Students crowdsource their rabbi

From left: Rabbi Nati Stern holding son Y.Y., daughter Emunah, Sarah Stern, son Yitzhak Meir and students Sophie Solar and Ilana Creinin. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Yosef Edelstein

Over the last two years, students at George Washington University have enjoyed going to Rabbi Nati Stern’s house at the edge of campus for his Shabbat hospitality.

But when junior Ilana Creinin and her friends met with Stern this month, he told them that he wouldn’t be back in the fall. A donor to his campus organization, Meor, had died and there was no funding for his salary in next year’s budget.

Meor is an outreach organization on 21 U.S. campuses — think Hillel and Chabad — and Stern and his family are the focus of the Orthodox group’s local activities.

“It’s a very intimate environment,” she junior Sophie Solar. “Because Shabbat takes place in [the Sterns’] home, they can’t host hundreds of students for Shabbat. Because of that, you’re really able to connect with Rabbi Nati and have a real conversation. It feels like a family.”

Solar, Creinin and other students weren’t ready to let all that go. They launched a crowdfunding campaign on the site to raise the $150,000 — the amount of money they calculated is necessary to cover the costs of maintaining the house, meals and Stern’s salary.

“We were like, ‘We’re not going down without a fight,’” Creinin said.

They’ve raised about $5,000,as of Tuesday. Creinin said they are trying to expand their appeal.

“We’re still trying to find some bigger donors to see if we can make up the difference,” she said.

Without Stern, Meor’s educational programs will continue at GW and nearby American University, said the group’s local director, Rabbi Yosef Edelstein.

“If Rabbi Stern is not here, it’s me doing all of the teaching. The real impact will be not having a young rabbi and his wife to host Shabbat.”

Creinin said she and her friends have found a home at the Sterns’ house. On Thursday nights they go to bake challah. And spending time with Stern, his wife, Sarah, and their three children is an escape from academic stress.

“They’re so genuine and a loving family on campus,” she said. “I can go there whenever I’m having a bad day and relax.”

Meor also runs an educational seminar, called the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship, and trips to Israel and Poland.

Solar said Stern encouraged her to participate in the Poland trip, where she made several friends. Solar has babysat for the Stern children and even traveled with the family to New York.

“I think of them as a family,” she said.

Meor receives its funds from donations to the national organization, grants from local Jewish federations and fundraising by individual chapters.

Debra Kodish, Meor’s national executive vice president, said the death of the donor has resulted in cuts at Brown and Yale universities as well. She said that with an annual budget of $10 million, Meor is a relatively small campus organization and reliant on local donors.

While communities in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco have been easy to raise money in, Washington has been a challenge, she said.

“We haven’t had much success with Washington,” she said.

Kodish said she has been working with the GW students to find funders for Stern’s job in the fall. By the fall of 2018, the organization will have restructured its budget to include Stern again.

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