Catch him if you can. A marathon runner, an ironman athlete – primed for endurance, physically, mentally, spiritually, in every sense – attorney Richard H. Bernstein ran in a heated electoral race for the Michigan Supreme Court in 2014. Against all odds, and out-spent 10-to-1 by his opponent, he won his seat on the bench by 10 points and earned his place in history as Michigan’s first blind justice.
Catch him if you can. A champion of social justice, a tireless advocate for people with special needs, a voice for those who have no voice and a powerful public speaker, Justice Bernstein has traveled the world to inspire others to follow his lead.
The fact that Justice Bernstein is unmistakably brilliant is clear. But there’s a light in him that burns beyond intellect. His warmth, his humor and boundless energy, his genuine interest in people, his empathy and compassion, his Jewish soul, are all qualities that have served him well through every challenge, breaking barriers and proving that there’s nothing that people with special needs can’t do.
Catch Justice Bernstein any time you have the opportunity to meet or hear him speak. At 44, he’s still “Ricky” among his peers in Federation’s NEXTGen Detroit – and far more accessible than you’d expect of a public figure of his stature. Amidst a non-stop schedule in a week of engagements in Muskegon, New York, Dearborn, Minneapolis and Lansing, he cleared his calendar to headline a evening with NEXTGen Detroit, hosted at the home of longtime community leaders, Joy and Allan Nachman.
The highly anticipated event attracted a sold-out crowd of attorneys, law students, social justice professionals, community leaders and Federation Board members. Noting that numerous attendees at the event have pledged to increase their commitment to the work of the Federation, Chief Executive Officer Scott Kaufman expressed his gratitude. “Justice Bernstein carries the family legacy of the Sam Bernstein Law Firm – a three-generation practice championing the causes of the seriously injured and most vulnerable members of the community. A leader by example for NEXTGen Detroit, Ricky continues to inspire us all to dig deeper and reach further in service to Jewish Detroit and beyond.”
For those who didn’t have the pleasure of attending the event, here are highlights of what Justice Bernstein shared:
“Why we are here”
We are here to celebrate the idea of community — for ultimately it is community that defines us all. It is community that gives us energy, that gives us spirit, that gives us vitality, that allows for us to understand and appreciate our place – how we contribute, how we can impact, how we can lean on the shoulders of others when we are so desperately seeking help, guidance and support.
“There is a story that I always share . . .”
It starts with a conversation . . . that kind of conversation that can shape your life and impact the direction and choices that you are going to make.
I got a call one morning from a wonderful young mom. I’ll never forget her words: ‘Richard,’ she said, ‘I am reaching out to you because I know that you care about people with special needs. And I want to understand why it is that of all the people in the world Hashem would choose me to have a child with special needs. Tell me what kind of a life my newborn is going to have. Is he going to have friends, is he going to school, is he going to live independently, will he ever marry, will I ever be a grandparent, and what’s going to happen when I am no longer here to care for him?’
She went on to ask the question that we all ponder and that we all want to know: When do you think my life and my child’s life will ever be ordinary again, and when do you think we will ever reach a point where our family will no longer have to suffer?
We ask ourselves the eternal question, as this wonderful mom asked, and I responded by telling her, ‘From this point forward, there will be nothing about your life that will be ordinary again. You have to believe that you were sent here, and your child was sent here not necessarily to settle for being ordinary – but to be extraordinary.’
I don’t believe that Hashem ever creates a spirit or any soul with the idea that they were sent here to suffer—there are some who walk among us that do have to struggle. And this is where Federation comes in.
Through Federation, you help people with their struggles. But you find your own struggle, too. And through that struggle you find your identity. Through struggle you find your passion, your purpose, your reason for being, why you are created.
“What makes a good judge?”
After getting elected, I remember having a conversation about the qualities that go into being a good judge and people said a good judge is all about your academics, intellectualism, your ability to research and write and to publish, all facets that go into being a jurist.
I remember responding by saying, ‘I believe there is something far more significant when making decisions that affect people’s entire lives, their overall freedom, the way they live – when every facet of their life can be impacted by the stroke of a pen.’
The most important quality that goes into a position such as this is your life experience. As young people – NEXTGen future leaders – I ask you to treasure the life experiences that Hashem gives you. Treasure them for the good and the bad. And realize the the reason you care about Federation – the reason you are here tonight – is through the stories you have to share. Because the stories of your life shape who you are, give you a sense of priority, and allow you to realize that you are a part of something bigger, grander and more noble than anything you can possibly imagine or even attempt to remotely comprehend.
