Learning from Shoshie -by Rabbi Shraga Simmons: An Interview with Rabbi Mike Stern as he reflects on the tragic death of his 12-year-old daughter. Please see www.aish.com
For the past 20 years, Rabbi Mike Stern has inspired thousands of people
with his great love of humanity and his great love of Judaism. Whether
in rabbinical posts at Aish Philadelphia, the Milwaukee Kollel, and now
as the “Rabbi Without Walls” in Boca Raton, Florida, Rabbi Stern
encourages people to think differently about life, strive for greatness,
and find their place in the Jewish community.
On April 14,
2013, Mike and his wife Denise suffered an unspeakable tragedy – the
sudden death of their precious 12-year-old daughter Shoshie in a car
accident. An account of the Stern’s spiritual greatness in the wake of
this tragedy appears in part two of this interview, to be posted next
Twenty-plus years ago in yeshiva, I had the privilege of
forging a lifelong friendship with Mike. The following is based on our
recent Skype conversations between Israel and Florida.
Aish.com: Shoshie was taken from you in an instant, hit by a car while
crossing the road on her skateboard. How would you describe the past
month for you and your family?
Mike Stern: It is not possible
in human words to describe the endless void and vacuum that we feel.
These weeks have been the scariest roller coaster ride imaginable. We
are shaken to the core.
The only way to process an event like
this is to understand that God is shaking us to get our attention.
Shoshie was incredibly precious, and this is a wake-up call for all of
us to appreciate the preciousness of life.
Aish: Tell me about Shoshie. What was the essence of her life?
Mike: In a world where people tend to criticize and put down others in
order to boost themselves, Shoshie naturally and unwittingly saw the
treasures hidden in each person. She made everyone around her feel good,
and helped others to see the beauty in one another. She was not someone
who faded into the background and shied away from life. On the contrary
she had a tremendous presence and was very competitive. But it was all
with a grace and charm that encouraged others to flourish, too.
This is especially remarkable considering that age 12 is an insecure
time for a girl grappling with “who I am, what I believe, where I am
going.” At that age there’s a tendency to feel threatened and look down
on those who don't match your background or style of dress. Yet Shoshie
always stood up for those who are different, who don't easily fit in. No
judgment, no criticism, no distance. What nachas to have a daughter who
treated everyone with equal acceptance, respect and love.
Aish: How has this tragedy changed your perception of Shoshie?
Shoshi Stern, obm
Mike: If you had asked me a few months ago, "Is Shoshie a kind, loving,
peace-maker who is full of life,” I would have said matter-of-factly,
“Sure.” Now after the fact, the entire picture adds up to: “Wow! This is
a truly incredible person.” Never once did I have to say to Shoshie:
"Cheer up… look at the bright side… things will be better tomorrow." She
was very low maintenance, very inner-directed – no moping, no
complaining, no drama. She was always in the moment – fun, joyful and
radiant. That was her normal way of living and we took it for granted.
Maybe I didn’t notice it so much because she did it all in such a modest
way that appeared natural. Oy, what a missed opportunity to really
appreciate who she was in her lifetime.
Aish: Tell me one of the things that makes you most proud of Shoshie.
Mike: Shoshie was a beautiful girl, full of grace, dignity and beauty.
Not in the sense of alluring or the latest style – just the pure
Shoshie, dressing appropriately, in a dignified fashion, without the
layers, without the costumes that we sometimes put on to elicit a
response from others. Shoshie was a pure expression of the right balance
between beauty and modesty – "attractive" but not "attracting." And she
was constantly working on herself to do even better.
Aish: At the funeral, you spoke of how Shoshie “got it.” Explain what you mean.
Mike: One way that Shoshie “got it” was that she didn't need anyone’s
approval, affirmation or validation. She had an inner self-confidence,
expressing herself without worrying how others would react. She was
secure with who she was without having to compromise her own identity by
seeking attention. Her life was very inner-directed, from a place that
wasn't contaminated from feelings of self-doubt or "neediness."
Shoshie had genuine self-esteem, because it was attained by inner
validation, based on her character and choices. When life is all over –
whether at age 120 or 12 – that’s all we take with us. In this sense,
Shoshie achieved an extremely high level.
Aish: You often quote the Talmudic statement: "Don't look at the jug, rather what it contains." What exactly is that message?
The Stern Family 2013: Mike & Denise in the center, Shoshie on the right
This teaches us to look past the external – to see the Divine soul in
everyone. There is a tendency to get stuck on the jug, the outer veneer
of what appears as reality. Because we each occupy a different physical
space, we perceive others as distinct. We become confused by the mask of
color, status, religion. The material world becomes an end unto itself
and we lose sight of the inner dimension of who we truly are and the
real purpose of our lives.
In looking at others, Shoshie was
able to leave her insecurities aside and go beyond the jug, to see
others for who they really are. On some deep level, she sensed that we
are all interconnected, coming from the same infinite Divine source.
Aish: You have said in retrospect that it appears Shoshie spent her final weeks tying up loose ends.
