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Stark Loss

The death of a beloved Solomon Schechter teacher shadows a community of former students—many now at the forefront of American Jewish life

Allison Hoffman
January 09, 2012
(Rico Marcelli/Flickr)
(Rico Marcelli/Flickr)

Last Tuesday, just after New Year’s, Peter Stark drove to the Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton, Mass., for the first time in 20 years, looking forward to teaching the class he had once been famous for: sixth-grade Tanakh. School wasn’t set to resume until Wednesday, so Stark stayed only a few hours before heading home in his silver Toyota Camry—a commute that ended tragically in a fatal collision with a tractor-trailer on a busy state route.

Stark’s death, at 62, interrupted an encore performance in a Jewish career that began in the 1970s, when as a Brandeis University graduate student he worked summers at the Kallah youth camp run by the B’nai B’rith youth wing, now known as BBYO. He went on to teach at Schechter—always Tanakh, colleagues said, and always in the middle-school grades—and then, in the 1990s, traveled to the countries of the former Soviet Union to run Jewish outreach programs. Over the years, Stark, who never married and had no children, mentored hundreds, if not thousands, of young people, many of whom are now rabbis, teachers, or professionals in their thirties and forties working for major Jewish institutions across the country—people who have infused contemporary Jewish life with the legacy of Stark’s lessons.

Meanwhile, Stark’s death has turned what was meant to bridge generations of Jewish students at Boston’s Schechter school into a moment for those he influenced to gather in mourning. Tonight, many will return to their alma mater for a memorial service, capping a week of informal outpourings on Facebook, where many had reconnected with their old teacher, and in long email chains recounting Stark’s love of jokes and puns.

“He would ask us what the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet was—tough,” wrote Josh Blumenthal, a Schechter student who went on to work in Jewish education. “Twenty-eight years later, I can still recite tzedek, tzedek, tirdof.”

Stark, who wasn’t religious, came to Jewish teaching through his love of language and performance. “He was a zealot for Jewish learning and ideas, the arts, and Jewish peoplehood,” said Stark’s cousin, Scott Lasensky, also a former BBYO camper who now works for the United States mission to the United Nations. “He didn’t see them as any different, because he came from a family where love of the arts, Tanakh, and the stage were interwoven.”

Stark grew up in Freehold, N.J., and went to high school with Bruce Springsteen. At home, Stark spoke Yiddish with his father, Sidney, who was born in Estonia and came to the United States as a teenager in 1924, and his mother, Ida, who was born in Brooklyn but grew up speaking Yiddish with her Belarussian parents as a girl in Sioux City, Iowa. As a child in the 1960s, Stark attended the Kallah youth camps, where future luminaries like Elie Wiesel were featured as speaking guests years before they became famous. He became a staff member in the 1970s while pursuing his doctorate in biblical texts and ancient Semitic languages at Brandeis University and eventually became director of the BBYO summer youth programs, from 1984 to 1989, while teaching during the year at Schechter.

“It was a real dream come true for Peter,” said Robin Minkoff, who worked for Stark at the camp. “He was very romantic about the founding of Kallah and wanted the teens coming through in the 1980s to have the same experience the kids coming through in the ‘60s had.” That meant inviting guests like Aaron Lansky, who went on to win a MacArthur genius grant for his work preserving Yiddish books, and Marvin Tokayer, a rabbi and scholar who preserved the history of Jewish refugees in Asia. “Peter was a real Renaissance man, knowledgeable about every subject you could imagine, and I think he wanted us to be also,” said Marc Blattner, a former camper who is now the executive of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. “He taught teenagers about the global Jewish world and what people were doing, to say, ‘Don’t think your bubble is the world, it’s larger than that and you need to connect to it.’ ”

Others recalled Stark—who acted in or directed more than three dozen light-opera productions with local companies over the years—making his charges act out scenes from the texts they were learning. “He thought we needed to understand what it felt like,” said Nadine Greenfield-Binstock, who now works for the American Jewish Committee in Washington.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Stark began traveling across Eastern Europe for B’nai B’rith and other Jewish organizations to run outreach programs in cities like Vilna, Riga, and Birobidzhan. He left Schechter in 1992 to become principal of the Hebrew High program in Worcester and began taking students on annual trips to Lithuania, where he put on day camps modeled on those he had run for American teenagers. “He felt he’d tackled the Jewish youth in America and wanted to do what he could to help Jewish kids elsewhere,” Blattner said.

“He had no kids, and still he had so many kids,” said another former student, Ilya Fuchs.
Fuchs, a Soviet émigré who is now a lawyer in Boston, was among those who encouraged Stark to return to teaching last year, after a decade-long hiatus working as an Internet consultant and caring for his ailing parents in New Jersey.

In recent years, Stark was in ill health, overweight and suffering with a bad back, and initially he resisted. “Then out of the blue he says, ‘Write me a recommendation,’ ” Fuchs said. “He wrote me a recommendation for high school, a recommendation for college, and a recommendation for law school, so last month I wound up writing him a recommendation to get back into teaching.”

The head of the Schechter school, Arnold Zar-Kessler, quickly welcomed Stark back to his old position, initially filling in for another teacher who is on sabbatical. Zar-Kessler, whose own daughter was among Stark’s pupils in the 1980s, said he wanted the school’s current students, some of them the children of people Stark had once taught, to experience Stark’s teaching style—one that balanced intellectual rigor with delight in the subject matter. “He never lost his curiosity, and he was successful with the brightest kids, the ones who reach adolescence and get disenchanted with the texts,” Zar-Kessler told me. “His first class was to have been the next day, and the irony is painful.”

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

Allison Hoffman is the executive editor of CNN Politics.