… and ultimately, it is through that understanding and appreciation that you will come to ask yourself the existential question that I always pose whenever I speak:
“Why? Why does G-d allow for bad things to happen to otherwise such good people?”
And why is it that we come to find that there are some who must live a harsher or more challenging existence than others?
I think the answer in many situations goes back to our own experiences. And I think of the people who are affected by your willingness to shine a light, to be involved, to believe that you are a part of something truly bigger than yourself.
Because, so often in life, things can change, things don’t always go the way that we hoped, things take a turn and go in directions we hadn’t anticipated, nor that we would ever want. And we know through our own experiences and exposures, that no, not everything is going to be okay. Not everything works out.
But the key that comes out of life, that you learn from your experience, is having the ability to adapt to a new circumstance, an unforeseen situation. Because those who can adapt are the ones who will flourish, the ones who ultimately will survive.
. . . and what you come to find in community, in your work and in volunteerism, in many situations, is that life changes quickly. Our bodies are mortal. Some folks that you serve are infirm, but, as so often the case, they are the ones who have the strongest and most powerful of spirit, they are the ones whose souls can rise to new heights.
“It’s not the big things, it’s the little things.”
Always remember, life is about the little things, all the crossroads, the turns and the choices we make along the way. And the reason that Federation matters is for the small steps, the small victories, the moments to cherish – all the little things that can make the biggest difference for the people our community serves.
When you work with JARC, Jewish Family Service or Hebrew Free Loan, when you work with folks who have Alzheimer’s, it’s those little things you give to them that give them a sense of worth, or value. It’s those little things that go to life at its essence. That go to life at its core, that give to life its meaning and value.
What I ask you to do as NEXTGen is to celebrate every victory and accomplishment that you are able to bring to bear. What you find when you work with people who are struggling is that they so often find a sense of peace and balance in life.
And so, you may ask why – Why do bad things happen to otherwise such good people? Why are there some who have to know a greater struggle?
I think the answer goes something like this: through struggle you come to find that you reach a certain point in life where you can’t spend your time, your energy and your effort focusing on how you are going to get over it. You come to realize there’s simply no other choice but to just get on with it. Look to those among us who face struggle and hardship, and you often will find they can do what is hard and achieve no less than what is great.
Further reflections: on struggle, on blessings, on leadership
It was deep into the night when the angel came upon Jacob. There ensued a tremendous struggle. A struggle that lasted until the sun rose. And at that moment, the angel blessed Jacob and gave him a new name. The name of Israel. Which as we all know is translated into one who struggles with G-d.
But through the battle, through the hardship of the evening, Jacob was left with a shattered hip. He would walk with a limp and come to know pain for the rest of his life. One could interpret this teaching by saying that it is impossible to lead people without knowing pain. It’s impossible to lead people if you don’t know struggle, if you don’t know hardship, if you don’t know setback. It’s only through those things that we can understand how we can have compassion, that we can empathize, that we can have an impact.
We celebrate who we are– we celebrate the lives we are given. For the good and the bad. It’s our lived experience that shapes us. If I hadn’t had the experience that Hashem had chosen for me, I wouldn’t be as good a judge. I wouldn’t be as merciful – as compassionate or understanding.
On running, achievement and life’s work
I have been blessed with the opportunity of completing 21 marathons and a full iron man competition. If you ask me how I do what I do, I would say simply you just have to want it. Athletics always has given me a strength and an identity, certain energy, vitality and vibrance, a purpose and a mission, to push forward, reach for greater heights in everything I do.
The reason I have the passion that I do is because of the family I came from and the socio-economic component that came with it. When you have the best of everything, you have unlimited potential and possibility.
The answer: You have to appreciate the story that you are given . . . the life that you have.
This is an over simplification, but the way I see it, there are two categories of people:
A: People who live a struggled life, a life that is unfair – that’s all they know.
B: People are who are sheltered, don’t know hardship, haven’t lived hardship.
It’s rare that you fall into both categories – where A: you understand hardship, but B: you have the ability, because of where you were born, to actually do something about it. And that’s why I work as hard as I do and do what I do.
Some may call it a gift. But I work constantly for every goal I achieve. All I do is work. Unbelievable, intensive work. That’s all it is. I work at it, give it my all and never, never give up.