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Stern took a circuitous path to her current position. Born in Peekskill, N.Y., she originally planned for a career in theater — in set and costume design. Though that dream didn’t pan out, she has worked with numerous famous thespians, such as Salma Hayek, who accompanied her on a trip to Mozambique to learn about maternal health care with UNICEF and Procter & Gamble Co.
Instead, she became an award-winning child advocate, anti-bias educator and civil rights activist. After a 10-year career in higher education, including a stint as dean of students at New York’s Polytechnic University, she spent 19 years at the Anti-Defamation League, first as the director of the education division, then as chief operations officer and finally as senior associate national director (Abraham Foxman’s No. 2). Before joining UNICEF in 2006 at age 50, Stern had never traveled to the developing world; now, international travel is a core component of her job.
Though she no longer works at a Jewish organization, Stern says her brand of Judaism, epitomized by the mandate to improve the world, or tikkun olam, compelled her to engage with the world’s impoverished communities. Like many of her generation, she grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. Her mother and uncle escaped from Vienna and fled to America as children as the Nazis advanced. They were among the lucky few to make it out.
“My mother was given the opportunity to come here as a child alone,” Stern recalled. “I have that image of this child whose parents are somewhere but can’t care for her. That’s what I see when I see a child, and that’s what drives me everyday.”
Stern’s recounting of her 2007 visit to refugee camps in Darfur — the site of a genocide the American Jewish community rallied against using the slogan “Never again” — is one of the most compelling parts of her book.
“As a kid, I couldn’t understand how the world sat back during the Holocaust, and so to be given the privilege to go to Darfur was tremendously cathartic for me,” Stern said.
In “I Believe in Zero,” Stern writes about how many aspects of Sudanese Muslim culture felt familiar — from the dedication to prayer to the Arabic spoken on the street, which reminded her of Hebrew.
“I go to the Arab world, where my upbringing makes me expect I’ll find myself a stranger in a strange land and I don’t have to worry if there’s pork on the plate,” she said, laughing.
UNICEF also does humanitarian work in the Palestinian territories, focusing on the welfare of children in Israeli administrative detention as well as on issues of health and sanitation. The ADL, Stern’s former employer, has alternately criticized and praised UNICEF programs for Palestinian children.