By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tjt.com
Sometimes, we can daven for years next to someone, and be entirely unaware of lofty spiritual stature of that individual.
This week, the Far Rockaway community suffered a tremendous loss with the passing of Reb Mendel Bernstein zt”l. Reb Mendel a”h was a member of the Agudah of Long Island and a well-liked talmid chochom. He was mekabel kol odom b’saiver panim yafos. But there was much more to this remarkable individual.
He grew up in Hartford, Connecticut and even at a young age had a remarkable desire for ruchniusdika growth. His religious background was more When he was in the seventh grade, Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l was visiting his adopted daughter, Gruna Katz, and Reb Mendel took the opportunity to seek his guidance about how to be mekarev his peers. Rav Aharon responded that he should work on himself and will therefore be a good role model for others to emulate.
Reb Mendel became that role model – and even more. He went on to study in yeshiva Ner Yisroel in Baltimore and became close both with Rav Yaakov Ruderman zt”l and Rav Dovid Kronglass zt”l. Later, he studied in the Chevron Yeshiva under Rav Yechezkel Sarna zt”l.
Reb Mendel had been a director of a Young Israel camp in Cleveland, Ohio and soon became engaged to his future aishes Chayil. Rav Kronglass zt”l came to the Chasuna, which was a rarity. Rav Ruderman was mesader Kiddushin.
The young couple soon accepted a position as principal of the newly formed Akiva Academy in Dallas, Texas. It was March of 1962. They arrived six months before the school was to open. He and his wife helped build Dallas into the Torah community that it is today, with Yeshivos, shuls, day schools and even a Kollel.
Reb Mendel held meetings with parents, Rabbis, holocaust survivors. Slowly but surely, he built the enrollment of the school in the few months before he arrived. He had three teachers and twenty three students.
In those days, the Dallas Jewish community was under the influence of the American Jewish Council, a Reform affiliated group that was anti -Jewish rituals and anti-Israel. In 1965, a phone call was made to Rabbi Bernstein in the third year of the school’s existence by a wealthy individual from Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation. They would offer the Akiva Academy $10,000 if Rabbi Bernstein would just take off the Hebrew lettering on one side of the bus that picked up the kids. “It is a small cosmetic change,” the person said.
Rabbi Bernstein stood his ground. He refused the donation – which at the time was a pretty hefty sum.
Reb Mendel was not only a dynamic and sincere mechanech – he was a master pedagogue who had earned his degree from Johns Hopkins University. He taught classes with much enthusiasm. He would play lp records of Jewish music to inspire and enthuse the young students.
He also reached out to the parents of the Akiva Academy talmidim and talmidos. He employed a unique Torah uMesorah curriculum that covered very wide ranging topics. Many of these mothers even earned certificate of completions in these courses!
The parents later remarked that Rabbi Bernstein’s classes and the certificates they had earned were transformative.
The students developed very rapidly as well. They became ambassadors to the school and it grew and grew. The enrollment grew by leaps and bounds and a new building was built in the late sixties. Rabbi Bernstein also served as the Rav of the minyan in the school.
Rabbi Bernstein’s family was growing and it was time to return to the East Coast. He soon earned a living in financial markets, and served as the role model that Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l recommended that he become.
Remarkably, hundreds of people that came in contact with Rabbi Mendel Bernstein zt”l became observant through their interactions with him.
Reb Mendel zt”l’s legacy is twofold. He is a role model to hundreds of others as to what one individual can accomplish. He also leaves remarkable children who follow his path of inspiring others in Yiddishkeit. One son, Reb Ephraim, is the principal of Toras Emes Kamenetz in Brooklyn. Even at the Shiva house, he reached out to talmidim and others inspiring them in Yiddishkeit.
His rebbitzen remarked, “He fulfilled his mission and tafkid.”
May he be a meilitz yosher for all who knew him.