aspect of their community engagement. “Wherever Hadas tells me we belong, we join and support together,” says Dennis.

Those who know the Bernards know that family, friends, colleagues, clients and partners all meld as one community – where relationships mean everything.  As the early days of the Covid crisis extended into months of social distancing, Dennis has found something of a blessing, drawing his adult children back to town and closer together: with eldest son Joshua (now a partner in his company) married to Stacie; Aaron, a law student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, and Leora, a Senior at Miami University in Oxford, OH.

While the Bernard family has remained strong, Dennis shared that they also have been challenged significantly. “One of our sons contracted the virus early on. It was scary, but the symptoms were no worse than a very bad flu.” The single hardest part, Dennis continued, was losing his father in July. “We couldn’t visit him at the Cleveland Clinic, but we did have a day with him at home in hospice care, so it was of comfort that we did say goodbye. I am truly blessed to have my adult children call and text me and their mother every day – no matter where in the world they may be.”

Zooming through meetings these days – finding himself energized by new work, and just as productive and upbeat as always – Dennis spoke with myJewishDetroit – safely distanced in his office in Southfield. Here’s what he had to say about the state of our community.

The office in Southfield is filled with photos of Dennis and Hadas’s family.

Q&A with Dennis Bernard: On Navigating the New Normal

myJewishDetroit: In the last six months what lessons have you learned in leadership?

Dennis Bernard: Our world is changing with alarming speed. The new terminology that everyone understands today is the “new normal.” We don’t know what we don’t know, and we don’t know how to live with such uncertainty.

So, what I have learned? The lesson for me is that it’s okay not to have all the answers. When I was younger, I felt I needed to come to the table ready with answers – or at least to know the right people who had the answers. But there’s a unique perspective – and perhaps even an advantage – that Covid now brings to bear in our thinking: it’s that everything we’re doing now is new and no one has the playbook for how things are going to go. 

So, my short answer here is that Covid-19 has helped me to ask better questions. And, most importantly, to be a better listener. The better and more specific the questions, the better and more specific the responses. And the conversation starts with listening carefully to our stakeholders, our agencies, our representatives in Lansing, our contributors, our supporters and our fellow leaders. For me, it’s been a tremendous learning experience that has given me new skills that translate into other areas of my life.

Another thing I’ve learned: there are lies, damn lies and statistics. There also is “follow the science.” Science is not opinion or wishful thinking. It’s the process of discovery. We cannot choose the science we want. So, I have learned to caution those who insist that we “follow the science,” to stop and think and evaluate the source and accountability of our scientific facts as they unfold.

On finding the balance

myJewishDetroit: How do we navigate our way forward with a balance of caution and action?

To move forward, we have to take calculated risks. And we don’t make decisions alone, we call upon the collective wisdom of trusted partners and work together. In working on behalf of our community in our involvement with governmental funding – and now in emergency planning – I count Matt Lester and Evan Weiner as the two most remarkable community partners I have worked with. On the Covid Emergency Task Force, Matt and I had to jump into action with other leaders of our community. Together, we had to take calculated risks to secure government support and significant funding from the community – then find the courage to make hard decisions about metering the money, gaining consensus on what is feasible to do.

So, here’s where Federation came in with some amazing work. All the Jewish agencies and organizations came together to discuss how we might combine resources and services to cover the current needs of the community, and then to  envision the projected needs of the “new normal” – whatever that may bring. 

Historically, Federation’s partner agencies and Jewish organizations not directly funded by Federation have remained independent, each providing services in their own way. As Winston Churchill said, “Never waste a crisis.” Covid is our crisis and it’s our opportunity to bring our agencies together, to combine overlapping services and rethink specialty programs – making our limited dollars go further.

If there’s one thing that’s certain, when we come through this challenge, we will be a more efficient community delivering more services for less money.

On urgent needs

myJewishDetroit: What do you see as the most pressing challenges now facing the Jewish community?

I think it’s our mental health. Hadas and I always have been advocates for more mental health services and resources for the community. Over the years, I have served on task forces for three governors  for what I refer to as “people at-risk” – those with mental health issues, chronic illnesses or disabilities, youth at-risk and the vulnerable elderly.

I see a paradigm shift today: We have begun to recognize our need to address the mental health challenges of our teens. Now we must prepare for the stress-related aftermath of the pandemic; how will our current state of isolation, quarantine, disruption and loss of life impact families and our community’s need for mental health services across the board? How best to provide for the mental wellbeing of our children, our college students, parents and elderly? Again, we don’t know what we don’t know. 

Our challenge for our future is planning for a new spectrum of community needs. Thinking about this, envisioning our solutions and ways to expedite our plans – that’s what keeps me awake at night.

On the strength of the community

myJewishDetroit: In our new normal, what do you identify as a positive influence?

