Mike Stern: The Everyman Rabbi
Through his genuine love and respect for every human being, Mike touched the hearts of thousands of people.
Seven months ago my best friend, Mike Stern, nearly died. He suffered a catastrophic heart attack and miraculously survived. I envisioned a Hollywood ending to the story: Rabbi Mike Stern fully recovers and continues to impact thousands of Jews with his love, beaming smile and wisdom.
But it was not meant to be. The man everyone called Rabbi Mike passed away this past Sunday, at age 58, leaving behind his dedicated wife Denise, his children and thousands of people whose lives were touched by his ever-expanding heart.
A veteran Jewish educator for over two decades following his ordination as a young Aish Rabbi in 1996, Rabbi Mike made it his life’s work to share his passion for Torah wisdom with others. He was known far and wide for his unconditional love and warmth. He became “The Everyman Rabbi”, touching the hearts of thousands through his genuine care and concern, his respect for every human being, his great sense of humor and his incredible ability to connect to everyone he met.
Mike grew up in Woodmere, Long Island, an avid athlete who remained close to his high school and college buddies from the University of Maryland. After college he became a management consultant, living on the Upper West Side, and he was a personal development junkie. A good friend introduced Mike to Rabbi Noah Weinberg’s 48 Ways to Wisdom series and he was amazed that Judaism provided so much practical wisdom. That sparked his slow and steady journey towards learning Torah and observance.
I met him when he first came to Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem the summer of 1989. I had been an investment banker on Wall St. and was visiting Israel in the midst of travelling around the world with my twin brother Mitch. My brother and I were also impressed with the depth and meaning of Judaism’s wisdom and couldn’t believe this was the same religion that we were ostensibly learning in Hebrew school. Inspired to begin my own Jewish journey, I was assigned to room with Mike Stern. Similar ages, both raised on Long Island and fresh off stints as young professionals in New York, we seemed the ideal roommates. And we were, except that our differences in personality were vast.
Mike was sensitive, emotional, emotive and caring. And I? Well, as my wife likes to say, “He has his moments.” We used to joke that living with Mike was my first training ground for marriage. Mike took the time to see me as a real person. He saw my potential and encouraged me, always giving me sincere compliments and support. He had the unique ability to connect to people and lift them up by acknowledging their special gifts. He was my best friend, yet I know that countless others think that he was really theirs!
His son Moshe relayed at the funeral how his father refused to use online banking or automated tellers because he wanted to go into the bank to speak to actual bank tellers so he could connect to them and inquire about their welfare. There was not a fed-ex delivery man, mail man, or garbage handler that didn’t know Mike by name, nor one who had not been invited into his house for a drink and a piece of cake.
Mike, Moshe Trager and I, three young newly ordained rabbis started a branch of Aish in Philadelphia in 1996. I was the strategist and educational director, Moshe the development director and Mike, the jolly “people meeter” or heart on legs that would introduce the world to us – one Jew at a time. He would invite every person he met to his home for Shabbos where his amazing wife Denise would prepare a beautiful meal that was only outmatched by the cheerful and warm ambience that she created in her home. The Stern home became a place of nourishment and nurturing for thousands. You were literally enveloped in the warm embrace that was the Sterns’ trademark.
Mike also had the ability to give to people in such a natural way that you never felt beholden to him. He actually made you think you were doing him a favor.` And people loved Mike and Denise in return. Whether it was in Milwaukee where they moved after Philly, Boca Raton, Yardley Pa. or back in their beloved Philadelphia where it all started, they picked up students who became dear friends for life. They bonded with everybody, no matter the age.
It wasn't all smooth sailing for Mike and Denise. Besides moving around the country and the difficulties of making a living, their beautiful 12-year-old daughter Shoshie was killed in a car accident. Mike could have become jaded and bitter, but instead was fueled by Shoshie's tragic death to expand his heart to do more, to love more, to be more.
With the solid foundation of kindness and love that he received from his home, Mike worked very hard to take these traits to new heights. He never stopped pushing himself to grow, bringing to the world his unique and beautiful voice. Like our forefather Abraham, Mike was in pain if he couldn’t perform an act of kindness. Mike didn’t just “do kindness”; he was kindness. Kindness wasn’t a suit in his closet that he sometimes wore; it was him.
The Mishna says that we should be like the students of Aaron and love humanity and bring them close to Torah (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:12). Mike’s dear friend, Chaim Levine, explained that the Mishna is not discussing two separate good ideas. Loving others is the very means that will bring people close to God and Torah. This was Mike’s modus operandi: love people, and then share with them what you love.
How could someone so needed by so many people be gone from our lives? I thought he would beat the odds and continue to inspire so many. I am sure Mike is enjoying his Hollywood ending in the Next World, one that we are not privy to see. But he did create something far more powerful for all of us, a real life demonstration of what it means to genuinely love others, to show your care and concern, and how to lift people around you to become the best versions of themselves. Mike Stern showed us how to persevere through life’s agonizing struggles, to work hard and embrace every drop of life through love, laughter and tears.
We love you Rabbi Mike!
At this time of tragedy and loss please contribute to the emergency campaign set up for Stern family. Mike leaves behind Denise, his life’s partner in all his works of kindness, and their five children. For someone who literally gave his life for others and for the Jewish People, let us find it in our hearts to ease their financial burden. Click here to donate.