In the outpouring of condolences and shared memories that have followed Rabbi Mike Stern’s death, it would be hard not to think that there was something particularly special about the man.
Stern, founder of Rabbi Without Walls, died on June 23 at the age of 58. Beginning in October, he had multiple cardiac events and continued to struggle with his health over the following months.
He was well-known throughout the community, having hosted thousands of people in his home for Shabbats and community classes over the years. Hundreds came to his funeral on June 24, attendees said.
“The thing about Rabbi Mike is that every superlative you could think of really applies to him,” friend Gevura Davis said. “Probably his most outstanding characteristics were his tremendous love for all of humanity; his desire, very, very, very strong desire to connect to people; and he used his words to really build people up.”
“He was engaging, warm, loving, and that’s after you met him for 10 minutes,” friend Russell Lyons said. “He’s one of those kinds of people that you just fall in love with.”
“He was genuinely concerned with everyone, and would do anything he could for anyone,” his wife, Denise Stern, said. “We could have 20, 30 people for Shabbos, Friday night Shabbos. He could have met them 10 years ago, a year ago.”
Stern was born in New York, attended the University of Maryland and eventually went on to study at Aish HaTorah in Israel. There he met Denise Stern. The two lived in Israel for several years before moving to the Philadelphia area. They were part of a group that helped found Aish HaTorah Philadelphia, where Stern served as educational director.
After nine years in the area, they moved away for another 11 years. They lived in Milwaukee, where they founded Judaism Without Walls, then Florida, where they started Rabbi Without Walls.
While in Florida, Stern’s 12-year-old daughter, Shoshie, died when she was hit by a car. Nearly 1,000 people attended her funeral, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported at the time.
Several years ago, they moved back to the Philadelphia area and brought Rabbi Without Walls with them. The goal of his work was “introducing people to themselves, letting them know that they mattered, that there was more out there,” Denise Stern said. They also did a lot of work with The Chevra, she noted, where they were called Mama Bear and Papa Bear.
“I’m horrified for myself,” Denise Stern said. “I’m so super devastated for so many more people in this world that he really filled up such holes in who they were. A lot of people counted on him for a lot of things.”
Over the past eight months, Denise Stern had kept the community updated on the progress of her husband’s health by posting about it on Facebook.
More than 800 people contributed to a GoFundMe to pay for Stern’s medical and living expenses. The campaign raised more than $110,000. Another campaign, hosted on charidy.com, has been set up to support the family.
Lyons said that, even while he was sick, Denise Stern continued to keep the Rabbi Without Walls programming going, with support from Lyons and Aleeza Ben Shalom, who raised funds for the program, while Ben Shalom’s husband, Gershon, led services. They would have services in the dining room, which Stern could hear from the bedroom.
Once, Mike Stern told Denise Stern that he wanted to be remembered for being an intellectual.
“He was so not in any box,” Denise Stern said. “He really was without walls. Somebody said, ‘Yeah, he was like a walking synagogue himself.’ He really was.”
Stern is survived by his wife Denise Stern and children, Moshe and his fiance Rachel Klein, Yossi and his wife Blima, Devori and her husband Zack Fertel, Shaya and Ellie. He was predeceased by his daughter Shoshie.
[email protected]; 215-832-0729