As I continued my research* of Moshe Bernfeld, I realized that his life was constantly filled with challenges and sadness. He experienced persecution, the death of his future father-in-law right before his wedding, the untimely death of his young wife, poverty, a lawsuit, and shattered dreams. Yet despite his struggle, he remained committed to his goals. His resilience in the face of adversity is a powerful lesson.
Moshe wanted to make a difference in the world. Every time a door shut, he tried to open another. He encountered so many roadblocks in his life but he persevered, never ever giving up.
His dream was to enrich the lives of children through education. In the late 1860’s and early 1870’s, he made several attempts to open a school. During this time period, schools focused on religious education. Moshe wanted the curriculum to include more general secular studies. He had heard of a new type of school that was set up by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and he wanted to model a school after his philosophy. Rabbi Hirsch’s school included subjects such as music, literature, art, philosophy, natural science and ethics.
In 1868, a few days after Moshe decided to open a school, a fire broke out in his hometown of Tysmienica. At 1:45 p.m., as the family was having lunch, the alarm bells rang on the eastern side of town. Moshe’s family lived on the western side. The day was humid and the strong wind spread the fire to the inner part of the city.
Most of the streets consisted of wooden houses that burned like tinder. Within a few hours, a large part of the city was up in flames. The marketplace as well as town hall were on fire. Eventually, the family heard the sound of the town hall tower fall to the ground.
As the fire appeared to be moving in a western direction and closer to the Bernfeld family home, Moshe became worried and started moving their belongings to a field. Throughout the evening, he ran back and forth from his home to the field. He brought clothing, linens, bedding and books to safety. His wife, Serke stayed in the house to guard their other things. They were concerned that someone might take advantage of the situation and rob them.
Moshe stopped moving their belongings around midnight because he became too exhausted to continue. Although the fire was getting closer to his street it was still a distance away. Eventually the flames were extinguished by firemen from Lviv and elsewhere but unfortunately, much of the city was destroyed.
The Bernfeld’s were fortunate that their home was saved from any damage. However, after the fire occurred, it was too difficult for Moshe to start the school and he had to postpone his plans.
His next opportunity to get involved with a newly established school happened about a year later. A friend, Hillel Kahana had recently started a school in Romania and asked Moshe if he would teach there. When Moshe’s mother found out, she begged him to stay in Stanislawow. He honored her request and did not accept the job offer. She died that winter. After her death, Moshe contacted Mr. Kahana but the position was no longer available.
In 1871, after returning home from a lengthy teaching job in Russia, Moshe once again decided to set up a school in the area where he was working. He received an advanced payment of several hundred rubles. The money was given to him to relocate from Tysmienica to Russia. But his wife did not want to live in Russia so the opportunity fell through and he gave the money back.
By 1872, Moshe was still unable to fulfill his dream and decided to alter his plan. He moved with his family to Lviv, a large city which offered a better opportunity. In Lviv, he became a private teacher. Parents would hire him to teach their sons. His house also became well-known as a center for adult learning. People came from all over the city to learn.
In the near future, I hope to find out if Moshe ever came closer to achieving his original plan. There are additional pages that need to be translated from his son’s autobiography.
Moshe’s memory lives on through his legacy of education. He taught many students who in turn went on to become great thinkers and educators in their time.
*From the autobiography of Rabbi Simon Bernfeld found in Reshumot (Tel Aviv 1926) vol. 4.