Son of former Midrasha director among fire victims

Jonathan Bernbaum, an internationally renowned video DJ in the realm of electronic dance music, was one of dozens of people killed in the Oakland warehouse fire that destroyed the Ghost Ship artists’ collective. Bernbaum, 34, was the son of Edwin Bernbaum and former Berkeley Midrasha director Diane Bernbaum.

Bernbaum was at the Ghost Ship serving as VJ for a party the night of Dec. 2, playing music and staging an accompanying light show. As of Dec. 7, Oakland authorities had positively identified 36 bodies. The cause of the fire remained under investigation.

Jonathan Bernbaum photo/courtesy edwin bernbaum

A graduate of Berkeley High School, Brandeis University and USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, Bernbaum developed a global reputation as a VJ, touring the world in the last few years with Knife Party, an electronic dance music collective.

“In an extraordinarily short period of time, he went from absolute beginner to internationally recognized video artist,” his older brother, David Bernbaum, told J. “He was traveling all over the world, playing stadiums for tens of thousands of people.”

A shocked East Bay Jewish community reacted quickly to the news of Bernbaum’s death. Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom wrote in an email that “the outpouring of love and the desire to do something has been overwhelming. We know that each of us in our shul and other congregations in Berkeley wants to engage in this mitzvah.”

In a community email, Jewish Federation of the East Bay CEO Rabbi James Brandt said, “This is a time for us to come together and help our greater East Bay Community recover and heal from this tragic loss and, in doing so, reaffirm our Jewish values of chesed and rachamim, loving-kindness and compassion.”

Though he considered himself secular, Bernbaum upheld the best of Jewish values, according to his brother.

“Like a lot of secular Jews, he embodied the more charming parts of Judaism: a reverence for learning and community,” David Bernbaum said. “He was a voracious reader, drawn to counterculture philosophers. He was delighted by the strange and unusual, delighted by people who came together.”

Bernbaum served as a reporter on the school newspaper at Berkeley High, majored in history at Brandeis and later studied film at USC. He then applied his filmmaking skills to the burgeoning art of live VJ performance. According to his brother, Bernbaum was attracted to the art, as well as the community surrounding it.

“He started getting involved in the underground party scene,” David Bernbaum recalled. “The ethic was nonprofit, people coming together, no leaders, no rules. You show up and put your shoulder to the wheel. He thought this is where I can contribute. He learned how video art in that context works, and very quickly he found this was something he could pour his passion into.”

Diane Bernbaum is a respected East Bay Jewish community professional. In 1981, the Wisconsin native and former schoolteacher took the helm of Midrasha, an extracurricular Jewish enrichment program for teens. She retired in 2014 after 33 years on the job.

A candlelight vigil for Bernbaum was held Dec. 4 on the campus of his alma mater, USC. His funeral is scheduled for 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 11 at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley.

Added Bernbaum’s brother: “One thing we’re grateful for, at the time of his death he was enjoying tremendous success with what he did.”

pine-dan
Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.