Building Community Beyond Walls


Rabbi Michael Stern and his wife Denise have an open-door policy when it comes to hosting gatherings for Shabbat or community classes.

Quite literally.

They had more than 2,400 in total attendance at the programs they hosted in their Bala Cynwyd home last year, Rabbi Stern said.

He hopes that when guests exit his doorway, they enter a gateway into the wider Jewish community.

That’s the point of Rabbi Without Walls, which the Sterns formed after returning to the Philadelphia area three years ago following 11 years away. When they lived here previously, they were part of the founding group of Aish HaTorah in 1996, which Stern credits with helping to build the blossoming Jewish community in Lower Merion and Bala Cynwyd.

Rabbi Michael and Denise Stern | Photo provided

With their work, they helped more people get involved with the broader Jewish community, whether it was joining an area synagogue or enrolling children in a day school.

“What happened was people at that time took upon themselves roles of taking responsibility for helping build community,” he said. “The philosophy of that time was not to just impact people’s Judaism, the ultimate to success was trying to inspire someone to help build the community, take responsibility for the community.”

That sense of inspiring community building has remained a pillar in Stern’s life and work.

When someone gets involved with Rabbi Without Walls, his goal is not to push them to join a synagogue or push them to do anything, really. It’s to inspire them to get involved with the wider community and then, in turn, inspire others in outreach.

He’s partnered with other area organizations such as the Chevra to provide an entry for those seeking to deepen their Jewish experience in whatever way appeals to them. With the Chevra, for instance, he reaches a younger population when he teaches his weekly class, as the organization serves young Jewish professionals.

“The idea of Rabbi Without Walls is not to be its own community, not to be its own synagogue or anything like that,” Stern said. “It’s a gateway to the rest of the community. It works together with all the other Jewish organizations in terms of helping to get people involved in the outreach.”

The organization welcomed the New Year with a 36-hour online Charidy campaign ahead of Yom Kippur to raise $125,000 to cover its budget. It raised more than $126,000 with about 300 supporters and a matching campaign.

Those costs cover Stern’s ability to host weekly classes in his home — he teaches a crash course in Hebrew, classes that teach wisdom for living, fundamentals of Judaism and others — a Friday night minyan and Shabbat (their Shabbat table seats 24 people, he noted), guest speakers, lectures and other programs.

He gives special credit to his wife, whom he said sets the nonjudgmental, warm and welcoming tone for their home as they host 20-some people week after week.

“Our home is the center, but again, it’s not the end goal,” he said.

The campaign signified a resonance in the community for the work he does, but he’s not done yet. 

“What I would love to do is hire more resources so Rabbi Without Walls can spend more time working on the main goal, which would be to activate families in the community to help be part of the outreach process, and be more on organizing that part and doing outreach training,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of work to do; it’s only the beginning of my third year here. That would be amazing.” 

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