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55th Reunion!


  May 23-26, 2024


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Catching Up With . . . George Stern

In the Service of Social Justice

by Brooke C. Stoddard '69

George grew up in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia. His father worked in special education in the public schools, his mother as a secretary for several firms. At the time, African-Americans were moving into Mt. Airy and white flight was a serious threat, but George’s family stayed put. Ultimately, many community members mobilized to welcome African-Americans into the neighborhood and create laws banning banks from redlining and realtors from blockbusting. Accordingly, Mt. Airy became one of the nation’s first communities to successfully integrate. George attended two public schools, one increasingly black with large classes and dwindling resources, and one mostly white with smaller classes and better resources. By his middle teenage years, George had seen much of inequalities and injustices but also what people could do to check abuses and set prejudice behind them.

"It’s amazing how some of our earliest experiences can drive the rest of our lives,” George says. "For me, the racial injustices I saw at an early age, coupled with an emphasis on prophetic ethical teachings in my Reform Jewish background, moved me towards the rabbinate and an emphasis on social justice and social change in my professional work, whether in the synagogue or other nonprofits.”

A third school change ensued, this one to Germantown Academy, a small private school that traditionally sent a good portion of its seniors to Princeton. When George was still in public school his trumpet teacher was also the orchestra leader at Germantown Academy and the orchestra needed a skilled trumpet player. George’s parents approved the switch and George took a scholarship to attend Germantown.

George had never seen Princeton before Freshman Week, but he chose it over two other schools because they were both in Philadelphia and attending either one would likely have led to living at home. George majored in history, earning as well a Certificate in American Civilization. His thesis was on the immigrant Jewish community living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the turn of the last century and how families assimilated.

George was less involved in Princeton activities and Princeton life than some because he was often absent on weekends. To maintain his scholarship, he waited on tables at the Graduate School but soon convinced the University that he could as well earn money teaching at religious schools on weekends in Trenton and Philadelphia, which he did, as well as spending a night at home to do his laundry. His thesis advisor was Michael Frisch, with whom George maintained communication after direct Princeton life had ended for both of them.

George pondered a career in education but was also interested in Judaism and thought he could combine both interests at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform Seminary in New York City. It was a five-year program, one year of which involved study in Israel. His last two years of seminary comprised working for a synagogue in Upper Nyack, N. Y., near the Tappan Zee Bridge. The congregation grew at a healthy rate, and George stayed until 1999.

One focus of his work was social justice. By now married and a father, his children attended integrated public schools and George worked on local race and school issues. He also took on hunger issues, as well as interfaith efforts, which included various congregations making visits to one another. He became the leader of a large and prominent Thanksgiving interfaith service.

When George’s wife  (photo, right, with grandchildren Gavi and Hannah) secured a position as the Library Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa., the family moved back to Philadelphia, settling in Mt. Airy only a mile from where George grew up. George became the Executive Director of Mt. Airy’s Northwest Interfaith Movement, formed by rabbis, ministers, and lay persons in 1969 to maintain grassroots activism and bring to surrounding neighborhoods the successes achieved in Mt. Airy. When George was hired in 2002, NIM had evolved into a group that identified local needs and established programs to meet them. George led the group for 10 years, overseeing an expansion that eventually required a name change to Neighborhood Interfaith Movement on account of having created a wider reach in greater Philadelphia.

"The current #|BlackLivesMatter movement is a sad reminder that, despite civil rights legislation and real changes in the hearts of many Americans, we still have a long way to go,” George says. "The current majority on the Supreme Court shows little understanding of the long-lasting effects of past injustices, siding with those Americans who seem to believe that the legislation of the ‘60s fixed everything. Apparently their lowly status is now the fault of the blacks, Hispanics, other immigrants, and the poor themselves. State and federal elected officials—and even some more local ones—seem unable to grasp the generational effects of grinding poverty.”

By 2012 George was ready to ratchet back a bit. He left the directorship of NIM and began working with Quakers for the benefit of seniors in Center City Philadelphia. "Many seniors were in high rises,” he says. "We worked to get them organized and improve delivery of services.”

Last year friends persuaded George to take on a part-time role as Executive Director of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN) – he had already been president of the Board – and this is the work in which he is presently engaged. "JSPAN has been attorney- and court-centered, writing amicus briefs and testimony for legislatures,” George says, "but we want to move it more toward a grass-roots organization. We have affiliated with a national social justice group called Bend the Arc, which is more grassroots than JSPAN, and we hope to learn from them.”  (Photo, left: George with Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend the Arc, a national progressive Jewish social justice organization, of which JSPAN is an affiliate, and Vic Rosenthal, ED of Jewish Community Action in St. Paul, MN.)

As all of us in the Class of 1969, George is beyond the traditional retirement age, but obviously he feels nowhere near the end of his work. "The moral issues here are huge,” he says. "How is that we can short-change children (think health care, hunger, schools) and then blame them for anti-social behavior? Even if moms and dads do a poor job of parenting (for a whole host of reasons, including their own families of origin and the conditions they live under, as well as personal decisions that make their lives more difficult), why do our policies seem to blame the innocent kids? In my work as director of the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement, I watched policy-makers fail to allocate sufficient resources to early childhood education in poor neighborhoods and neglect the needs of adults who in years past would have been warehoused in state facilities but who now rely on the integrity of the proprietors of long-term care facilities who, even when they are honest, are starved of public funds. I am not sure these adults are any better off than they were in the ‘bad days’ when we were at Princeton.

"Have I depressed you enough? Shall I mention that the worst environmental conditions are in poor parts of cities and countryside? Shall I remind you that many politicians and those who elect them would rather spend public funds on emergency care for the indigent than get behind a robust universal health care system that could ultimate save taxpayer money? Dare I cite the xenophobia in the land, the willingness to count as ‘job growth’ the creation of low-paying positions that leave more and more people in poverty, even when they work full time? $7.25 (or even $10.10) an hour? Really? Where does that pay for shelter, clothing, food and an occasional movie for a family of four? And the worst of it: History shows us clearly that such poverty, especially when combined with enormous wealth gaps, leads to wrenching changes over which we often have no control. Is that what we want?”

George could slow down, but likely he won’t any time soon because there is far too much to do. "I guess I’m determined to maintain hope,” he says, "and, now through the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, I continue to try to make a difference.”

George welcomes your visit to the JSPAN website: www.jspan.org.

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