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16 Over 61: Meet Zelda R. Stern

This profile appears as part of “16 Over 61,” a collaboration between the Forward and the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan’s Wechsler Center for Modern Aging.

Zelda R. Stern, 72, has a guiding belief: Orthodox women ought to be permitted to be rabbis.

Zelda Stern

16 Over 61 honoree Zelda Stern. Courtesy of Zelda Stern

She had long been deeply invested in Jewish education and women’s rights. “I believe that women and girls should be afforded opportunities to engage in Jewish ritual, to have equal access to leadership positions and to have unlimited opportunities to acquire knowledge,” she wrote in a 2003 reflection for the Forward. The idea that Orthodox women ought to have the same opportunities in religious life as men was a natural — if radical — endpoint for those passions.

In 2009, Stern consulted Sarah Hurwitz and Avi Weiss as they founded Yeshivat Maharat, a religious school that ordains Orthodox women. Knowing that ordination was only half the fight, Stern established a fund that provides seed money to Orthodox synagogues to sustain rabbinic positions to be filled by women. Realizing that longtime dream of ordained Orthodox women has been an uphill battle, but Stern kept positive through it all. “Despite hardships and life’s curveballs, she has learned to navigate through with warmth and a conscious attempt to see the positive side of everything,” wrote Hurwitz, who nominated Stern for “16 Over 61.”

As a member of the inaugural cohort of “16 Over 61” honorees, Stern sees aging as a crucial part of her engagement with her Jewish community. She “feels just as much a part of the Jewish future as younger generations,” Hurwitz wrote.

Describe your ideal birthday celebration.

Before my husband, Stanley Rosenzweig, died in 2019, we would spend my birthday relishing life, as he had lived with stage 4 metastatic prostate cancer for many years. He would make a scrumptious dinner, and we’d watch a movie at home, cuddled together.

16 over 61

The Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and the Forward present 16 over 61. Courtesy of Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and The Forward

In the past, and today, I celebrate both my Hebrew birthday, which is the day before Lag B’Omer, and my secular birthday. On my Hebrew birthday, Stanley and I polished the silver Jewish ceremonial objects that had special meaning for us, like Stanley’s mother’s Shabbat and Yom Tov candlesticks, and my mother’s Havdalah spice box. Both our mothers died too young: Stanley’s when she was just 42, and my mother at age 60. We would talk about the history of each Jewish ceremonial object as we polished them. I have continued this tradition after Stanley’s death. We also counted Omer on my Hebrew birthday, as we did every day of the Omer, and I continue this. My Hebrew birthday is a more somber day, a day on which I think about those whom I’ve lost and reflect on their lives and the lessons they taught me. Now on my secular birthday, May 16, I have started a new tradition of hosting a dinner at a nearby non-fancy kosher restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with the female, New York and New Jersey-based contingent of my family. We make toasts, tell jokes, and just rejoice in the day, in each other, and in life. This day of celebration is my ideal way of celebrating — so far!

You wake up on a beautiful Sunday morning with an unplanned day ahead of you, and no responsibilities. How do you choose to spend it?

In no particular order: FaceTime with my two grandsons living in L.A., ages 6 and 10; read newspapers from the past few days; cook; catch up on reading and responding to emails; take a one-hour walk in Riverside Park, often with a friend, or alone, while listening to my iPod; exercise; call various family members and friends to catch up; think about who I can make a shidduch for; recite “Modeh Ani” when I awaken, the shema when I go to sleep, and daven Shacharis, Mincha, and Maariv in between; go to a museum; check out Facebook friends’ posts and add one of my own; think about ways to effect change in institutions and agencies, and review communal projects to determine where I might have some helpful input; take a bath and sing in the bathtub. My father taught me that if you finish everything you’ve planned to do in a day, then you haven’t planned enough!

What makes you smile, no matter what?

Any achievement by a student or graduate of Yeshivat Maharat.

When you get good news, who is the first person you tell, and why?

I tell my late husband in Shamayim, who is surely smiling down on me. We flourished and thrived with each other, cheered each other on, and delighted in each other’s joy. The first living person I would tell is Rabba Sara Hurwitz, who nominated me for “16 Over 61.” It was because she and Rabbi Avi Weiss created Yeshivat Maharat that I saw a long-time dream of mine fulfilled. I didn’t know if I would live to see the day Orthodox women would become rabbis, and I am so very grateful and joyful that they created this Yeshiva, and that I lived to see it both established and thriving.

What’s your earliest Jewish memory?

Three tin tzedakah boxes sitting in a corner of our tiny kitchen: One for the Jewish National Fund, one for Keren Kayemet Yisrael, and another one for indigent Jewish children. I grew up very poor, living with food insecurity in a tiny row house in Philadelphia heated by a coal furnace that always ran out of coal. My five siblings and I were cold in the winter, and without air conditioning, hot in the summer. And we ate a lot of Heinz vegetarian baked beans — a lot.

But my parents taught us that no matter what, there were always people poorer than we were, and we were obligated to help them. And the creation of the state of Israel was a dream for them — a dream that was fulfilled almost exactly one year before I was born. My parents taught us that it was our sacred obligation to sustain the state of Israel. My mother, born and raised in Russia, had family killed by the Cossacks, and she dreamt of living in a free country. My father, acutely aware of global and national antisemitism and of the Holocaust as it was happening, yearned for a place where all Jews could live freely, without constant fear. Together they worked toward building a Jewish homeland. My father founded the Philadelphia chapter of the Technion, with my mother as secretary. As a matter of fact, I once saw a memo of a meeting my father was to hold on May 16, 1949, which was the day I was born. I do not know if he cancelled the meeting!

What’s one thing you absolutely cannot live without?

Loving relationships.

How do you feel you’ve changed over the years? What ideas have been most meaningful to you as you’ve traveled through life?

Over the years, I have become unafraid to express and live my values as an Orthodox feminist, no matter what the response of others. Bolder, more outspoken, expressing my beliefs with passion and conviction — this is a path I continue to travel. I have gained wisdom, confidence, and joy in living a life true to myself. The passage from the Bible that states, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” — “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” — is a guiding principle in life: To right the wrong, and be a troublemaker in a way that improves community. One day when I was a teenager, I happened across a copy of a painting by Paul Klee titled “Viaducts Break Ranks,” or “Revolution of the Viaduct” that showed rebellious arches breaking free from conformity. This was me, as I grew up increasingly following an unconventional path for someone growing up in the 1950s, when conformity was expected and extolled.

Overarching everything is my ever increasing gratitude for just about everything in life. I do not need to make a “gratitude” list to feel grateful all day long for both the basic necessities of life and for the opportunities and loving relationships life bestows. As all older people, I have experienced deeply felt losses, especially the death of my beloved husband during Pesach of 2019. Losses of all kinds are intrinsic to the aging process. I feel lucky to be able to work through my pain, though the pain of losses never really goes away.

Has your Judaism informed how you approach the process of aging? If so, how?

Judaism has always valued aging and passing on the wisdom gleaned from aging to others from all generations. Judaism values not what one can get, but what one can give. And that is how I live my life: What can I do to improve the life of others, of community, of the world? And how can I improve myself? Judaism is a religion in which aging can be purposeful, meaningful, rich and substantive. All of us, no matter our age, often wish people, “ad meah v’esrim” — you should live “until 120.” It is up to us how we choose to live those 120 years in the most meaningful and impactful way possible.

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