Welcome to the Jewish Berkshires - Rabbi Shira Stern

Berkshire County and its Jewish community are changing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, with an influx of new residents who have left densely-populated urban areas in search of a different way of living.

While it is still too soon to speculate about how life in the Berkshires might change – especially since the pandemic mentality continues to remain pervasive – it is clear that many of our new neighbors bring with them interesting resumes.

Among them is Rabbi Shira Stern who, with her husband Rabbi Donald Weber, hastened their planned retirements to Lenox after serving as longtime leaders of Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro, NJ. Rabbi Stern has been familiar with the Berkshires since childhood – her family would accompany her father, the violinist Isaac Stern, when he performed at Tanglewood during the summer months. And while she says her fingers are crossed that our region’s rich cultural life will resume by next season, for now she and her husband are riding out the pandemic at home, along with their son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren one a toddler and the other an infant.

Rabbi  Stern blazed a trail as one of the first fifty female rabbis in the United States; in 1983, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, from which she also earned her Doctor of Ministry in 2004. In addition to her congregational work, she is also a board-certified chaplain who has served in hospitals, hospices, and long-term care facilities, and has held leadership roles in many rabbinic and social action organizations. She has written extensively and taught university courses on issues relating to women in Judaism.

In the summer of 2001, she was trained by the American Red Cross to serve on the Spiritual Air Incident Response Team (SAIR) and subsequently worked for four months at the Liberty State Park Family Assistance Center in the aftermath of the 9/11/2001 attacks on New York City by Islamist terrorists.

Rabbi Stern spoke with the BJV just before Thanksgiving about her work as a chaplain and American Red Cross first-responder, America in a time of pandemic, and her hopes and goals for her new full-time life in the Berkshires. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

BJV: How did you decide that the rabbinate would be your direction in life, particularly in a time when there was not a clear career path for women?

Rabbi Stern: My experience was that [my family] would travel to Israel every year. There was a promise my father [violinist Isaac Stern] made to my mother who had made Aliyah – because marrying him meant leaving Israel – that we would return each year. We did at least once or twice a year for decades, so Israel was always a focal point in our lives. Giving back to the community was also always a focal point in our lives, whether or not it was helping someone professionally or helping someone find housing or get a good meal or just to be surrounded by a family.

I was always fascinated by the ritual and the history of Judaism. And I tried very hard to make sure that whatever I could learn, I did. I was one of those kids who loved going to Hebrew school, and then when I was 12, my parents said, ‘You know you’re a girl, you don’t have to do this anymore.’ And I said, ‘Fine! Then I’m going to quit if I can’t become a bat mitzvah.’  They said, ‘Fine.’ And I spent the next six years trying to get back in.

I majored in Religious Studies at Brown University and studied with Professor Jacob Neusner, who at one point said to me, ‘Why don’t you just go on to rabbinic school, because you have something to teach.’ And I did. I went straight from graduation to Israel. I should have taken a year off. I should have had a chance to think. I still would have gone back, but by the time I finished five years later, I had been in school for a very long time.

BJV: There has certainly been a ‘social justice’ component of your career, as well. I’m looking at your involvement with MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and as co-president of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.

Rabbis Stern: Absolutely. When my parents questioned why I was applying to rabbinic school – they didn’t understand – I wrote them a letter and explained that I learned how to be a rabbi from both of them. I certainly learned how to be a chaplain for my mother, who was the first person who would go to visit people who were homebound or who were ill in the hospital. It was her commitment to making sure no one feels like they’ve been isolated and alone. She was good to her word until she couldn’t leave the house anymore, and then she would call people she knew would be alone or isolated. And I have learned a great deal from her.

BJV: I’m curious. Your father was a world-famous violinist – was globetrotting with him part of your experience growing up?

Rabbi Stern: Yes. There was no question that you know, we followed in his footsteps, especially in the summer. That was the only time that we really spent a lot of time with him because he was on the road a lot. It’s interesting, because I spent a lot of the first years of my professional life trying to forge my own path. And was I blessed with a wonderful childhood? Yes, I was, and I would never deny that. Part of why we’re here in Lenox is not just because the Berkshires are exquisitely beautiful, but because I remember coming to Tanglewood in the summers and loved it. It was kind of a dream.

BJV: Tell me a bit about your involvement with the American Red Cross and its SAIR team.

Rabbi Stern: I had a colleague who said to me, in June of 2001, that I really should join the Red Cross – they’d train me to be a Red Cross disaster chaplain. SAIR refers to ‘spiritual air incident responses,’ meaning that if an airplane went down, we would be called to serve and support those injured and the survivors of those whose loved ones had died. And my friend said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re good. All you have to do is go on call for a month, and nothing ever happens - so don’t worry about it.’ That was June of 2001.

