When Neal Hendel was an undergraduate student at New York University, he wasn't sure in what field to make his career. While his major subjects were sociology and Jewish studies, he was undecided between going into psychology or law.
"As chance would have it," his older brother Russell Jay recalled this week, "one of his friends had just broken up with a girl and was very upset for several months. My brother used to constantly talk to him to get him out of it. He told me afterward that this experience made him decide to go into law versus psychology - his point was that in law you accomplish something while in psychology you might just talk without any immediate affect."
Judge Neal Hendel's ability to affect the legal system reached new heights this week with his appointment to the Israeli Supreme Court. His nomination was not without controversy - Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch opposed him outright, perhaps because he had never served as acting Supreme Court justice and is religiously observant - but especially in Israel's Anglo community, the 57-year-old was described by many as the best man for the job.
"I couldn't think of a better person to be a Supreme Court justice," said Yitzhak Heimowitz, a New York-born lawyer and past president of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. "His reputation is very good, he's known as a serious judge who treats the parties who appear before him with respect and in general people were happy with him.... The Supreme Court's gain is Be'er Sheva's loss."
Heimowitz says he had suggested the Negev as a home base for Hendel, who immigrated in 1983 and currently serves as vice president of the district court in Be'er Sheva. "At that time he came to see me because I was the chairman of AACI's legal committee," Heimowitz told Anglo File. "I said to him there are lot of American lawyers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem - but there aren't in Be'er Sheva. The city has a university and hospitals, so there a lot of Americans who would be there as clients." Hendel took the advice and started a law practice, "but he didn't get too far because they appointed him as a judge of the magistrate court and then he moved up to become a judge at the district court."
While Heimowitz said he expected Hendel to become a successful lawyer but never imagined this new immigrant would one day sit on Israel's highest court, Russell Jay Hendel, the judge's brother, said the nomination did not come as a surprise to him.
"I think it's important to realize that appointments don't just happen, but are reflective of years of hard work," the Baltimore resident told Anglo File. "He started as an assistant DA in the traffic courts; then was promoted to judge, then to district court judge, then to vice president of the court." In 2002, he asked his brother if had ambitions for the Supreme Court - "just to tease him." Hendel responded that it wasn't appropriate to talk about his ambitions. "I took that as a yes," his brother said.
This week, Hendel's brother learned the good news from an e-mail the secretary of a scholarly journal sent him. "She wrote me a Mazel Tov and said my brother was the first Supreme Court justice to subscribe to the Jewish Bible Quarterly," he said.
Judge Hendel, who is married to Long Island native Marcie and has five sons, is an alumnus of the Yeshiva of Flatbush High School and of Hofstra University's law school. While at Y.U., he learned Talmud with the late Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik, widely recognized as Modern Orthodoxy's leading Talmudic scholar.
"My brother definitely brings his Talmudic background into the court room," Hendel said, emphasizing that he is also known for this erudite knowledge of American law, which he often quotes as precedents. Heimowitz, too, thinks that Hendel's background and religious convictions will affect his decision-making - for the good. "Every judge who comes to a court brings his own baggage, and training with him," he told Anglo File.
An active member of the heavily Anglo Rambam congregation in Be'er Sheva, Judge Hendel regularly gives well-attended lectures about Jewish law and the weekly Torah portion. "He is an extremely modest person, never drawing attention to himself," said congregant Beverly Tamar Iancu, "but his lectures are always thoroughly prepared and extremely learned, never off the cuff."
Close friends say the Hendels do not plan to relocate to Jerusalem but are staying in Be'er Sheva, where he is known to make himself available to Anglo newcomers who are struggling with an unfamiliar judicial system. "He guided me through the whole process," said Jacalyn Scott Judge, who moved from Atlanta to the Negev two years ago. "He mentored me when I was taking the BAR exam, told me how to study and he even helped me get a stage. The way he always took time to talk to me was awesome. He's so warm and giving, and he also has a great sense of humor."