When Dave Stern* suddenly dropped out of college to travel to Eretz Yisrael in the hopes of finding himself, his parents were not surprised. He had always been unfocused, and they hoped the change of scenery would be good for him. But when Fred, their analytical and motivated son, followed soon after, they were dumbfounded. This was totally outside of his norm. However, they were in for even more surprises, as their remaining two children would eventually leave the family’s Reform leanings and become Orthodox as well.
In the spring of 1978, Dave suddenly dropped out of his freshman year in college, packed his bags and headed to Eretz Yisrael. Upon arrival he joined the nascent Aish HaTorah and began finding answers to life’s big questions.
Dave had left home as a long-haired young man who had never found his place in society and who had plenty of built-up negative energy. His parents and siblings observed the changes in his life from afar; he sent many letters describing the new discoveries he was making about himself and Judaism. He spent much time pressuring them to come join him.
However, instead of being impressed, his family members were concerned.
“When Dave first started at Aish and as we got these letters from him, we kind of weren’t surprised that Dave would fall for something like this, because he needed something. Letters starting coming. And from our perspective they were extreme,” his older brother Fred said.
Fred decided to do something. The summer before his senior year of college, he traveled to Israel. He had two thoughts: first, to save his brother and try to bring him home. But second (and paradoxically opposed to the first goal), he was sincerely curious about what Dave was learning.
A short time earlier, Rolling Stone Magazine had published a revolutionary cover story about a young man named Mike who was learning at Aish HaTorah. The article painted the yeshiva and its founder, Rabbi Noach Weinberg, in very positive hues. Dave had sent a copy of the article to Fred, and it piqued his interest.
When Fred arrived, he found his brother Dave and his chavrusa engrossed in learning.
“They were very into learning, well past the ba’al teshuva stage,” Fred said. “They were kind of happy looking; they looked changed. I was not sure if it was for the better, but they were definitely changed. It was almost a mystical experience.”
Fred was quickly taken in by the environment of the yeshiva and Rav Weinberg’s mentality of the need to save the Jewish world. He was also impressed by the other young men learning at Aish, and had long meaningful conversations with them. But most importantly, he felt at home discovering his Jewish identity.
“I liked Israel, and felt good being Jewish for the first time in my life.”
After a few weeks, the elder Sterns received a letter from a second son in Israel saying that he too was staying to learn in yeshiva.
“The letters were a big blow to my parents,” says Sam, the third Stern son. “Dave they could write off in spite of heartache. It was probably better for them that he was there being a fanatical lunatic Jew, since at least he was Jewish and was alive. But Fred was normal and of reasonable intellect. For them this was very big.”
In the autumn of 1978, the elder Sterns decided to check how their sons were doing. They brought along their only daughter Julie. Overall, the three of them were impressed with the yeshiva and how Dave and Fred were faring.
“We all felt it was probably a positive and productive experience for them. Our father liked the ‘Jewishness’ of it,” says Julie.
However, one event of the trip will never be forgotten. When parents of a ba’al teshuva first see their child’s new lifestyle up close, it can be shocking – for all of them. The dynamic of trying to show what he has become, yet convince his parents that he is still their child can lead to unexpected, and even explosive moments.
Dave and Fred took their parents to Aish HaTorah for Friday night dinner. The yeshiva was struggling with funding and the accoutrements of the dining hall and the meal were well below the standards the Sterns knew from home.
“Our dining hall was a churvah. Low ceilings, arched doorways and rooms with no ventilation. The paint was chipping off the walls. A visit at night exposed a large cockroach colony of dozens. Needless to say, the odors were anything but appetizing,” Dave said.
But their parents were typical liberal Jews, always eager to support a Jewish cause (especially one in Israel). After dinner Friday night, Mrs. Stern opened her purse and took out money to pay for their meals. Dave was aghast at his mother’s actions and did not hide his feelings. She ran from the building in tears.
“When I was a fresh ba’al teshuva, I was very enthusiastic and equally undiplomatic, even bombastic,” Dave admits.
Fred, the peacekeeper of the family, ran to console her.
Thankfully, the rest of the Shabbos passed without incident. The elder Sterns left Eretz Yisrael several days later, leaving Dave and Fred behind to continue learning. Over time, Dave learned how to channel his fiery intensity into his learning (appropriate for a place called Aish HaTorah). Fred eventually switched to Ohr Somayach, before returning to America to continue learning in a yeshiva in New York and to complete his college degree.
Sam was next in line. He arrived in Yerushalayim several years later to learn. It took Julie a few more years to return to her roots, after her own bumpy ride in and out of a mixed marriage which threatened to shatter the close-knit love between her and her brothers.
The only members of the immediate Stern family who did not become frum were the parents. But to this day, the elder Mrs. Stern says that one of her greatest pleasures is the nachas she receives from her children and grandchildren, all of whom are frum.
From the twists and turns, highs and lows of the combined journeys of the Stern siblings, no sentiment could be sweeter than that.
* Names and some details have been changed.