Oh, that’s easy. It’s the strength of our community. When you take a step back from the day- to-day turmoil and look at what we’ve done for each other in such a short period of time, it is extraordinary to see how we’ve pulled together – Federation and partner agencies, our clergy and synagogues, Jewish foundations and nonprofit organizations, science and business experts, leaders in our community. Together, we have taken a hard look at every service and every dollar spent to staff and sustain programs. If there’s a silver lining in our challenge, it’s bringing everyone is onboard, collaborating for quicker solutions to problems and fewer barriers to agreement. Matt Lester and I continue to be in close consultation daily and are amazed with the way people have stepped up, become involved and asked to help. Partnering with a visionary leader like Matt has been a blessing.

On returning to work / back to school

myJewishDetroit: What do you see as safe pathways for Federation and agency staff going back to work?  What plans are in place for families with children going back to school?  

Regarding the safety of our buildings, we are following the governor’s rules: masks in common areas, taking temperatures at entry points, frequent cleaning and sanitation of shared areas and surfaces, and reducing exposure by imposing quarantine restrictions.

As parents know, we’ve started the school year in the day schools with classes in session. But we can’t force families to send their kids to school, and we can’t force teachers to come in, so we’re learning to be flexible with providing some form of hybrid of classroom and remote learning. Just like in business– some team members are still more comfortable working remotely, and we’re allowing that.

Regarding school funding this year, we’ve asked our schools to collaborate and they came to us with a unified request for their mutual needs. We are making our allocations based on enrollment, so that every student is supported equitably across the board. As we work to get our students back to class, we also are factoring in the cost of remote classrooms, as well as creative solutions for outdoor classes set up in tents.

Under the SBA Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), each agency and each day school in our community received funding. Our community also received $18 million from the CARES Act, funding from Oakland County and another $1.25  million from the state. Our first challenge is to get through the school year. But our decisions ultimately come back to the fact that we’re listening — getting better at asking questions to get better information in answering our most urgent needs. 

On social distancing and Zoom meetings

myJewishDetroit: What challenges or opportunities have you discovered socially distancing and working via Zoom?   

Personally, I like it. Apart from attending my father’s funeral, I haven’t put on a suit in seven months. I am in the financial world, working with top level clients in the comfort of my home or office, wearing jeans and a tee shirt. I’m still up at 5:30 a.m. But I’m managing my workday in my time: I’ve changed my work-out routine to more leisurely afternoons and attend more meetings more efficiently via Zoom. My productivity has increased. When you are intrinsically a productive person, you learn what is essential. Of course, what makes all this work is our technology. I cannot imagine how we’d get through this pandemic without our digital connections. 

Outlook Detroit: Another Big Picture

myJewishDetroit: In your view, how has the Southeastern Michigan marketplace fared in the midst of the pandemic?

Without a doubt, we are going to see changes in the way people work in offices in the near term and in the long term. 

Who knows what will be, but here’s my view from the standpoint of my company: At Bernard Financial we do almost $1.5 billion in commercial loans a year, representing 80% of the offices and apartments  that have been  financed downtown. For years and years, we’ve wanted better public transportation in Detroit, but coming out of Covid, people in major cities across the country are reluctant to use their mass transportation.    

Another positive indication that we’ve come out of the Covid recession in strength is the fact that our real estate market in Southeast Michigan is as healthy as it’s ever been. Before Covid, occupancies were up, rents were up, old buildings had been renovated; and many of the new construction projects were still in planning stages. The new high-rise offices and apartment buildings now sitting unoccupied in other major cities are going to cause major problems. My personal belief is that we are going to be in a good position to move forward.  People want – and need – to come back to life in the city and business will continue to evolve in bringing them in. 

Hadas and Dennis with a photo of a family trip to Scotland.

On life balance

myJewishDetroit: Final question: What do you do to unwind and de-stress? 

I’ve got a ton of hobbies that keep me busy. What many people don’t know about me is that I have an amazing train room. I collect and build, dream up, break up and blend ideas in my own world in miniature. I call it Dennis World. 

Also, I have a library, and I don’t mean a home office. I mean somewhere between 2,500 to 3,000 books! And yes, I constantly read. Everything.

And I’ve recently discovered a new outlet for my energies: Shutterfly, where I have been producing my own photobooks. I’ve been assembling, categorizing and scanning years of family photos, systematically working my way through 32 years of marriage.  

And it goes without saying that I take care of my health. I get outdoors as much as I can for walks, biking and golf.  

Reading now:

  • Everything Alexandre Dumas: I’m on a 10-year mission to read the entire collection of his 43 novels. Currently, I’m in the 9th volume of The D’Artagnan Romances.  
  • The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties, by Christopher Caldwell
  • (Rereading) Bearing the Cross, by Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Anything by Stephen King – his fiction is my candy. I can gobble that up.
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