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An appreciation of the life of Rabbi Isaac Bernstein z"l on his 25th yahrzeit

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Sep 22, 2019
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An Appreciation of the Life and Work of Rabbi Isaac Bernstein z”l on his 25th Yahrzeit


Amongst the various teachers and role models that I have been privileged to know over the course of my life, there are a few who really stand out and left a great impression, even many years after they have left this world. Such was the effect, of knowing and learning from Rabbi Isaac Bernstein z”l. He was a rabbinic colleague in the early 1990’s when I started my rabbinical career in London, and also a mentor in my studies at Jews College, which I completed in 1991.I will divide my remarks into the recollections from those days and also from the shiurim which I have listened to over the years, left behind as a ‘glorious’(as he might have said) legacy of his vibrant and exciting approach to Torah study.


I actually first met him just after I got married in 1976, when he was moving to the US to be Rabbi of the Jewish Center in New York. We bought some furniture from him and I remember feeling that it was a terrible loss to the Anglo Jewish community that such a person was leaving for the United States. He returned to the UK, in the early 80’s and it seems that his ‘Irish hyperbole’ (another one of his favorite expressions) was a bit too much for the American scene. It also seems that his Rebbetzin, Ruth Bernstein z”l could not get used to Manhattan life (a sentiment I share, as I have been teaching at Stern College in Manhattan for nearly 20 years and still find Manhattan sometimes unnerving). His voice began to be heard again in the UK and I merited getting to know him well in my studies for my MA at Jews College in the late 1980’s. His weekly Parsha shiur, given on Monday nights at New Yisrael in Hendon, was also becoming very popular, attended by many, and although I could rarely attend these shiurim, his Jews College students always got a ‘shortened version’ from him on Friday mornings at Jews College, with many of the comments, which he held back from expressing in the bigger forum at the Monday night shiurim.


I studied Talmud with him in a small group (Masechet Ketubot with the commentary of Rabbi Aharon Walkin z”l - Sefer Beit Aharon). His level of interpretation was always challenging, and we could tell that he had put in many hours of preparation to give the shiur with the best possible explanation he could find. I felt an affinity to his style of learning, as he had studied in Gateshead Yeshiva, UK in the early 60’s, a yeshiva I attended from 1970-74, and his mentors had been my mentors as well. To say that he was inspiring is an understatement, because his explanations, together with his sense of humor, was a winning combination. Rabbi JJ Schacter (his successor at the Jewish Center in New York) has called him the ‘Rabbi’s Rabbi’ and this was certainly true for me, when learning and interacting with him on a daily basis.


I kept contact with Rabbi Bernstein z”l over the three - year period of my rabbinate and then when I began to teach full-time in Immanuel College, for which I always received moral support from him whenever we spoke. His turbulent career was coming to a head


in those years and I saw him a week before he passed away. I told him that I was worried that he wasn’t looking well, but he almost brushed off the comment, with his usual ‘larger than life’ approach. When I heard he had passed away I wept and felt that Anglo Jewry had lost a true Talmid Chacham, whose voice was always present, if not always liked or appreciated.


He once spoke at a Melave Malka I attended, and his ‘stand up’ routine could have definitely gained him a career in a completely different world. Yet it was the world of Torah which was his passion and joy and I miss him even after 25 years. His shiurim are still vibrant and his one-liners are still memorable. I always wondered whether he was serious or just enjoying some more ‘Irish hyperbole’, but his view was always refreshing, even if sometimes non-conformist, and he did not shy away from commenting when he felt he had to, on an important issue of the day. His love for Eretz Yisrael was great, and would often refer to his interactions with Rabbi S.Z. Auerbach z”l, in his shiurim, who was the head of the Kol Torah Yeshiva where he also studied, and who was one of the great Rabbis in Israel, beloved by all. I have tried over the past few years to write up his Divrei Torah and put them out on yutorah.org, in the hope that they will speak to another generation of talmidim, as they spoke to us over 25 years ago.


In conclusion I would like to add that, I believe, every Jewish community needs the dynamism and inspiration provided by such a rabbi as Isaac Bernstein z”l. When I listen to his shiurim today they are still as vibrant as they were when he gave them over 25 years ago. His sense of humor distinguished him from many of his colleagues, and his unique style of study is sorely missed. He introduced his audiences to commentaries never heard of, or hardly studied before. When he died we, his students, all felt that there would be a delegation of these Rabbanim, led by R’ Chaim Ibn Atar (the Ohr Chachaim Hakadosh), to welcome him into Gan Eden, as he had made their precious insights available to a public who were never exposed to such gems of Torah scholarship. I am delighted that his son, R’ Immanuel Bernstein shlita has followed in his footsteps and has become a prolific magid shiur and writer in his own right, and I pray that when we recall Rabbi Isaac Bernstein’s Torah and his ‘joie de vive’ he will continue to inspire us, to delve deeper into the pasuk, to look at the Maskil Ledavid on Rashi, and enjoy the Emet Leya’akov, which he treasured so much in all his shiurim.


May R’ Isaac Bernstein’s memory be for a blessing.


With a sense of great reverence and respect.


Rabbi Ian Shaffer


Adjunct Bible Professor, Stern College for Women,


Yeshiva University NY

Venue: Stern College Stern College

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In memory of a great teacher and pedagogue who passed away in London in 1994 on 22nd Elul- may his memory be for a blessing

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    Learning on the Marcos and Adina Katz YUTorah site is sponsored today by Ruth Peyser Kestenbaum and Miriam & Alan Goldberg to mark the ninth yahrtzeit of their father, Irwin Peyser, Harav Yisroel Chaim ben R' Dovid V' Fraidah Raizel Peyser and for a refuah shleimah for Getzel Avraham ben Yehudit