My first deployment was over four months when I was coming over to Ground Zero from New Jersey. The train station at Liberty State Park [in Jersey City] was reconfigured to be a family assistance center where we had mental health and spiritual care, and FEMA was there. We had a whole host of agencies who were there to be supportive to those who were, at that point, looking for survivors.

We would then ferry them across the Hudson to [the World Trade Center site], and we would allow them to be there respectfully in silence for as long as they needed to be there. And then we’d have a very short little service; and someone would bring them back and help debrief them and support them. There was such an overwhelming influx of people. I felt connected not just to the people I stood next to, but also to those with whom I worked.

My dad had died between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – ten days after 9/11. And so I was going through my own grief process, and because my family was very much in the limelight, it didn’t really allow for private mourning the way one normally does – although there is no “normal” for mourning. We each find our own path.

Helping other people mourn helped me in my own process of mourning. I went to all three of the temporary and permanent morgues to support family members if they were coming, unfortunately, to identify any remains or if there was DNA to match. It was all-encompassing.

BJV: As a chaplain, how do you see what’s going on now in this country with the coronavirus? People are very afraid. Compare and contrast, if you’d like, the post-9/11 response to what you see happening now.

Rabbi Stern: [Then] people felt tremendous fear because maybe [the 9/11 attack might not be] the last thing that happens – maybe it was just the beginning of the end.

I’m a bereavement counselor – I went back to school for it after 13 years in the pulpit. And there are, I think, three major emotions that dominate those who are either ill or who have lost someone. The first is a sense of aloneness – not being alone, but aloneness. And a sense of isolation. And of despair. One of the most heartbreaking emails I got was from a former congregant who said it’s been six months since anyone’s hugged me, or that I could hug anybody. That physical isolation is overwhelming for people. So if you are from a family of two or three people and all of a sudden, you’re all by yourself, or if you’re sitting around the dinner table and there’s a very empty chair at the table, that sense of overwhelming aloneness that takes over. So that’s very similar between 9/11 and the pandemic.

We didn’t know whether or not there would be another attack, or when there would be another attack, and so that was a little open-ended. Now, things are very open-ended. We don’t know when this will end, and how do we get there?

[Grief] is not linear. It’s not a progression. It’s different things that overwhelm you at different times, whether or not it is bargaining or acceptance or hope or despair or sadness. It’s circular.

We think grief is finite, beginning in a straight path through to the end, and that then there is an end of our sadness. That’s not what bereavement looks like, and it’s not what communal bereavement looks like either. You know, it’s, ‘Oh my God, I’m scared. I’m sad. Okay, I can cope. No, I can’t. Well, maybe I can. No, no, I’m really bad.’ And your mind’s running, it’s running.

BJV: Now that you and your husband are full-timers here, what would you like out of the Jewish Berkshires?

Rabbi Stern: I’ve actually been very surprised with the gravitational pull of Jewish responses [to the pandemic], especially for holidays, for Shabbat, but also for spiritual uplift. You expect that in the first few days after something terrible has happened. There was standing room only [in synagogues] right after 9/11.

[In New Jersey,] we were a small congregation, yet we were getting 75 to 100 streams [online for services]. We’re hearing that there are people who are still coming to services virtually, even those who were not doing so prior to the pandemic; they’ve gotten into a habit. And I’m hoping that that habit of connecting through your screen translates into a feeling of being an integral part of the community because you feel attached to all these people whose faces we see on Zoom.

I’m hoping that translates into a feeling of ‘Oh my God, I knew the community was important intellectually – now I really know how important it is to be part of a community. And I want to continue this feeling and I’m going to do so.’ So that’s my fervent wish - that we translate this recognition that community sustains us into a physical response. So you think ‘I want to come to the Jewish Festival of Books; I want to go to the Jewish film festival; I want to go to shul; I’m going to deliver packages like I delivered packages on the High Holidays [during the pandemic] because that was important.’

When we start to emerge, I’m hoping that [we’ll remember] all of those good works – I’ll just call them mitzvot. There is a huge difference. That’s the first thing I teach to 7th graders – don’t call a mitzvah a good deed, because it’s not. It’s not a good deed; it’s a commandment. We’re commanded as Jews to make the world a better place, to leave it in a better place than it was when we first came into this world.

And that commitment is what I’m hoping continues. The realization that being alone really sucks. And that we don’t like that. We need to be with each other. I mean, that’s not very poetic. But it’s true.