Rav Shmuel Lazer Stern, Z”L: Tribute to a Friend

Almost from the beginning, people spoke about matzah. Indeed, the special hand shmurah baked each year by Rav Shmuel Lazer Stern z”l might as well have been his signature statement with which he announced himself. Each year, he flew to New York to supervise a chaburah that baked them. He had his list of subscribers who seized them with alacrity, even though they cost significantly more than other shmurah. In time, the entire baking became a fund raiser for Tomchei Shabbos of Los Angeles, and the price rose again. Still, people beat a path to the warehouse door to purchase Shmuel Lazer’s matzah, some because of all the hidurim that he imposed on the baking, some because he found a way to make them so incredibly thin and light (typically eleven to a pound, rather than six to eight) that eating the requisite shiur at the seder became a joy, rather than a jaw-breaker.

Listening to hespedim last Sunday evening after his untimely petirah just a few hours before, you could have thought that the matzah was one of the significant accomplishments of Rav Shmuel Lazer’s career. You could only think that if you were among the hundreds upon hundreds that participated in the kavod acharon for someone they knew and respected from a distance – but not if you knew him well. Those of us who did understood that the matzah did not earn him his reputation. Rather, his prior reputation for unflinching fealty to the demands of halachah earned the trust of some very discriminating bnei Torah, all of whom had utter confidence in his judgment and supervision, and entrusted this precious mitzvah to him.

If he had been a litvak, we could have said that the matzah was the siman, not the sibah. But he was not a Litvak, but a proud chassid. (He let you know it. I will never forget the time I showed up in the mikvah, which is not something I do too often. Erev Yom Tov does it for me. Shmuel Lazer was already in the water when I walked in. Spotting me, he sounded the alarm to the regulars: “Quick! Everyone out! The Litvakes are here, and they are going to cool down the mikvah!”)

I am old enough to remember different genre of hespedim during different decades of my life. So many of them were of the “last” nature. Rav X was the last of those who had seen R Chaim Ozer; Rav Y was the last to have seen the chatzer of Rebbe Z in its glory before the Milchamah. Later, it became Rav A was the last of builders of Torah in some area during the era of Torah’s transplantation to the shores of America. Rav B was the last of the post-war spokespeople for some cause or shitah. Rav Shmuel Lazer, I think, was not among the last of anything, but among the first. He was one of the first who distilled the mesorah of what he received and mastered it so perfectly that he was able to carry it to a multitude of resistant environments without compromise, without dilution, without hesitation.

Shmuel Lazer did not take his rebbe’s instruction and carve out a niche for it in a corner of Los Angeles, erecting high walls to keep out the static of the street. Rather, he personified the dikduk bemitzvos and faithfulness to mesorah that he received, to the point that he could move it from place to place as if geography and its various cultures meant nothing. Thus, when I first got to know him when I came to Los Angeles, Shmuel Lazer taught in a modern Orthodox high school, and had no problem relating to the kids. He didn’t have to strain or reinvent himself. His genuineness and love for Torah required no special translation into the vernacular. He changed not one iota when he traveled for years as a mashgiachh extraordinaire for the OU, especially to the Far East, where he was one of the first to open new kashrus markets for the American consumer. He did not have to transition into anything different when his love for Torah and for chesed stirred him to turn a nearby apartment into a small yeshiva for people with limited background. He became their rebbe and rosh yeshivah, and they grew devoted to him like no one else. Wherever he went and applied himself, he was the same person: a proud bearer of a mesorah that announced itself as capable of thriving anywhere, because it was more powerful than the competition.

He accomplished all of this by somber focus and intense seriousness. Not really. He had a wonderful sense of humor, displayed almost all the time. It was playful, impish, and it left a smile on his face at all times that he wasn’t wracked by pain in some of the last years that he suffered from a variety of ailments. He was not a bore but a delight.

His devotion to his rebbe was absolute. If the rebbe asked it of him, it was done – even if it didn’t seem to make too much sense. A few years ago he needed a heart procedure, fairly serious but equally common. The medical indications for it were straightforward. There was no gainsaying the need. Still, he asked his rebbe first. The rebbe, from a distance, prudently told him to get a second opinion. Really, however, there was no need and no room for another consultation. Shmuel Lazer would just not go ahead without fulfilling his rebbe’s instructions. Knowing that one of my mechutanim is Dr. Dan Wohlgelernter, a world-class cardiologist, Shmuel Lazer asked if I could shepherd his medical records his way for another opinion. He agreed to the surgery only after my mechutan wholeheartedly concurred.

