“Mensch” is a Yiddish word. A great compliment, it refers to a person with admirable qualities: integrity, honor, responsibility, goodness. A mensch helps many people, in many ways, and in so doing enriches the world.
I’ve only heard mensch applied to men — but if a woman can be a mensch, Phyllis Steinbrecher certainly was.
She was known for years as an educational consultant, working with teenagers (and their parents) in a wide variety of situations. Wearing many different hats — instructor, guide, parent, therapist, friend, nag, cheerleader — she helped thousands of young people find the right place for college, and their future.
Phyllis never said simply, “Yale, Harvard, Brown” or “Bates, Bowdoin, Colby.” She understood teenagers’ heads — and their parents. A good part of her work consisted of telling moms and dads: “Forget Princeton. Your kid will love Colgate a lot more.” And they did.
Another portion of her work involved finding therapeutic programs for kids who would never get to college, because they couldn’t graduate from high school. Once she got them straightened out, then she got them into college. It was always the right one for them.
I know all this because for two decades years I worked on educational projects with Phyllis. One involved ghostwriting — with several psychologists — a book called You CAN Say No To Your Teenager. That was a terrible title — it really was about saying the right thing to your teenager, at the right time — but it was also one of my most enjoyable jobs ever.
For nearly a year the professionals and I met at Phyllis’s Weston home. While eating wonderful food, they told stories of their clients; I then put their stories on paper. What I remember most about those nights are Phyllis’s tremendous insights about teenagers; her excitement about every youngster she worked with, and her superb sense of humor.
A colleague in her Westport firm, Steinbrecher Consulting, said:
She has been my mentor, my advisor, my confidant and my dear, dear friend. She was a remarkably accomplished woman who made everyone she met feel special. I watched her touch hundreds of lives, and impact each one for the better. Her gut instincts were spot on and she never minced words — but at the same time did so with grace.
Phyllis made her mark in educational consulting. But she was devoted to many other causes — particularly breast cancer. Since 2006 the Breast Cancer Emergency Aid Foundation — her creation — has helped hundreds of women by providing funds for important non-medical needs like rent, utilities, transportation, specialty bras, even baby-sitting during chemo treatments. It’s a wonderful concept — one only a mensch could dream of, and make true.
Phyllis was interested in breast cancer because for decades she suffered from it. She beat it a couple of times — along with several other health issues — but in the end it got her. Phyllis died yesterday afternoon.
It’s a cliche to call someone a “quiet hero.” I won’t say that about Phyllis, because she was not quiet. She wasn’t loud, mind you — but you knew whenever she was around, and whenever she had her hand in something. She was a mensch — and a presence.
I miss her presence already.
(Phyllis Steinbrecher’s life will be celebrated with a service tomorrow [Friday] at 12:30 p.m., at the Conservative Synagogue on Hillspoint Road. Contributions in her honor may be made to: Breast Cancer Emergency Aid Foundation, PO Box 616, Westport, CT 06881.)