RIP Jack Stern: The Retired Rabbi Who Wasn’t Retiring
You did not need to know that Jack Stern had been a great rabbi to know that he was a holy man. When he moved to Great Barrington full time in 1991 (after retiring as the senior rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY), he became involved with Construct Inc., the organization that provides comprehensive housing, support and educational services to anyone in the Southern Berkshire reigon who has lost his or her home or who lacks financial resources to maintain safe, decent and affordable housing. Every year, Construct prevents 600 households from becoming homeless, serves about 11,000 meals and shelters an average of 45 people. Rabbi Stern had been eagerly looking forward to this year’s annual Mayfest fundrasier for Construct because the board had decided that it wanted to build an addition to one of its shelters and name it Priscilla’s Room after his late wife, Priscilla Rudin Stern. Alas, Jack Stern died suddenly on April 14 at the age of 84, and now the Mayfest will also be a memorial to him, and so will every dollar donated for Priscilla’s Room.
“I never thought of him as a rabbi—I thought of him as just Jack,” says Construct board member Barbara Schulman, who is one of the organizers of the massive benefit at Eisner Camp that features food from 30 local restaurants and music by The Leisure Class. “He didn’t play up the rabbi thing.” But, in fact, he was a macher, who served as president from 1986 to 1988 of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which is considered to be the organized rabbinate of Reform Judaism in the United States.
His passionate involvement with a secular organization like Construct was typical of reform rabbis of his generation, according to Rabbi Deborah Zecher, who worked with him as a junior rabbi in Scarsdale and then became his rabbi at Hevreh in Great Barrington, where he could be found in the pews on Friday nights when he was not traveling. “The reform movement was founded on this passionate call for social justice and repairing the world, and he was all about that,” she says, noting that he went down to Mississippi in 1963 to march for civil rights and was one of the early champions of women joining the rabbinate.
He was also a social butterfly who enjoyed his martinis and who seemed to remember the names of everyone he’d ever met. “And once you met Jack, you did not forget him. His looks were distinct,” says Zecher. (When he bar-mitzvahed me in 1973, he was already completely white-haired and he seemed like a mystical figure conjured up by Marc Chagall.) “And he was all over the place,” says Zecher. “He was always around.” At his funeral in Scarsdale, his friend and neighbor Albert Vorspan described how they could not go to a Berkshire restaurant without Stern’s being mobbed by well-wishers. Said Vorspan: “He was a rock star.”
“I called him the Pearl Mesta of the Berkshires” says Marcia Soltes, who lives in Stockbridge and was the wife of two rabbis. “Wherever I went, he was the center of attention. He was very ecumenical. He was curious about everyone. He was fully engaged. And perhaps his own struggles [a childhood illness confined him to a wheelchair for a year when he was five and left him with one leg shorter than the other and permanent limp] made him more sensitive to the challenges other faced. He had a natural empathy.”
And though Construct is a non-sectarian organization, its connection to the reform Jews of the Berkshires is very strong. “Did you know that Construct has its office and its transitional home in the building that was once Hevreh’s home?” says Rabbi Zecher (with Stern, left) who’s as gregarious as her mentor and moonlights as a cabaret singer who’ll be performing her show “Confessions of A Mondern Mom” in Pittsfield on May 7 & 8.) “It was a three family house that we gutted and made our sanctuary, classroom and offices. Construct bought the building from us in 1999 when we moved. It was a sacred place for us, and it is still a sacred place.”
Construct Mayfest Honoring Jack Stern
Monday, May 9 @ 5:30 p.m.
53 Brookside Road, Great Barrington, MA
“Charity Begins at Home for Construct Inc” (May 11, 2010)
“Charity Calls on Cooks’ Night Off: Restaurants Rally for Construct Inc” (May 12, 2009)