Rabbi Chaim Stern dies at 71

WASHINGTON, Nov. 6 (JTA) — Rabbi Chaim Stern, the editor of Reform prayer books including Gates of Prayer and Gates of Repentance, died Monday at 71.

Stern, who had a brain tumor and died of complications from brain surgery, defined the liturgy of the Reform movement for over three decades.

“He was a master liturgist,” said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, the executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement’s rabbinical arm. “He really shaped the liturgical creations in a creative and bold way.”

In addition to his work for the CCAR, Stern served for 33 years as senior rabbi of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, in Chappaqua, N.Y. He recently took an interim position with Temple Israel in Miami.

Stern wrote the Shabbat and weekday prayer book Gates of Prayer, as well as Gates of Repentance, the prayer book for the High Holy Days. Stern also was the author of the home prayer book, On the Doorposts of Your House.

As editor of the dominant prayer books for the movement, Stern gathered material and developed texts that incorporated different theologies. Because his editorial stewardship took place in the 1960s and 1970s, Stern was faced with the challenge of bringing together feminism, naturalism and other theologies at a rich intellectual time for the Reform movement.

“His genius was that he was able to represent all the different theological views,” said Rabbi Peter Knobel, chair of the CCAR’s liturgy committee.

Indeed, Stern later revised the books in light of criticism that they were not gender inclusive.

Feminism was only one of the ideologies that Stern accommodated.

For example, Gates of Prayer offered 10 different Friday evening services, which allowed different congregations to use the same siddur, Knobel said.

Stern collaborated with Rabbi Gunther Plaut on commentaries on the Haftorahs and an edition of The Book of Genesis, soon to be published by the UAHC Press. He also wrote a Haggadah, a translation and commentary to Pirke Avot and many other liturgical works.

At a 1998 prayer breakfast for religious leaders, President Clinton used words that Stern wrote about redemption to apologize for his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Raised as an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn, Stern was drawn to the beliefs of Reform Judaism. He enrolled in Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion and was ordained in 1958. He later earned a master’s degree in Hebrew literature.

Rabbi David Thomas of Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Mass., was a student of Stern’s who later became a member of his synagogue and ultimately a colleague on the same bimah.

After Thomas was ordained in 1998 and became assistant rabbi at Stern’s synagogue, Stern asked him to officiate at his wedding. Such a request symbolized Stern’s generosity, Thomas said.

Some congregants worried that Stern spent too much time on his writing, to the neglect of his congregational duties.

When he was writing drafts of his prayer books, Stern would share them with his congregants, asking for their comments.

“I hope they realize how deeply involved they really were” in Stern’s writing, he said.

Stern taught that even when people are faced with challenges they have no control over, they still can control their responses, Thomas said.

After he was diagnosed with a tumor this summer, Stern called Thomas and told him of the outpouring of love and care from his congregations.

“He said he didn’t remember ever being happier,” Thomas recalled.

Stern is survived by his wife, Lea Lane, and five children.

A public memorial service will be held at Temple Beth El in Chappaqua, N.Y., on Sunday.

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