In the end, matzah really does sum up Rav Shmuel Lazer. The matzah we eat at the seder is lechem oni, lacking any admixture of oil or honey. Nothing but the essence of what bread is – flour and water. This represents, says Maharal (Gevuros Hashem 51), geulah, which allows a people to function in its pure, essential role without the admixture of any foreign compulsion or influence. Real geulah, liberating Man from all the influences and hindrances of this world, comes from a higher place, a place of simple purity. Shmuel Lazer was that matzah – his mind and spirit always bound to a higher place. He lived his life successfully freeing himself of the ubiquitous corrupting influences that hound the rest of us. He was a first in that regard – among the first to show that it could be done thousands of miles from the spiritual nerve center of his mentors. His life was a beautiful testimony to the strength of their teaching, now safely in the hands of the mishpachah he raised with (ybd”l) his wife, all neemanim leHashem v’Toraso.

Yehi zichro baruch.

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5 Responses

  1. Raymond says:

    Rabbi Stern was my main religious teacher in both ninth and tenth grades back when I attended Rambam Torah Insitute here in Los Angeles. Back on those days, the religious Jewish community was far, far smaller than it is today. If I am not mistaken, there were no more than two or three very small Orthodox Jewish High Schools in this entire city at that time.

    It has been a very long time since I attended high school, and so specific experiences with Rabbi Stern are very faint in my memory. The general theme of what I remember him by, is his love of Judaism from a very heartfelt perspective. I am not sure I can explain exactly what I mean here, but I will give it a try. He left Rambam after my year in 10th grade, replaced by a Rabbi who had a very intellectual approach to Judaism. I was introduced to Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s rational/historical approach to Judaism, and since then this has been reinforced through endless Torah classes I have attended. It is the Aish HaTorah approach, and it is the Rabbi Ya’akov Weinberg approach. And yet, I have felt that there has been something essential missing from all this, that Judaism is not really meant to take such an exclusively cold and clinical approach to G-d, the Torah, and our individual lives. What perhaps has been missing is the heart, true spirituality, and I have long felt that Rabbi Stern embodied that latter approach. In a way, it is a modern day revisit of the varying approaches to Judaism of the Vilna Gaon and my direct ancestor the Ba’al Shem Tov, with Rabbi Stern definitely in the camp of the Ba’al Shem Tov.

    It is both sad, and scary, that Rabbi Stern has passed away. I cannot imagine that he was so advanced in years, but maybe that is because my days as a student in Rambam often seem like they happened yesterday. I cannot speak for others who were his student, and so speaking only for myself, he definitely made a lasting impression on me. Rest in Peace, Rabbi Stern.

  2. yitzchock says:

    as a family member i really appreciate both Rabbi Adlerstien and Raymond’s words. I would like to ask if there is any one else who might have memories that they would be able to share.

  3. Raymond says:

    I hope you do not mind it, but since writing the above, I remembered something about Rabbi Stern that I had forgotten for several decades, but that I now feel is worth posting here.

    I happen to love to read and study, which fit right in with what the Administration at Rambam Torah Institute looked for, but each person is unique in their own way, and one of my brothers was not exactly the contemplative type, preferring action over purely intellectual pursuits. He also got himself into some trouble, and was eventually forced to leave Rambam High School.

    My family could not figure out what to do about my brother, and just about everybody else gave up on him, too…that is, except for one man. That man was Rabbi Stern. Now, bear in mind that Rabbi Stern was himself a highly spiritual person, that was not exactly accepting of much of secular society. One might think that he would be the last person to have even the least bit understanding of my brother’s physically-oriented, sometimes self-destructive behaviors. And yet, somehow, someway, Rabbi Stern saw the spark of holiness in my brother, that is said to exist in every Jew.

    I wish I could say that this had a happy ending. It did not, but the point is, that Rabbi Stern truly practiced what he preached. And sometimes, despite his lack of any interest in scholarship, my brother would quote from the Torah or elsewhere. Clearly, there was a part of him that always did care about his Jewish identity. Maybe, just maybe, Rabbi Stern had something to do with that.

  4. lacosta says:

    i never recall r stern without his sweet smile in spite of all of his tzuris

    i heard the klop of the accident and turned around to see the car slowly riding the sidewalk. who knew that this was the beginning of the last ride….

    he was mashpia on some of my relatives in teh rambam days…

    yehi zichro baruch

  5. menachem says:

    I am also a son if anyone feels gratitude towards my father please learn some mishnayis for him ‘shmuel eliezer ben shaul yechezkel z”l

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