Disabled-rights champion to keynote Chabad symposium

Richard Bernstein

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

A blind Michigan Supreme Court justice who has run 18 marathons will highlight “Equal Justice Under the Law: From Ferguson to Baltimore,” a Chabad symposium and dinner event next month co-sponsored by the Cardozo Society and the Jewish Light

Justice Richard Bernstein, who was elected to office in Michigan last year, will keynote the June 1 gathering at the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton. Presenters at the session, which is approved by the Missouri Bar for continuing education credits, will include Rabbi Yona Reiss, chief rabbinical judge of the Chicago Rabbinical Council; retired St. Louis County Circuit Judge Susan Block; and Larry Friedman, a partner in Thompson Coburn LLP’s business litigation group. 

Blind since birth, Bernstein was a noted advocate for the rights of disabled people as head of the public service division of the Sam Bernstein Law Firm in Farmington Hills, Michigan, before his election to the bench. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan, he earned his juris doctorate from Northwestern University.

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Bernstein has received a number of honors over the past decade, ranging from being named a 2009 Leader in the Law to his 2013 induction into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. He is known both for the challenges he’s overcome and his involvement in disability issues.

Why did you choose a career in the legal field?

As a blind person, you come to realize that often the law is the one vehicle that can create real change. I’ve come to believe that life experience is such a critical thing. I really went into the law because I genuinely believe that as an attorney, you could really have an impact, enhance and make life better for people. That’s what I’ve dedicated my entire life to doing.

How difficult was it for you to become a lawyer and judge?

Getting through law school as a blind person was a struggle, to say the least. That’s one of the things that I want to speak about. Sometimes you have to believe that you are part of something bigger and grander. Things happen for a purpose or a reason. We might not always know or appreciate what it is, but you have to believe that you are part of something with meaning in it. As a blind person, it really gives you the ability to empathize and understand. It gives you the chance to have a deeper connection with other people. You are able to relate to people. That’s the most important thing that God can ever give us. An easy life doesn’t always correspond to a good one.  

What is your philosophy of life?

The one great choice that we have is how we react to the lives that we’ve been given. We don’t get to choose the lives that we have. What we do get to choose is how we get to react to the lives and situations and circumstances that have been chosen for all of us. I’m very spiritual, very religious in the sense that that is what keeps me going, knowing, understanding and believing that you are part of something bigger than yourself. If God creates you in a certain way, he does it for a reason and a purpose.

What has it been like competing in 18 marathons and an Ironman?

Being blind and doing a marathon, you have to have a lot of faith that everything is going to be OK, that you are going to be able to work through it and be able to find your way. If you don’t have a lot of faith and a strong sense of spirituality, it’s going to be tough to do. Jewish values teach you a number of things – resilience, strength, determination, focus. Those are certain values set forth in the Torah and in Judaism. If you look at them in the more general perspective, those values can guide you and give you the strength to do things that are very difficult to accomplish.

Why did you become involved so heavily in athletics?

Athletics provides me with a level of confidence that can translate into other parts of life. I think all of us are looking for a way to connect, a way to connect with our creator, to connect with God. For me, I find that I am able to connect while doing an Ironman or a marathon. What athletics teaches you is that even though your body has limitations and weakness, and is mortal, athletics allows you to tap into your spirit. At the end of the day, it is your spirit that guides you.

Missouri also has a blind supreme court justice, Richard Teitelman. Have you ever spoken with him?

I’ve never had a chance to meet him, but I love that you have a blind Supreme Court justice. I think it says a lot about what a great state you have.

What do you plan to discuss during your visit to St. Louis?

A lot of the focus will be on why do bad things happen to good people. Why do some people have a greater challenge and greater hardship than others? I think that’s why I love being a justice so much. When they ask what is it that makes a good judge or a good justice … I think at the end of the day it is life experience. It isn’t about pedigree. The more life experience somebody has, the more difficulties they’ve had to experience, makes them the best type of judge possible. I think that is the blessing of adversity.

Jewish Law & Ethics Symposium and Dinner

When:  June 1; seminars begin at 3 p.m., followed by a reception and dinner at 5:15 p.m. and symposium at 6:30 p.m.

Where:  Ritz-Carlton St. Louis, 100 Carondelet Plaza, Clayton

How much:  $250 for lawyers, who can earn 5.3 MCLE credits; $100 for the public

More info:  Visit bit.ly/1SAgryr