For the past 20 years, Rabbi Mike Stern has inspired thousands of people with his great love of humanity and his great love of Judaism. Whether in rabbinical posts at Aish Philadelphia, the Milwaukee Kollel, and now as the “Rabbi Without Walls” in Boca Raton, Florida, Rabbi Stern encourages people to think differently about life, strive for greatness, and find their place in the Jewish community.
On April 14, 2013, Mike and his wife Denise suffered an unspeakable tragedy – the sudden death of their precious 12-year-old daughter Shoshie in a car accident. An account of the Stern’s spiritual greatness in the wake of this tragedy appears in part two of this interview, to be posted next week.
Twenty-plus years ago in yeshiva, I had the privilege of forging a lifelong friendship with Mike. The following is based on recent Skype and email conversations between Israel and Florida.
Aish.com: Shoshie was taken from you in an instant, hit by a car while crossing the road on her skateboard. How would you describe the past month for you and your family?
Mike Stern: It is not possible in human words to describe the endless void and vacuum that we feel. These weeks have been the scariest roller coaster ride imaginable. We are shaken to the core.
The only way to process an event like this is to understand that God is shaking us to get our attention. Shoshie was incredibly precious, and this is a wake-up call for all of us to appreciate the preciousness of life.
Aish: Tell me about Shoshie. What was the essence of her life?
Mike: In a world where people tend to criticize and put down others in order to boost themselves, Shoshie naturally and unwittingly saw the treasures hidden in each person. She made everyone around her feel good, and helped others to see the beauty in one another. She was not someone who faded into the background and shied away from life. On the contrary she had a tremendous presence and was very competitive. But it was all with a grace and charm that encouraged others to flourish, too.
This is especially remarkable considering that age 12 is an insecure time for a girl grappling with “who I am, what I believe, where I am going.” At that age there’s a tendency to feel threatened and look down on those who don't match your background or style of dress. Yet Shoshie always stood up for those who are different, who don't easily fit in. No judgment, no criticism, no distance. What nachas to have a daughter who treated everyone with equal acceptance, respect and love.
Aish: How has this tragedy changed your perception of Shoshie?
Mike: If you had asked me a few months ago, "Is Shoshie a kind, loving, peace-maker who is full of life,” I would have said matter-of-factly, “Sure.” Now after the fact, the entire picture adds up to: “Wow! This is a truly incredible person.” Never once did I have to say to Shoshie: "Cheer up… look at the bright side… things will be better tomorrow." She was very low maintenance, very inner-directed – no moping, no complaining, no drama. She was always in the moment – fun, joyful and radiant. That was her normal way of living and we took it for granted. Maybe I didn’t notice it so much because she did it all in such a modest way that appeared natural. Oy, what a missed opportunity to really appreciate who she was in her lifetime.
Aish: What is one of the things that makes you most proud of Shoshie?
Mike: Shoshie was a beautiful girl, full of grace, dignity and beauty. Not in the sense of alluring or the latest style – just the pure Shoshie, dressing appropriately, in a dignified fashion, without the layers, without the costumes that we sometimes put on to elicit a response from others. Shoshie was a pure expression of the right balance between beauty and modesty – "attractive" but not "attracting." And she was constantly working on herself to do even better.
Aish: At the funeral, you spoke of how Shoshie “got it.” What did you mean?
Mike: Shoshie "got it" in that she didn't need anyone’s approval, affirmation or validation. She had an inner self-confidence, expressing herself without worrying how others would react. She was secure with who she was without having to compromise her own identity by seeking attention. Her life was very inner-directed, from a place that wasn't contaminated by feelings of self-doubt or "neediness."
Shoshie had genuine self-esteem, because it was attained by inner validation, based on her character and choices. When life is all over – whether at age 120 or 12 – that’s all we take with us. In this sense, Shoshie achieved an extremely high level.
Aish: You often quote the Talmudic statement: "Don't look at the jug, rather what it contains." What exactly is that message?
Mike: This teaches us to look past the external – to see the Divine soul in everyone. There is a tendency to get stuck on the jug, the outer veneer of what appears as reality. Because human beings each occupy a different physical space, we perceive others as distinct. We become confused by the mask of color, status, religion. The material world becomes an end unto itself and we lose sight of the inner dimension of who we truly are, and the real purpose of our lives.
Shoshie was able to leave her insecurities aside and go beyond the jug, to see others for who they really are. On some deep level, she sensed that we are all interconnected, coming from the same infinite Divine source.
Aish: You have said in retrospect that it appears Shoshie spent her final weeks tying up loose ends.
