By Rabbi Yaakov Salomon
Do you remember all your teachers from the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades? Do you remember their names? How they looked? What they taught? The difference they made in your life? Probably not. Most of us have put those years in a locked memory vault–never to be visited again.
And that is why it was so unusual for me, watching my wife and her mother and siblings as they sat shivah for my beloved father-in-law, Rabbi Aron Sternberg, a’h. The front door kept opening, revealing the faces of family, friends, and neighbors who had come to pay their respects to this gentle, unassuming gadol. Most of them would have made the list of those who were “expected” to come. But interspersed among them were scores of Rabbi Sternberg’s talmidim. Doctors, lawyers, mechanchim, mothers and fathers, some of them trekking hours in sweltering summer traffic, swarmed the aveilim with stories of how Rabbi Sternberg “changed my life.”
The names, places, and years they recounted may have differed, but the message was always the same. Most remembered him from Great Neck, where he reigned as the crown prince of chinuch for over 36 years, but others hailed from Minneapolis and even Fort William, Ontario. Some spent an hour a week with him at 1229 East 24th Street in Flatbush, where they lovingly learned their leining or a bar mitzvah pshetel in the master’s home. But the message they delivered never varied:
“He loved Torah and he loved Yiddishkeit. And he taught us to love them too.”
One father recounted sending all his boys to Rabbi Sternberg for bar mitzvah lessons:
“The truth is that I could have sent them anywhere to learn how to lein. So many people can do that. But I wanted them to experience his warmth and his love for mitzvos. That was really special.”
Born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1929, he was the youngest boy in a family of eight children. His father, Reb Shmiel Sternberg, z’l, was a fervent chassid of the Belzer Rebbe, zt’l, and Reb Aron continued in the same derech all of his life. Who knows what great lessons he may have gleaned when he served as a devoted “house-bachur” of the noted Satmar Rebbe, zt’l, for nine months at the home of his brother-in-law, R’ Moshe Gross, z’l?
It must have been a decision fraught with ambivalence when young Aron was a mere 17 years old, but his parents knew he needed to continue his exceptional learning on a higher level. Sending a young bachur to Eretz Yisrael at that time was surely a risky proposition, but the mesirus nefesh of parents of that generation is, by now, well documented.
Once there, young Aron was accepted into the illustrious Ponevezh Yeshiva, where he heard shiurim from the famed Ponevezher Rav, zt’l, from Rav Gershon Edelstein, zt’l, and from Rav Dovid Povarsky, zt’l. Much of his sterling character was undoubtedly shaped by the shmuessim he heard from the noted Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zt’l.
He arrived in America in 1950 and soon had the good fortune to marry Millie Ringel, ybl’cht, who bore the distinction of being from the very first graduating class of Rebbetzin Kaplan’s Bais Yaakov of Williamsburg. The shidduch probably surprised no one, as she too was sent from far away (Vancouver) at a tender age by parents who were equally moser nefesh, to receive the chinuch that would fashion her storied life for years to come.
Together they raised an exemplary family, with over 100 descendants–children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren–all living al pi derech haTorah, many of whom are similarly involved in chinuch and tzorchei tzibbur.
After spreading their talents and goodwill in various “out of town” locales (before it was popular to do so), the Sternbergs found a home in Flatbush. Reb Aron, zt’l, soon made a name for himself as a ba’al tefillah par excellence, gracing the amud on Yomim Nora’im for over half a century. His stirring voice was matched only by his heartfelt kavanos, and he passed on the nusach of his father to his sons and to me, for which I am forever grateful. His image is forever before me, whenever I begin “Hinneni” on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Equally admired were his skills as an expert ba’al kriah in K’hal Vyelipol, under the tutelage of Rav Frankel, shlita, where he garnered hundreds of admirers, chaveirim, and chavrusos over several decades. His annual inspiring rendition of Eichah will never be forgotten. For years he opened the beis midrash at 5 a.m., and he learned there with hasmadah rabbah at the crack of dawn.
But for all his contributions, he will most be remembered for his legacy of middos tovos. His smile was infectious and he shared it freely. Even in his final years, when verbal communication became a challenge, the famous “Aron Sternberg smile” never left his tender and kind hadras panim. Adults and children alike seemed to be drawn to his caring demeanor. There are some people whom you just want to say “hello” to. He was one of them.
Dr. Jonathan Lanzkowsky, today a respected ob-gyn specialist in Monsey, and a former talmid, delivered one of Rabbi Sternberg’s grandchildren. In the delivery room, he insisted on speaking by phone to Rabbi Sternberg.
“It’s payback time,” he said. “Because of you, I put on tallis and tefillin every day and learn Torah and do mitzvos. I feel privileged to be a partner in bringing a grandchild of yours into this world.” He described his beloved Rebbe: “Rabbi Sternberg was a spiritual guidepost for me. I will remember him for his unending patience and calm. He was a true tzaddik.”
The immediate mishpachah includes Mrs. Millie Sternberg, renowned for her incredible dedication to Satmar Bikur Cholim; Rabbis Leibie and Yitzchok Sternberg of Monsey; and Mrs. Temmy Salomon and Mrs. Chaye Ruvel of Flatbush.
Appropriately, Reb Aron already has a namesake–a great-grandson born in Eretz Yisrael just three days before his petirah. It is as if his name has never left. The baby happens to be a kohen–Aharon HaKohen. Reb Aron, zt’l, was not a kohen. But everyone who knew him can testify that he personified every characteristic of the Aharon HaKohen we all know of: ohev shalom, rodeph shalom, ohev es habriyos, u’eikarvon l’Torah.
He will be missed. Yehi zichro baruch. v
The family would welcome and appreciate any reminiscence, anecdote, or sentiment related to Rabbi Sternberg, which may be e-mailed to Leibie@aol.com. Mrs. Sternberg may be reached at 718-252-5722 or 917-251-8647.