Mike: Whether it was a phone call, a visit, or a gift, Shoshi's soul
seemed to know it was closing up business on Earth. She started
developing many photos of family and friends that had laid dormant in
her cell phone. She made a collage of pictures a few months in advance
of her sister’s June birthday – and even gave it to her far ahead of
time. Also Shoshie begged us to take family pictures for the first time
in many years. It was hard to get all eight Sterns together at once, to
stand still and not make silly faces, but Shoshie succeeded in getting
us to do it – just days before her death. And just hours before her
death, she sent her best friend a text message: "Just remember that I
will always love you, and that I will watch over you." So yes, it
appears as though she had some subconscious sense.
Aish: Shoshie’s death seemed to unite the Jewish community in an extraordinary way.
Large crowd at the funeral
This all came in the weeks leading up to Shavuot, a time of
unprecedented unity when the Jewish people encamped at Mount Sinai with
one heart, one mind, one soul. There were over 1,000 people at Shoshie’s
funeral, standing room only, representing every stream of Jewish life –
Federation, JCC, and rabbis of all denominations. It was an
unprecedented event in the Boca Jewish community, let alone the echo
around the world.
It showed me in the deepest sense how special
it is to be part of the Jewish people, and how we shine when put to the
test. We are all part of the same bodily unit – when our toe is stubbed
and it hurts, the ripple effect makes us feel it elsewhere. After
Shoshie’s death we experienced first-hand how thousands and thousands of
people shared in our trauma and pain. We now feel so closely connected –
our tears have met and created a stream that binds us together.
Aish: What mitzvah would you say that Shoshie excelled in the most?
Mike: The Torah commands us to: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The
Talmud calls this “The great principle of Torah… the rest is
commentary.” This means that God wants the foundation of everything we
do in life to be with genuine caring, love and unity. I’m talking about a
complete identification with one another – I am he, she is me.
Shoshie loved everyone and accepted everyone. The UPS guy came to
shiva, as well as the garbage man, the exterminator, the air conditioner
repairman – all to tell us how Shoshie and the family had made them
feel important and special. A non-Jewish neighbor down the block, who
had bought Passover chocolates from Shoshie, later told us that they
became friends and how Shoshie would periodically come by to check and
see how this woman was doing. That maturity is far beyond a typical
Aish: How would you describe Shoshie spiritually?
Best friends: Shoshi (R) and her sister Devori
Mike: I think that “caring for others” is a reflection of God, part of
the overarching mitzvah to “walk in God’s ways.” The greatest nachas for
a parent is when your children are kind to each other. Shoshie and her
sister Devori were best friends. And the opposite – when your children
fight you can’t stand it. We are all God’s children, and we all live in
the same world. The outpouring of unity, the lifting out of ourselves,
the tapping into greater meaning – it all exemplifies what Shoshie stood
for. True unity is not defined as “everyone doing the same thing and
thinking the same.” True unity is that we are all held together by the
broadest goal possible, doing the will of God, and moving toward the
same ultimate goal. In her death, Shoshie is giving us a glimpse of what
is truly possible.
Aish: What is the best way for us to honor Shoshie’s memory?
Mike: I think we all need to ask ourselves: How can we sanctify our
lives, and make the greatest impact on the world around us? How can we
keep this unprecedented unity going that we have established in our
community? How can we best use the tools to keep “Shoshie-ing" – to look
out for the next person. To make peace between people. To notice the
greatness of others and relish in their uniqueness. To go out of our way
for the unpopular and make everyone feel included, affirmed, validated,
respected. To see people for who they truly are – not our limited
version of how we think they ought to be. Any step we can take in this
area is a fitting tribute to her memory.
God expects a lot of
us. Now that she’s gone we need to share the love that Shoshie had for
others. Rabbi Paysach Krohn spoke in Boca Raton of how to cope with this
tragedy, and suggested that in Shoshie’s merit we say brachos
(blessings) out loud. This publicly proclaims God’s Name, and gives
other people a chance to respond, “Amen,” which increases unity. Shoshie
is the inspiration for this, and we that we can help to elevate her
For me personally, I have undertaken to say the
bentching (Grace After Meals) more slowly, to increase my feelings of
gratitude for all of God’s goodness.
Aish: What is the best way that people have comforted you during this time?
Mike: I appreciate people relieving us of some mundanities, offering to
do errands. The best is just to stop by with food, sharing a wonderful
story about Shoshie for two minutes, and not demanding anything of us
emotionally. Don't plop yourself down on the couch and expect our
attention. We have kids here with homework and bedtime.
the biggest comfort is the enormous amount of Torah study and acts of
kindness being performed as an elevation for Shoshie’s soul. We are
devastated by this loss. But the fact that people are showing this love
gives us the fuel to get us up in the morning, brush our teeth, take
another step forward, and go on with the day.
Aish: What is Shoshie teaching you right now?
Mike: I miss her terribly. She is the first thing I thing about in the
morning, the last thing at night, and in the backdrop of every moment in
between. Shoshie is teaching me that my relationship with God needs to
be constantly in the forefront of my mind. It's so easy to forget what’s
truly important in life, and to slip back into the mundane. I'm
striving to live with mindfulness – mindful of God, mindful of my loved
ones around me, and mindful of the Jewish people. To the extent I do
that makes me mindful of Shoshie, too.
Next week: part two of this interview.
More info: shoshiestern.com