A selfless giant died this week.
Dr. Abraham Stern was the master teacher of informal Jewish education. He served many years as Director of Yeshiva University’s Youth Bureau and a member of our social work faculty. He was one of the inventors and conceptualizers of the Shabbaton concept, and of Yeshiva University’s historic Torah Leadership Seminar and Counterpoint programs. He died this week after a lengthy illness.
But more than the specific programs, he really was the enabler of a generation of leadership that saw the key to the future as serious Jewish education, both in terms of Jewish knowledge and Jewish experience. He promoted education as text and context. So many leaders who have shaped our community are students of him and his ideas. Indeed, the core reality of Torah Umada, of the Yeshiva University world view of an integrated life based on Torah values, coupled with an engagement with worldly knowledge, and involvement with the world, is predicated on a depth of learning and practice, modeled by the work of Abe Stern. The phenomenon of key synagogues emerging as outreach, user-friendly institutions, indeed the entire Kiruv – Outreach field, was modeled by the force of Abe Stern’s leadership.
The core of Abe Stern’s philosophy was that “outreach” is about education, not just social work. It was predicated on the notion of “I-thou,” not “I-it.” Dr. Stern believed the goal of informal education was not to persuade people to be observant, but to share Torah knowledge, values and experience in settings that would enable young people of all ages to own serious Jewishness, and grow closer. Critically, he never believed that observance of Torah should be the product of a hard sell, or that success be measured in terms of who becomes observant. He believed that the goal was to have people engage in Torah study and profound Jewish experience in communal settings, to have them take ownership of their Jewishness and grow their way. There was never a question that the perspective preferred was of depth of observance and Torah commitment, but there was never a hard sell. Indeed, he had too much respect for Torah to feel it should be “sold.” He felt it should be shared, in environments that were ideal, but never unbalanced. He believed in leadership seminars that offered safe, balanced environments, not coercive settings, where all experiences were intense, but questioning and non-judgementalism a key to the experience. This YU Summer in Israel and Europe programs modeled birthright before birthright. Travel in Israel for him was not an Israel trip, but a Jewish journey.
There was rigor to his approach, and professionalism to what he demanded of his legions of volunteer workers. You never forgot that this was serious Jewish education that required planning and training. You never forgot that you were involved with people’s lives, and had to tread with great care and respect. But you also learned that you were imparting priceless gifts.
His master principles informed a generation of my Hillel work, much of the best in the world of “outreach,” and the sensibilities of a generation of leadership and educators. Indeed, there is a need to institutionalize his knowledge, his devotion, and his principled approach to having the Jewish people both know their story and own their story.
Finally, Abe Stern and his wife and family were personal role models for a generation. What he preached, they lived. So many of us saw the Stern family life as an attainable ideal for us. Dr. Stern never made it about him, almost never put himself in the center of the action, but allowed himself and his family to be accessible role models, while training and promoting others.
In key ways, his life was a primer on leadership, and on education, and on the Jewish ideal. Those of us who loved him will miss him. But in truth, there is no end to Abe Stern.
For what is remembered is never lost.
Dr. Abraham Stern was the long time director of Yeshiva University’s Youth bureau, and a member of the faculty of Wurzweiler School of Social work of Yeshiva University.