This week, the Jewish community lost a great leader, Dr. Bernie Steinberg. A founding fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, a founding teacher at the Pardes Institute of Jerusalem, and Director of Harvard Hillel for almost 20 years, Bernie helped shape a generation of Jewish leaders. As I’ve sat here reading reflections from colleagues and old friends, I’m comforted by seeing the qualities I cherish most about him expressed again and again: his belief in his students and his commitment to pluralism.
It’s hard to fully explain what it meant to sit in Bernie Steinberg’s office at Harvard Hillel and have him just believe in me to the edge of the earth and beyond. We discussed many things over the 20 or so years he was my teacher – his favorite theologian the Rambam, theology, politics, career. But the thing Bernie gave me the most was his belief in the fact that my life was important. That what I would do with my life was important. That I should make choices to ensure that my contribution to the world could be most clearly and powerfully made. It was different from simply mentoring with Bernie. He looked at me and basically said, you are important, don’t ever forget it, and you owe it to the Holy Blessed One who put you here to rise to your purpose.
This was his leadership philosophy. It wasn’t about getting followers or convincing others you were brilliant or right. It was about following your highest purpose. This I would say was his biggest message, and I feel like he taught it all the time. You have a Purpose. Your life is important. You are obligated to use it fully.
Bernie is one of several people who most changed my life’s course. I know I’m not alone in this. The number of Jewish professionals who took this path because Bernie was their teacher, mentor, and friend is significant. And the number of students who took the path to their calling, whatever it might be, because of their time with Bernie is also significant.
Bernie had a deep awe of each person and their Divine uniqueness. This way of relating to others standing before us – as a whole world unto themselves first, before we even consider ways in which we are different or similar — was the foundation of Bernie’s pluralism. As he wrote when accepting the Covenant Award in 2010,
“I see pluralism as a value rooted in Jewish ideas. Every person is unique in an absolute and precious sense, as a testimony to God’s greatness. Every person experienced the revelation of Torah in his or her own way. Every Jewish movement and individual is part of a truth whose totality is beyond our grasp.”
As students at Bernie’s Harvard Hillel, we felt this almost intuitively when we stepped into the building. We were each part of a truth, and the better we understood and beheld each other, the closer we were to revelation — no matter our Jewish practice, politics, or identity. There’s a reason I later went to the pluralistic Hebrew College Rabbinical School, worked in Hillel, and now serve at Clal. The environments in which I am most at home are ones based in this principle that he embodied. I only hope I do it justice in the communities I create myself.
My teacher Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, shared a reflection Bernie wrote about his life’s work:
“I’m proud of the fact that so many of my students are devoting their lives to Jewish teaching as life-long learners, teachers, rabbis, scholars, and writers. More than a few have become significant voices in the Jewish community and the wider world. Much more than pride (not a particularly Jewish value), my true sipuk nefesh (what nurtures my soul) is: most of them—in spite of the broad range of their views—do not fit into boxes, do not stereotype others, do not see themselves as warriors in battle with caricatures of people and ideas. They respect and understand language; they comprehend the sacred ground and fragility of human dignity; they appreciate others as persons; they relish truth-seeking conversations.”
Bernie certainly fulfilled his obligation to use his life fully, and we are the better for it. I will miss you, my friend and teacher.
Rabbi Julia Appel is Clal’s Senior Director of Innovation, helping Jewish professionals and lay leaders revitalize their communities by serving their people better. She is passionate about creating Jewish community that meets the challenges of the 21st century – in which Jewish identity is a choice, not an obligation. Her writing has been featured in such publications as The Forward, The Globe and Mail, and The Canadian Jewish News, among others.