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Long ago the Jewish people came to the conclusion that to defend a country you need an army. But to defend a civilisation you need schools. The single most important social institution is the place where we hand on our values to the next generation – where we tell our children where weve come from, what ideals we fought for, and what we learned on the way. Schools are where we make children our partners in the long and open-ended task of making a more gracious world.
    —Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Very few people understood the importance of schools more than Bert and David Bornblum, the benefactors of our school.

This week, on the eighth anniversary of Bert’s passing, his beloved school, our school, instituted an annual observance of Bornblum Day to honor the legacy of Bert and his brother David.  Each year, moving forward, we will celebrate Bornblum Day on the 12th of Adar, Bert’s yahrzeit.

We are all familiar with the legacy that Bert and David left behind, an affordable Jewish education for every family in Memphis.  Having never met Bert or David personally, it has become essential to draw on the rich history that they have left behind. Who were these amazing people who dedicated their life and fortune to Jewish education?

Bert and David were born in Warsaw, Poland where Jewish children were forbidden from attending school.  Their father was a shopkeeper and made tops of shoes for various manufacturers. The Bornblums’ mother, who raised the family, encouraged them to read and get an education. Their grandfather was a Talmudic scholar and their grandmother worked in a market to support their family allowing their grandfather to study full-time in a yeshiva.  Raised in this environment, Bert recognized the importance of an education. And although he couldn’t go to school, he taught himself by reading books, specifically philosophy books.

David and Bert Bornblum with Bornblum students

Bert’s first job in Poland, at the age of 13, was in a printing shop.  His mother encouraged him to learn to cut shirts so that he would have a skill and be able to later go into business.  He worked in a shirt factory until 1938 when he and his brother, with the sponsorship of the Makowsky family, emigrated to Memphis to escape Nazi rule.

In Memphis, the Bornblums worked in a cousin’s business for three years and then volunteered to serve in the US Army during World War II.  They served in the Army for four years after which they returned to Memphis.  Bert took his GED exam and started school at Memphis State University.  Shortly after, he decided to move to California where he intended to establish residency and then enter UCLA.  However, after receiving a letter from his brother asking him to come back to Memphis and receiving an opportunity to go into business, Bert returned to Memphis where he would eventually continue his education in philosophy.

In 1948, Bert married Ethel Baer, a Jewish woman from Arkansas.  Bert and David opened a men’s clothing store on Beale Street. The store became very successful and soon expanded to eight stores.  Bert and Ethel had two children, Irwin and Donald and two granddaughters. Bert continued to study literature and philosophy at Rhodes College (then Southwestern at Memphis) and The University of Memphis (then Memphis State University).

Bert and David knew the importance of giving back to their community. They gave millions of dollars to charitable organizations in Israel, founded the Bornblum Jewish Studies Department at the University of Memphis, funded a magnificent library at Southwest Community College, and of course, created an endowment for Bornblum Jewish Community School, which continues to be the major beneficiary each year of the Bornblum Foundation.  David also created a second, smaller endowment which still provides annual funding to our school.

Asked in a 2001 interview, what the most important thing he accomplished outside of his work, Bert said, “I don’t have to think about it . . . I was able to change while I was in business and come back to education and I was able to establish the Judaic Studies program, help the Solomon Schechter school, and also I am very proud of the fact I did participate in the Civil Rights movement.”

Students wear Spirit Wear in celebration of Bornblum Day

David passed away in 2004 at the age of 82, and Bert at the age of 96 on February 21, 2016. Today Bert’s and David’s vision for accessible Jewish education is thriving in Memphis and around the world.  Our school still offers low tuition and guarantees that any Jewish child has the opportunity to be a student in our school, regardless of a family’s ability to pay.

There are many lessons to learn from the life of the Bornblum brothers, and the creation of Bornblum Day is one of the great privileges I have had as Head of School.  While we demonstrate the importance of Jewish education every day, it is fitting for us to stop once a year and reflect on the incredible life and legacy of our benefactors.