Rabbi Yosef “Yossie” Stern, founder and executive director of Project Ezrah, died on February 21 after a short illness. He was eulogized at Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, where he was a longtime daily worshipper, and buried in Israel. Rabbi Stern would have been 65 on May 3.
Bnai Yeshurun’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, his voice cracking with emotion, described Rabbi Stern as caring and loving. “A great person has left us,” he said in his eulogy. “A fixture is removed from us, a pillar is no longer.
“It’s a time of mourning for Jews in our shul, our community, and beyond.”
|Rabbi Yossie Stern|
Rabbi Stern was a Brooklyn native who lived in Teaneck for about 40 years. Aside from rabbinical ordination, he earned a degree from New York University’s Stern School of Business. He taught at the Moriah School in Englewood and served as principal of Torah Academy of Bergen County in its early years.
Later he went into the jewelry business, although, as his son Shai said at the funeral, “My father never stopped teaching. He had a patience to learn with people that was unparalleled.”
In 2001, on the eve of the High Holidays, a distraught man at Bnai Yeshurun confided in Rabbi Stern that he was out of work and did not have health insurance. Rabbi Stern went to Rabbi Pruzansky and told him he wanted to start an organization to help local people find jobs.
That was how Rabbi Stern came to dedicate the last 12 1/2 years of his life to the Englewood-based Project Ezrah (“ezrah” is Hebrew for “assistance”). The original focus was on critical support for personalized job search assistance, health care, and basic living expenses. Services have grown to include fiscal planning, budget management, job placement, resume building, and interview preparation – as well as Ezrah’s Closet secondhand boutique – for Jewish families in need. Similar organizations were started in other parts of the country based on the Project Ezrah model.
“The goals, objective and protocols came from within him, and I had implicit trust in him from the day he started,” Rabbi Pruzansky said. “The idea was to help for the short term, so families could get back on their feet and be self-sufficient at the end of the process.
“And it worked.
“It was emotionally, psychologically, and physically taxing, but Yossie never wavered from his objective.”
Susan Alpert, director of fundraising and development for Project Ezrah and a longtime family friend of Rabbi Stern and his wife, Rifka, said the organization has helped thousands of people in one way or another. Some clients literally owe their lives to Rabbi Stern, she said.
“Part of him is in every person whose life he saved,” Mrs. Alpert said.
She added that the Project Ezrah staff has resolved to continue what Rabbi Stern began. “This is his legacy, and we helped create it. Now, as far as we can, we will continue in his memory to serve the clients who depend on us for their basic needs. In our hearts, we know if we are to honor him this is how to do it.”
Mrs. Alpert recalled Rabbi Stern once saying that if people would be aware that God is watching them at every moment, they would do only good. “That’s the way he lived his life,” she said.
Rabbi Pruzansky echoed that observation.
“He lived such a perfectly Jewish Torah life. From early morning and until late at night, his life was bounded by Torah, avodah [service] and gemilus chasadim [kind deeds],” the rabbi said in his eulogy on Saturday night. “When difficult times arose, he would say ‘It’s all good.’ The effect [of his death] on all of us is staggering, but even now he would say it’s all good.”
In addition to his wife, Rabbi Stern is survived by his daughters Devora Marcus and Nava Schreiber of Israel and sons Shai Stern and Effie Stern of Los Angeles.
“When asked how many grandchildren he had, Rabbi Stern always said that we don’t count people,” Mrs. Alpert said. “He was blessed with many grandchildren.”