Emphasizing that an “easy life” is not necessarily a “good life,” Richard Bernstein told students at Ocean’s Hillel Yeshiva to savor their moments of adversity.
Such moments, said the blind attorney and endurance athlete, give purpose to their existence and help them empathize with the struggles of others.
Blind from birth, Bernstein told students how he earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan and a law degree at the Northwestern University School of Law. He told them about completing 17 marathons, one full Ironman triathlon, and a half-Ironman in Israel.
Bernstein’s Feb. 15 appearance at the school coincided with North American Inclusion Month, a program developed by Yachad, the Orthodox Union’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities. February also is nationally recognized as Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
The trim 39-year-old, a native of Detroit, is a New York-based attorney at the Sam Bernstein Law Firm, headed up by his father. “We focus on helping people with disabilities and special needs, particularly those who don’t have access to the judicial system,” he explained. “My department absorbs all costs, and we lose money on every case.”
This approach is based on a pledge Bernstein made while in law school: “If I could become a member of the bar, I determined that I would give my talents and time to those in need,” he said. His pro bono efforts are supported by the firm.
In two assemblies at Hillel Yeshiva — for high-schoolers, then seventh- and eighth-graders — Bernstein explained how he has managed to cope with blindness while staking out career and recreation paths that would be difficult even for sighted people.
“In law school, I listened to lectures and had to take in as much as I could,” he said. For exams, he was assigned a reader. He would recite answers to a scribe, who would write them down.
As a practicing lawyer, he often must memorize the salient points in as many as 15 or more prior cases and an additional 15 or 20 cases that his opponent is likely to cite. “I have to anticipate what he or she will bring up so that I can refute it,” Bernstein told the students.
Competing in sports brings its own challenges. Bernstein has a guide who runs with him during events, attached with a rope, and calls out directions and obstacles.
Triathlon competitions, combining long-distance running, swimming, and a bicycle race, pose additional challenges.
Bernstein told the students that swimming competitively is particularly hard. “First, I can’t hear any spoken commands in the water. Also, even though I’m tethered to my guide, that rope, which is so valuable on land, can become a threat in the water when it becomes tangled and drags you down,” he said.
“Another issue is that other swimmers unintentionally kick you in the face, and since I can’t see, I can’t brace for the impact,” he said. “And if I go under momentarily and try to rise up to the surface, there may be another swimmer on top of me.”
By contrast, the bicycle stage is easy, since he rides a tandem bike with a sighted partner.
Instead of training for his 18th marathon, however, he is focused on recuperating from a major accident he suffered in August in New York’s Central Park.
“I was taking a stroll in the pedestrian lane of a loop that goes all around the park [when] at the bottom of a steep hill, a bicycle traveling at about 35 miles an hour crashed into my back,” he said. “The rider had lost control and veered out of the bike lane into my lane.”
Bernstein was taken to Mt. Sinai Medical Center, where he spent the next 10 weeks. “The pain from my injuries was indescribable. Today, six months later, I still ache every day,” he said.
Determined that this devastating experience would lead to something positive, Bernstein promised he would compete again and that he would attempt to change what he believes is an unsafe situation in Central Park.
Currently, he is suing in federal court to force the city administration to consider modifications to the rules governing use of bicycles in the park. In a conversation with NJJN, the attorney said he is not seeking monetary damages and expressed dismay that the city has chosen to challenge the suit rather than agree to look at alternative traffic arrangements.
Bernstein told the students he does not consider his accident to have been simple bad luck. He said his rabbi, Chayim Alevsky of Chabad of the Upper West Side, teaches that — with the exception of being able to choose between good and evil — everything that befalls an individual is predetermined. “It is then up to us how we react to what has occurred,” he said.
Bernstein said he viewed his encounter with the bicycle as an example of “bad things happening to good people.” He hopes that the result of his lawsuit will be that fewer people are injured.