Rabbi Jack Stern, a longtime spiritual leader at three New York area congregations and a former president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, died on April 14 in Pittsfield, Mass., where he had moved from Westchester County after retiring. He was 85.
Rabbi Stern, a native of Cincinnati, served at the pulpits of Temple Beth El in Great Neck, L.I., and Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, N.J., and for nearly three decades, at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale. A board member of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, he was a veteran of the civil rights movement.
“Jack was a social activist,” said Albert Vorspan, former director of social action at the Union for Reform Judaism. “He was one of the first rabbis to rush to Mississippi to fight for civil rights. He traveled to South Africa to oppose apartheid.”
The rabbi’s commitment to equality grew out of his childhood in Cincinnati, a city bordering Tennessee, where attitudes of segregation were still present. In his Ohio city, “‘Negroes’ were perceived as inept and inferior, and were to be kept ‘in their place,’” he wrote in a 2006 article in Reform Judaism magazine.
Rabbi Stern wrote that at age 5, he underwent the first of three life-saving surgeries to fight an infection in his right hip. The surgeries left him with a right leg shorter than his left, and limited mobility in his right hip. “During successive surgeries,” he wrote, “I received extraordinary kindness and support from my doctors and nurses … I decided to become a doctor and provide to others the same nurturing support extended to me.”
Years later, he began to study medicine, but while dissecting a starfish, “my hand trembled so uncontrollably that I decided to seek an alternative outlet for my nurturing aspirations.”
He decided to become a rabbi.
As a student at Hebrew Union College in his hometown he took part in sit-ins at segregated restaurants and participated in protest marches at the city’s Conservatory of Music, which did not admit blacks.
A patriot, Rabbi Stern would conclude his Passover seders with a singing of “God Bless America,” Rabbi Amy Weiss of Houston, a guest at a Stern family seder several years ago, wrote in the Houston Chronicle.
Rabbi Stern’s wife, Priscilla, died in 2000.
During his retirement years in Massachusetts, Rabbi Stern and Vorspan, old friends, would often dine together. “To go to dinner with Jack Stern anywhere in the Berkshires was an experience,” Vorspan said. Old acquaintances and congregants would approach, “recalling the bar mitzvah, the condolence call, the wedding of 40 years ago.”
“Jack seemed to remember every name, every simcha,” Vorspan said. “It was like dining with an elderly rock star.”
Rabbi Stern is survived by three children — Jonathan, David and Elsie — and seven grandchildren: Jacob, Nina, Lili, Benjamin, Rebecca, Sarah and Jedediah.