Benjamin Mintz, the humble, loyal, learned, liberal and laughing pioneer

Rabbi Ben Mintz (Photo courtesy of Jared Z. Mintz)

By Nathan Lewin

Special to WJW

Rabbi Benjamin Mintz, of Washington, died on April 15 at the age of 93. Born in Wisconsin and raised in New York City, he was a graduate of the Columbia Law School. He served as a U.S. government attorney for more than 20 years, including as chief attorney of the Occupational Safety and Health Division of the U.S. Department of Labor.

In addition, he received his rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University. He lectured and taught on Jewish scholarly subjects. In 1997, he received the Master Teacher Award from the Foundation for Jewish Studies of Washington. Here, attorney Nathan Lewin offers an appreciation of Mintz and the liberal Orthodox community he helped lead:

Sixty years ago, the Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington was on 16th Street above Military Road. Enough Orthodox families lived nearby to have Shabbat services in the building. Many were intellectuals, distinguished in their chosen fields, who had settled in Washington in important government positions. As a newly married lawyer working in Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department, I joined them.

No one other than Ben Mintz had the dual credentials of rabbinic ordination (smichah) and a law degree. Ben accepted the task of making congregational announcements after davening and they invariably educated and amused us. And then the Mintzes became landowners and moved northward to Shepherd Park. My wife, Rikki, and I followed their example. Other young Orthodox couples also moved into the racially integrated neighborhood rather than settling in the more popular Silver Spring suburbs of Hyattsville and Kemp Mill. Ohev Sholom was the shul we attended, and Ben was loyal to that shul and to Shepherd Park through their ups and downs over the next six decades. He never strayed to any other neighborhood synagogue or considered abandoning Shepherd Park, as many of us did.

Loyalty was only one of many old-fashioned virtues by which Ben Mintz lived his professional and personal lives. As neighbors, we were frequently invited to the Mintz home on Friday evenings. The Hemlock Street house was a bibliophile’s dream. I marveled at the eclectic range of volumes on the Mintz shelves. Discussion at the Shabbat table was profound and exuberant. The subjects were religion, politics, the arts and the latest worthwhile reads and movies. Harriet’s views were expressed intensely, and her husband would calmly temper the conversation with a pacifying bon mot.

When Ohev Sholom encountered difficult times and leadership in teaching was needed, Ben stepped forward. Both before Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld came on the scene and afterward, Ben shared his learning in regular classes with synagogue members and a broader audience. I could not attend his face-to-face sessions, but I delighted in the summaries of each week’s Torah portion that he composed for inclusion in the shul’s weekly bulletin. They contained many incidental scholarly tidbits and demonstrated Ben’s devotion to authenticity. He related the deeds of “Avraham,” “Yitzchak,” “Moshe” and “Aharon,” not Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Aaron.

Ben maintained a lifestyle guided by old-fashioned values while professionally furthering the most modern societal advances. He began as a lawyer with the National Labor Relations Board, defending the right to unionize. He then became the chief counsel to protect worker safety with the newly formed Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) in the Department of Labor. He performed these important governmental duties quietly but outstandingly. He joined the faculty of Catholic University’s Law School, teaching both workplace safety law and Jewish law. While remaining fully observant and conservative in religious ritual, he was a pioneering liberal in secular society.

Never did Ben seek fame or public recognition. Many admired and learned from him, but he took no titled position with Jewish institutions. He proudly and modestly quipped, “I spent half my life as the son of Rabbi Mintz and the other half as the father of Rabbi Mintz.” (His father was Rabbi Max J. Mintz, an important rabbinic figure in New York; and a son is Rabbi Adam Mintz, well-known to the modern American Orthodox Jewish community.) This typified another endearing quality of the man — the charm of laughter, a delightful sense of humor.

Solomon twice observed in Proverbs (Mishlei) (at 15:33 and 18:12) a compass to life that must have guided Ben. I have highlighted his loyalty, learning, liberality and laughter. The verse also begins in Hebrew with an “L” — “lifnei kavod anava”: “Before honor goes humility.”

Nathan Lewin, a Washington attorney, has engaged in trial and appellate litigation in federal and state courts for more than 55 years.

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