Sara Stern is the epitome of human service


August 11, 2017

Sara Stern

Her demeanor is reserved. She speaks softly with dignity and grace. Yet beneath that quiet exterior lays a strength to spearhead many projects that enhanced the Orlando Jewish community. Sara Stern reveals her deep love of Judaism and the Jewish people through her accomplishments within organizations such as Congregation Ohev Shalom, Hadassah, the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando and the Women's League of Conservative Judaism. Her motivation comes, she stated, from "a deep-seated belief that all human beings are created in the image of God, and therefore they need to be treated with kindness, dignity and respect."

Describing Stern, Es Cohen stated, "I am reminded of the poem 'Woman of Valor' and one particular line, 'Her speech is wise, and the law of kindness is on her lips.' Through her words and actions, Sara exudes love and respect. She is a true leader, friend and mentor to our community and to me."

For these reasons the Heritage is pleased to announce that Sara Stern is the recipient of this year's Human Service Award.

"Sara is the perfect recipient of this year's Human Service Award. She exemplifies the virtues of the award, an individual who does not look for recognition, but performs tikkun olam, repairing the world through human actions," said Cohen.

Stern and her husband, Dr. Louis Stern, met in Gainesville, Fla., when he was in medical school, she in nursing school. Louis served his residency in Mobile, Ala., then the couple moved to Tampa for three years, arriving here in Orlando in 1987. Sara worked at Florida Hospital South (resigning from her nursing position in 1997), served the Jewish community, and raised three children-Anna Serviansky, who lives in New York City and is assistant dean at List College; David Stern, who is a full-time employee at Universal Orlando; and Melissa Stern, an RN at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York. "I am so proud of all my children," Stern stated with a sparkle in her eye.

After arriving in Orlando, the first Jewish organization Stern became involved in was the Aliyah Hadassah group.

"It was great-a bunch of us young women, all pregnant at the same time with our third child. It was so much fun," she said with a big smile.

At that time, there were three groups of Hadassah in Orlando-Rishona Masada, Chaverot and Aliyah. Overseeing the three groups was the Orlando Chapter of Hadassah, in which she was also a volunteer.

"I helped with voters registration, co-chairing with Janie Unger. Here I was in my 30s and I got to know women [in the Orlando Chapter] like Audrey Pearlman and Trina Herman-they were just so cool and so much fun!" she said with a sense of awe about these, and other dynamic women who contributed so much to the Jewish community.

In 1988, Stern wanted to be more than a member at Congregation Ohev Shalom. She served on the education committee and the Beit Hamidrash board. Over the years, Stern has held positions at COS as parliamentarian (2003-2005), vice president Administration (2005-2006), executive vice president (2006-2008), and then president twice-from 2008-2010 and 2013-2014. She was Sisterhood president from 1998-2000 (and was chosen Sisterhood Woman of the Year in 2001), and served on a plethora of committees.

Asked if she had a favorite position at COS, she answered hesitantly at first. "Actually, yes, but not what you'd expect. I am very proud to have been president twice, but actually, being Mikveh Lady was my favorite," she said shyly.

Why? "Helping women. It was an interpersonal kind of thing. I remember two incidents in particular of two women who had been traumatized prior to coming there and I hope that I was a comfort to them. And one who was returning to Judaism. It's those more personal things that are most meaningful to me," she said.

Personal interaction and showing kindness to others also prompted Stern to volunteer with Maasim Tovim-cooking for the homeless.

As a member of the Women's League of Conservative Judaism, Stern chaired the Torah Fund, with a goal to raise enough money to have a plaque at the Jewish Theological Seminary-the Seminary of the Conservative movement.

"I worked very hard to raise this money, and now there is a plaque at JTS that has COS's name on it!" she beamed.

During her first term as COS president, Stern served on the Blue Ribbon Committee. She was the only woman on the committee.

"We had to determine what the people wanted. Was there enough financial support? We were navigating to see if we were ready to move forward with this project. The dream was to be right in the center of Jewish Orlando."

Stern then chaired the Building Committee during her first term as COS president (2008 to 2010).

"This was a huge part of my presidency. And don't forget, this was in 2008 during the housing crash," she shared. "Getting the money part in order and getting all the contracts-I learned a lot!"

With Bob Yarmuth and Rabbi Rubinger, who were pivotal to the fundraising effort, and the chairs of the Capital Campaign-Jeff Bornstein, Burt Chasnov and Bill Sholk-they raised over $11.2 million for a new building.

Alan Ginsburg was instrumental in getting the property, as well as the building blue prints. According to David Bornstein, who also served on the committee, Ginsburg arranged for the entire committee to fly to Detroit, Michigan, to look at a new synagogue there.

"I was the only woman to go to Detroit-that was earlier in the process when the committee was smaller," Stern shared.

This was when Bornstein saw Stern's abilities.

"I got to know Sara during the early stages of construction for the new Ohev Shalom sanctuary. I honestly didn't know why Sara came along. She wasn't a builder, a designer, or a million dollar donor. What I discovered quickly was that she didn't need to be. All she needed was to be herself: smart, aware, insightful, open-minded. In other words, all the qualities you want your best leaders to embody. I came to trust Sara's judgment and opinions as much, if not more, than anyone else's during the course of the new Ohev Shalom synagogue construction, and I feel lucky today to call her a friend."

As Stern's second term as COS president came to an end, Roz Fuchs and Irwin Feldman mentioned to her that COS's 100th anniversary was coming up. She got right on it.

"I formed a steering committee and asked different individuals to chair different aspects of it, and now they've just taken off!" she said.

As this committee was planning COS's centennial, it occurred to Stern and Fuchs, who co-chaired the project, that this also marked the anniversary for the entire Jewish community. The Kehillah Exhibit idea caught on. Fuchs took over the planning of Kehillah and Stern continued with the COS Centennial, while also doing research and editing for the Kehillah project.

"She shares her many skills and talents willingly and has been a great partner in this tremendous Kehillah project. I really think she's just a fabulous person in every regard," Fuchs stated.

Stern has also been very involved with Junior League Of Greater Orlando. Through the League, she became a docent for the Anne Frank In The World: 1929-1945 exhibit, which ran from November 1993 to January 1994 at the Orange County Historical Museum (as it was called then). She was also vice chair of Green Circle, a program she facilitated in half a dozen Orange County public schools to promote inclusion of everyone.

As Stern spoke about this program, her face lit up. "It was more than being about tolerance. It was a wonderful experience going into the classroom and talking to the children about being inside and outside the circle and how can we bring people into the circle."

What makes Stern a great and sensible leader is her ability to place people in the right job.

"I think you need to think of people and what their talents are. If you can ask them to do something that you know they will be successful at-you know, the perfect job for them-they will want to do it because it's what they want to do. It's a great experience for them and for the organization because they're successful. But when you ask somebody to do something that's not really them-not a good fit-it's not good for anybody."

Then she added, "Let them do their thing-you don't tell them what to do!"

Space does not allow for all of Stern's accomplishments to be listed in this article. Jeff Gaeser, publisher of the Heritage, will share more of Stern's accomplishments when he presents her with the Human Service Award at the Annual Federation Board Meeting, Aug. 27, 11 a.m. at The Roth Family JCC.

Kehillah: A Century of Jewish Life in Greater Orlando will be on display at the Orange County Regional History Center this coming November. The COS Centennial will take place Feb. 9-10, 2018.


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