Rabbi Norman Bernhard passed away and was buried today in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Throughout most of the seventies, Rabbi Bernhard was the real life hero of my teenage years. This may sound strange, for what important rabbi in his early forties would spend time with an acne faced upstart who wasn’t even a member of his congregation? Yet, at the time, the two of us developed a genuine friendship. He irreversibly impacted and influenced my life. He was the inspiration for me to want to be just like him and I decided to switch careers and become a rabbi.
Now, you have to remember, these were the seventies. It wasn’t popular for a young man to want to be a rabbi. Most of the rabbis of that era were staid, old, incredibly boring and conservative. Not Rabbi Bernhard. He was different. He made the rabbinate exciting. His mind was so vast and open.
I recall how he told me that most people spend too much time sleeping their lives away, so he didn’t sleep much. He and I spent many nights awake and learning for hours in chavrusa. I never knew anyone who could make chumash so exciting. We once stayed up an entire night at the Game Reserve, a place he loved dearly, learning, talking and taking close up photographs of hyenas.
He loved cars and so did I. He wanted an American muscle car and got close by driving a Hornet, which had expanded wheel arches and a fast back, and he was so proud of it. He had an interest in guns and so did I. We spent time shooting targets at a mine dump, cleaning our weapons and discussing the possibility of making our own bullets.
Many rabbis advised against reading Buber. But he read Buber and lent these books to me (with the ‘veiled’ proviso that I only read the stories and not the philosophies. But I did and we did discuss them. He introduced me to Rebbe Nachman (his namesake) at a time when few knew about Breslov. He told me of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach before he became a legend. He read Soloveitchik. He loved the Lubavitcher Rebbe and in the fullness of time, became more and more involved in the movement till he later became one of its cornerstones.
He had the most amazing library and loved spending time in it. When you sat there it felt as if you were in a holy place. He was the unofficial Chief Rabbi of South Africa. If anyone needed anything and provided your cause was just, Rabbi Bernhard could and did facilitate it. His mere presence commanded respect no matter where he went.
In keeping with the spirit of those times, I wanted to go to the then Soviet Union and help Jews. No one knew about it but he introduced me to a man who had secretly flown a planeload of Jews out of Russia and who knew how to get in and out of the Iron Curtain. Rabbi Bernhard also introduced me to someone who worked for Simon Wiesenthal, and arranged for me to do surveillance on an old Nazi who was hiding in this part of the world. Rabbi Bernhard knew how to operate and was extremely effective as an activist for Jews. He was also a great campaigner for social justice.
I remember him telling me that a modern religious Jew has two options. Either he cloisters himself from the world or he embraces it. Both are legitimate pathways. But the latter involves more risk. He said he actively chose the latter, fully aware of the possible dangers for himself and his family. He also explained that his view of Judaism was that it was like playing sport. As long as you are ‘within the lines’ it doesn’t matter where the ball is. Even if close to the sides it is still in. One should never just remain standing on the centre line, but instead make use of the entire length of the field. This is a lesson of his I have never forgotten.
These are some of my recollections of the younger Rabbi Norman Bernhard, who was probably one of the most powerful influences of my young life. He got older, my acne disappeared and life got in the way. I never saw him as much as I wanted to. Sadly I couldn’t find the time for him when I got to my forties, as he had for me as a youngster. I wish I would have told him that I thought about him often and that he was so integral to my life. I wish I would have told him how much I value what he taught me and that our special relationship was one of the most precious I have even known.