Friday, May 30, 2014

On Being a Mensch


Yesterday's presentation of the Kathryn McDonald Award at the New York City Bar was a bittersweet affair.  It was a chance to celebrate the many contributions that Alfred Siegel made to improving justice in New York.  But it was also a stark reminder of all that we have lost with Alfred's passing.  He really was a special man.  Irreplaceable. 

This point was made emphatically by New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman in his introduction of Alfred.  Judge Lippman spoke warmly of his decades-long relationship with Alfred.  He also talked about being in meetings and seeing everyone turn to Alfred for help in understanding confusing situations.  

I have had the same experience on more occasions than I can remember.  This was a point I tried to make in accepting the McDonald Award on Alfred's behalf.  This is what I said:

I miss Alfred every day, but I’m especially missing him today.  I would have loved to have seen his discomfort with being the center of attention.  I also know that he would have had something funny and gracious and self-deprecating to say as he accepted this honor. 

Although he would no doubt have tried to deflect attention from himself, there is also no doubt that this award would have meant a lot to Alfred, particularly given how much he admired Judge Lippman and how much he cared about improving the Family Court and the way that New York City works with delinquent young people.

I’ve talked and written a lot about Alfred since he passed away, trying to process my grief and express what was remarkable about his life.   He had so many wonderful qualities, including a keen intelligence, a sharp wit, and a deep understanding of how this City functions and how to get stuff done amidst chaos and conflicting interests. 

But when I think about Alfred, the first thing that always pops into my head is a Yiddish word.  Because Alfred was first and foremost a mensch. 

Being a mensch meant that Alfred took enormous care with personal relationships.  He was a steadfast friend, father, and colleague.  Unlike many men of his generation who struggle to express such things, Alfred communicated love and warmth easily.  He was well and truly loved in return. 
Alfred’s brand of menschness (if that’s a word) meant that he was a good guy to deal with – he was an honest broker and a reliable narrator.  But Alfred’s integrity was also at the root of his effectiveness as a justice reformer. 

Over the years, Alfred served as a moral compass for hundreds and hundreds of people.  Elected officials, commissioners, even chief judges looked to Alfred for advice because they knew that he saw clearly the right thing to do in almost any situation.  He was no ideologue.  What he was was a true democrat (with a lower case “D”).  He had a rigorous insistence that everyone – regardless of their station in life -- deserved to be treated with dignity and respect.  This was his lodestar. And this is the value that we at the Center for Court Innovation are trying to carry forward in his absence. 

We are doing this in ways both big and small, from the manner in which we strive to interact with our institutional partners to the projects we are trying to advance, including a justice center in Brownsville that was a particular passion of Alfred’s and that will attempt to forge a new approach to young adults in the justice system. 

With the help of Jeremy Travis and John Jay College, we have also created a scholarship fund in Alfred’s honor.  Each year, we will help defray tuition costs for a student who is interested in a career in criminal justice and who has overcome significant challenges on the path to higher education.  Anyone who wants to learn more should check out our website.

On behalf of the Center for Court Innovation and Alfred’s family -- his wife Nancy and his sons Danny and Larry couldn’t be here today because they are on vacation in Italy – I want to thank the City Bar for this wonderful recognition of a truly wonderful mensch.