Education was central to Rabbi Leonard W. Stern’s life. Not just the education of his students, but his own as well. Stern, a theology professor at St. John’s for 37 years, dedicated his life to the exchange of knowledge and the individuals he shared it with.
“He really enjoyed not just teaching but learning,” said his son Gil Stern, 41. “That holds for the students also. They always provided him with new insights.”
Stern’s many contributions to St. John’s community have touched the lives of students and administrators for nearly four decades. He developed new theology and Jewish studies courses. He taught both Jewish and non-Jewish students what it means to be active in their religious community. Stern also founded the Jewish Students Association. The organization gave students the opportunity to practice the Faith on campus. JSA organizes celebrations of major Jewish holidays and brings speakers to campus in addition to other things.
“The organization itself led to many kids meeting each other and eventually getting married, ” said Gary Corn, class of ’80 and a former president of the JSA. “It was for the students. That was what he did.”
Stern’s death on Jan. 11 from congestive heart failure at Long Island Jewish Hospital is a significant loss for St. John’s. He was 79.
“He was a man of tremendous courage,” said Rabbi Mayer Perelmuter, a theology professor at St. John’s. “I just have this vision of him carrying his briefcase barely able to walk at the time and yet showing up and being engaged in life.”
Stern was recently suffering from problems with his legs at the time.
Outside of St. John’s, Stern, a New Hyde Park resident, was a practicing rabbi at Temple Sinai in Massapequa for more than 25 years. He enjoyed reading, the arts and good conversations according to his son. Stern also loved traveling.
“As a family, every summer we traveled by car across the country,” Stern said.
Rabbi Stern and his family visited 48 of the 50 states. He also visited Canada, Mexico, Israel and England.
In addition to his wealth of knowledge, Stern, who earned a Ph.D. in education at St. John’s, always stood up for any cause he believed was justified, such as getting proper funding for JSA’s annual seder in 2003.
“When he believes in something he spoke out,” Perelmuter said. “He really wasn’t the one to remain silent.”
Elana Bedziner, his daughter, 43, said Stern would talk to the president of the United States if he believed his cause was justified.
Stern’s advocacy was a small portion of the legacy he left at the University. But it is the knowledge he passed on to his students and his effect on them that will live on after his passing.
“When I was little I went to Hebrew school and learned very little about my culture,” Corn said. “It’s funny. I had to go to a Catholic university to really be taught, by him. I was very much turned off [from] Judaism until I met him and found out really what it was all about. He just has this tremendous love of teaching. It just pours out of him.”