Reflections on Jewish Leadership and an Expression of Hakarat Hatov

by Mem Bernstein

[Ms. Mem Bernstein delivered this address to AVI CHAI trustees and staff to mark her first meeting of the Board of Trustees serving as Chairman of AVI CHAI. Ms. Bernstein has been a member of the AVI CHAI Board of Trustees and a member of the Foundation’s Executive Committee for the past 14 years.

From 1999 through 2012, after the passing of Zalman Bernstein z”l, Arthur W. Fried served as AVI CHAI’s Chairman. Mr. Fried had been one of AVI CHAI’s founding Trustees and led AVI CHAI through a substantial growth in its funding, the development of a philanthropic portfolio in the former Soviet Union, the construction and opening of Beit AVI CHAI in Jerusalem, and the beginning of AVI CHAI’s spend-down planning. Mr. Fried will continue as an active Trustee and member of the Executive Committee.

For more information and to watch a video interview of Ms. Bernstein, please visit here.]

When I awoke this morning, I was suddenly overcome with mixed emotions: Excitement and anticipation as to what the day would be like, coupled with concern and yes, a degree of fright as to how this day would actually change my life – well, surely my life with AVI CHAI.

After all, I have partnered with Arthur for so many years now, 14 to be exact.

Arthur has been for me not only a friend and confidant, but a teacher, a mentor, and a role model as well. It is difficult to imagine what life will be like now that Arthur has decided to transition and step aside – not away, just aside – passing the reign of leadership on to me.

As you all know, AVI CHAI was founded in 1984 by my late husband, Zalman. He, along with Arthur, Henry (Taub) and Buddy (Silverman), were the architects of its design and the visionaries of its purpose.

When Zalman passed away, Arthur was the natural choice to lead AVI CHAI. Arthur possessed the skills, the knowledge, the “know-how,” the creative imagination and the leadership qualities that would be necessary to guide AVI CHAI in its ever-increasing role of influence in the Jewish world. Arthur has served as Chairman of the Board of AVI CHAI for more than 14 years, and has guided its destiny with great skill and vision.

In the first chapter of “Ethics of our Fathers,” we are instructed to “sit in the dust of their feet and with thirst drink in their words.” Although I did not sit at Arthur’s feet, I did sit to his right and his left and across the desk from him for all of these 14 years, and slowly I began to understand the intricacies of what was required to chair AVI CHAI. Each month and each year, I began taking on more responsibilities. I became increasingly involved in AVI CHAI’s development, but always looked to “the master” for guidance, encouragement and empowerment.

Today marks a new beginning, not so much for AVI CHAI, I hope, but for me personally.

I am honored to have been given the opportunity to chair AVI CHAI and am fully cognizant of the role and responsibility that this position requires. I’ve often commented that when Arthur retires, I would easily need three or four people to fill his shoes. How ironic, then, that this past week’s Torah portion is the sedra Yitro. Undoubtedly, our greatest leader was Moshe, and yet it was Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, who recognized that Moshe was overwhelmed with too much responsibility, and that it was impairing his ability to lead.

Arthur was never overwhelmed and never suffered from the inability to lead. But it has been 14 years, and one does tire of the enormous burden of responsibility. Yitro then gives Moshe the following advice, as recorded in that portion:

“Provide able people to judge… The great matters shall be brought to you… But the small matters shall be their responsibility. Only then will you be able to endure.”

I am sure that Arthur’s advice to me at this time would certainly echo Yitro’s suggestion to Moshe, but somewhat amended.

Perhaps he would say: Lead with authority, but rely upon the talent and competence of the trustees and staff to share your burden of the “great matters” as well as the “small,” as this will guarantee the future success of AVI CHAI as it continues on its path toward a successful sunset.

Arthur, I will miss your “leading” me as Chairman of AVI CHAI, as I am certain we all will, but I expect you will continue to guide, discuss, and reassure me as I take on the chairmanship.

Words are inadequate to express my heartfelt thanks for all you have done on behalf of AVI CHAI.

May God grant you many years of good health and much joy, peace and contentment as you step aside.

And let us all pray that you were as good a mentor as we all expected you to be!