How Jewish spirituality inspires Michigan’s blind Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein.
Richard Bernstein is a human dynamo — both mentally and physically. And his Jewish spirituality plays a major motivational role.
Despite being blind since birth, the 44-year-old lawyer was elected a Michigan Supreme Court justice four years ago and has traveled the world advocating for the disabled.
On the athletic front, Bernstein has completed 21 marathon races and a grueling Ironman triathlon. He also has recovered from a broken hip and pelvis in 2012, when a bicyclist lost control and plowed into him at high speed in New York’s Central Park.
The resulting 10-week hospitalization only served to enhance his religious and philosophical viewpoints.
“From a spiritual perspective — and I really believe this — HaShem gives us certain life experiences for a reason,” Bernstein said. “And the more life experiences He gives to us, the more we’re expected to use them to have an overall impact.”
Bernstein believes his physical challenges are what makes him an empathetic judge, and that’s why the voters of Michigan elected him.
“People thought having a person with a severe disability serving on the bench was something they could connect with because they felt I was able to appreciate the challenges, struggles and concerns that they had to face.
“If I hadn’t had a 10-week hospitalization, if I hadn’t had this blindness, I don’t think I’d be as good a judge.”
Bernstein believes he influences the other justices on the seven-member Supreme Court.
“What’s great about having a blind Supreme Court judge is you’re able to bring in a perspective, understanding and appreciation of things that would otherwise get lost.”
Bernstein will address a dinner of the Jewish Bar Association of Michigan (JBAM) at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 15, at the Skyline Club in Southfield. He will be honored with the group’s first annual Champion of Justice Award for the significant impact he has made to improve the justice system while exhibiting the highest level of professionalism and civility.
“Justice Bernstein is a role model for Jewish Bar Association members,” said JBAM President Jonathan Schwartz. “It will be exciting to hear his powerful message.”
A portion of the proceeds will support JBAM’s Charles J. Cohen Scholarship fund for law students.
“Being a Supreme Court justice is not just about making decisions or rendering verdicts; it’s also about what you do with the position to have an impact,” Bernstein said. “Creating kindness and civility [in the justice system] is not just happening in Michigan; it’s happening across the world. We’ve been working on this initiative on a global basis. I’m very excited about it.
“As an example, I’ve been working very closely with the Israel Defense Forces to create opportunities for people with disabilities to be included in the military. I’ve been working with one of my best friends who is a pilot in the IDF. This program got people so excited the Knesset also got involved in hiring people with disabilities.
“Private companies throughout Israel also agreed to work on this initiative. We’ve been working with the Knesset about hiring judges with disabilities. They just appointed a wheelchair user to serve as chief judge of Jerusalem.
“This led to being asked to speak on behalf of Israel at the United Nations in Vienna, Austria, to showcase what Israel was doing in terms of inclusion. I spoke there in front of well over 100 countries. The partnership between Israel and a Michigan Supreme Court justice allowed these countries to see what is possible.
“I’m now flying to Italy because in Italy we’ll do the same thing we’re doing in Spain, Austria, Australia, Ecuador and Israel.
“Allowing people with disabilities to serve on the judiciary … creates opportunities all across the map because it changes ideology and has a profound effect. That’s what’s exciting.”
Passion And Endurance
But how does he find time to travel the world and also fulfill his heavy duties on the Michigan Supreme Court?
“Australia is 14 time zones ahead,” he said. “I would wake up there at 5 a.m. and run on the hotel treadmill. Then I would do the morning TV shows. It’s through the press you’re able to convince countries to do things in a different way. Then the radio, then the newspapers. After that, you meet with parliament and do your speeches. Then you speak at a dinner.
“Then back to the hotel at 10 p.m., which is like 8 a.m. back in Lansing,” Bernstein said. An aide reads him cases — he frequently has to memorize the facts and law of 26 appellate applicants weekly.
“I work all through the night. If I get three hours sleep, I’m doing OK. Go to sleep at 2 and get up at 5. What I found was I can handle anything for one week. Then I sleep on the plane going home.
“I have a real passion,” he said. “I’ve been given so many blessings I feel every day has to account for something. I always look back at the week and see what happened to make it unique or exciting. If you want to think about what gift we’re given by the Creator, it’s moments in time.”
Bernstein credits his high-endurance athletics with giving him the mental toughness to accomplish so much.
“Though the body might be weak or the body might struggle, if you have a passionate spirit, that spirit can drive the body,” he said. “When you do an Ironman competition or 21 marathons, at the end of the day, it’s not about what your body can do; it comes down to what your spirit can do. Your spirit has a certain resilience that, if given the chance, can overcome the limitations of the body.”
Bernstein’s hospitalization made him realize the importance of small victories: being able to stand, to walk to the nurses’ station, to go out to dinner with friends.
“When you look at the essence and core of what life is, it is never about big things,” Bernstein said. “The core of life is about small things. Small things give life its essence and meaning — every small victory should be celebrated. There is nothing you can do or experience that doesn’t merit some sort of celebration or joy.
“The key to life is having the power to adapt,” Bernstein said. “Power comes not always in trying to make a full recovery because I have to live with a lot of pain from my accident. If you can adapt, you will find a power to thrive, to move forward and to live. We try to adapt and make the best of it.”
Justice Bernstein will address the Jewish Bar Association of Michigan at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 15, at the Skyline Club in Southfield. $45; $30 for JBAM members; $22.50 for law students. Kosher dinner available. For information, email email@example.com.