Mike: Whether it was a phone call, a visit, or a gift, Shoshie's soul seemed to know it was closing up business on Earth. She started developing many photos of family and friends that had laid dormant in her cell phone. She made a collage of pictures a few months in advance of her sister’s June birthday – and even gave it to her far ahead of time. Also Shoshie begged us to take family pictures for the first time in many years. It was hard to get all eight Sterns together at once, to stand still and not make silly faces, but Shoshie succeeded in getting us to do it – just days before her death. And just hours before her death, she sent her best friend a text message: "Just remember that I will always love you, and that I will watch over you." So yes, it appears as though she had some subconscious sense.
Aish: Shoshie’s death seemed to unite the Jewish community in an extraordinary way.
Mike: This all happened in the weeks leading up to Shavuot, a time of unprecedented unity when the Jewish people encamped at Mount Sinai with one heart, one mind, one soul. There were over 1,000 people at Shoshie’s funeral, standing room only, representing every stream of Jewish life – Federation, JCC, and rabbis of all denominations. It was an unprecedented event in the Boca Jewish community, let alone the echo around the world.
It showed me in the deepest sense how special it is to be part of the Jewish people, and how we shine when put to the test. We are all part of the same bodily unit – when our toe is stubbed and it hurts, the ripple effect makes us feel it elsewhere. After Shoshie’s death we experienced first-hand how thousands and thousands of people shared our trauma and pain. We now feel so closely connected – our tears have met and created a stream that binds us together.
Aish: What mitzvah would you say that Shoshie excelled in most?
Mike: The Torah commands us to: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Talmud calls this “The great principle of Torah… the rest is commentary.” This means that God wants the foundation of all our actions to be with genuine caring, love and unity. I’m talking about a complete identification with one another – I am he, she is me.
Shoshie loved everyone and accepted everyone. The UPS guy came to shiva, as well as the garbage man, the exterminator, the air conditioner repairman – all to tell us how Shoshie and the family had made them feel important and special. A non-Jewish neighbor down the block, who had bought Passover chocolates from Shoshie, later told us that they became friends and how Shoshie would periodically come by to check and see how this woman was doing. That sensitivity is far beyond a typical sixth-grader.
Aish: How would you describe Shoshie spiritually?
Mike: Shoshie's tremendous "caring for others" was a reflection of God, part of the overarching mitzvah to “walk in God’s ways.” The greatest nachas for a parent is when your children are kind to each other. Shoshie and her sister Devori were best friends. And the opposite – when your children fight you can’t stand it. We are all God’s children, and we all live in the same world. The outpouring of unity, the lifting out of ourselves, the tapping into greater meaning – it all exemplifies what Shoshie stood for. True unity is not defined as “everyone doing the same thing and thinking the same.” True unity is that we are all held together by the broadest goal possible, doing the will of God, and moving toward the same ultimate goal. In her death, Shoshie is giving us a glimpse of what is truly possible.
Aish: What is the best way for us to honor Shoshie’s memory?
Mike: I think we all need to ask ourselves: How can we sanctify our lives, and make the greatest impact on the world around us. How can we keep this unprecedented unity going that we have established in our community. How can we best use the tools to keep “Shoshie-ing" – to look out for the next person. To make peace between people. To notice the greatness of others and relish in their uniqueness. To go out of our way for the unpopular and make everyone feel included, affirmed, validated, respected. To see people for who they truly are – not our limited version of how we think they ought to be. Any step we can take in this area is a fitting tribute to her memory.
God expects a lot of us. Now that she’s gone we need to share the love that Shoshie had for others. Rabbi Paysach Krohn spoke in Boca Raton of how to cope with this tragedy, and suggested that in Shoshie’s merit we say brachos (blessings) out loud. This publicly proclaims God’s Name, and gives other people a chance to respond, “Amen,” which increases unity. Shoshie is the inspiration for this, and we that we can help to elevate her holy soul.
For me personally, I have undertaken to say the bentching (Grace After Meals) more slowly, to increase my feelings of gratitude for all of God’s goodness.
Aish: What is the best way that people have comforted you during this time?
Mike: I appreciate people relieving us of some mundanities, offering to do errands. The best is just stopping by with food, sharing a wonderful story about Shoshie for two minutes, and not demanding anything of us emotionally. Don't plop yourself down on the couch and expect our attention. We have kids here with homework and bedtime.
I think the biggest comfort is the enormous amount of Torah study and acts of kindness being performed as an elevation for Shoshie’s soul. We are devastated by this loss. But the fact that people are showing this love gives us the fuel to get up in the morning, brush our teeth, take another step forward, and go on with the day.
Aish: What is Shoshie teaching you right now?
Mike: I miss her terribly. She is the first thing I think about in the morning, the last thing at night, and the backdrop of every moment in-between. Shoshie is teaching me that my relationship with God needs to be constantly at the forefront of my mind. It's so easy to forget what’s truly important in life, and to slip back into the mundane. I'm striving to live with mindfulness – mindful of God, mindful of my loved ones around me, and mindful of the Jewish people. To the extent I do that makes me mindful of Shoshie, too.
See part two of this interview: "Living with Clarity."
More info: shoshiestern.com