Photo Credit: Jewish Press

“You see the good in every person you meet and by doing so make us better people. You make us strive to be as good as you believe us to be.” What prompted someone to describe Rabbi Michael Stern, aka “The Rabbi Without Walls,” with words we’d all like to hear about ourselves?

Bruce Greif, father of Samantha, called in “The Rabbi Without Walls” because he wanted his family to have a link to Judaism, but wasn’t ready for a formal structure. Rabbi Stern began visiting the family once a month for pizza. “I wasn’t trying to do anything,” he says. “I was there to show them that I cared about them.” But Samantha’s parents knew that just by being in the house, Rabbi Stern would make an impression. “By honoring me they sent a powerful message to their teenage daughter about what was important to them,” says Rabbi Stern. The relationship continued for years and when Samantha was faced with major life decisions, she naturally turned to Rabbi Stern. “The repeated, respectful interactions had built a relationship with a foundation of trust,” explains Rabbi Stern. Today, Samantha is mitzvah observant. “Respect, connection and love combine to form a real relationship,” says Rabbi Stern. “Kiruv is simply an outcome of that relationship.”

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Who is “The Rabbi Without Walls”?

Rabbi Stern cares about Jews, especially about Jews who aren’t yet connected to their heritage, because he was there. A childhood in Long Island, in an assimilated home where end-of-the-year celebrations were de rigueur, four years in the University of Maryland and seven years of work in the management consulting field didn’t give him many opportunities to connect to mitzvah-observant Jews. In fact, he was 26 when he met an Orthodox Jew for the first time. “Being a consultant, my work was really a culture of betterment, personal betterment included,” says Rabbi Stern. As a result, it wasn’t difficult for Rabbi Yaacov Astor, a childhood friend, to arouse his interest in Yiddishkeit. “I was 29 when I told my parents I was selling my Manhattan apartment and my car and heading for Israel to Yeshivas Aish HaTorah.” To their credit, after charging Michael’s older brother, Ken, to confirm he wasn’t getting involved in a cult, the Sterns gave their son their blessing.

 

A Once-in-a-Lifetime Conversation

Rabbi Stern had spent seven years in Aish HaTorah when, in 1995, the yeshiva was preparing to inaugurate a new building. “I had just received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Avraham Kupschitz of Jerusalem. Now my wife, Denise, and I were looking for a placement,” says Rabbi Stern. Major donors were coming to the inauguration. Rabbi Stern and two of his colleagues were told to use the opportunity to approach Dr. Herb Caskey from Bala Cynwyd. Despite Rabbi Stern’s trepidation, the conversation was quick and painless. A year later, in almost-barren Bala Cynwyd, a community in southeastern Philadelphia, Aish Philadelphia, was born. Rabbi Stern, a man with endless vision, together with his colleagues Rabbi Simcha Barnett and Rabbi Moshe Trager, were ready to ignite the nascent community.

 

A Community is Born

“We were in the right place at the right time and had the right support,” says Rabbi Stern, who was at Aish Philadelphia for the next eight years. “Our goal was to connect to Philadelphia’s Jews, regardless of their background and knowledge,” he says. The connection started on the day the Sterns moved in. Rabbi Stern had asked Gershon Ben Shalom, a friend of a distant relative, to come and help unload the truck. Gershon roped in a friend named Evan Aidman. As the unpacking ended, Rabbi Ari Medetsk, principal of Torah Academy High School, now a new neighbor, brought over a barbeque. Needless to say, when Gershon and his friend were invited to join the impromptu meal, the favorable impression of the very first Orthodox Jews they had ever met was cast. Rabbi Stern grabbed the opportunity to invite the two for “a Friday night dinner.” Invitation accepted; he included sleeping arrangements. “The rabbi invited me for a sleep-over date,” Gershon was to joke later.

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Rhona Lewis made aliyah more than 20 years ago from Kenya and is now living in Beit Shemesh. A writer and journalist who contributes frequently to The Jewish Press’s Olam Yehudi magazine, she divides her time between her family and her work.