Listen to just five minutes of one of his classes, peppered with personal anecdotes and humorous asides, and it’s obvious that Dr. Reuben Stern is an expert on more that just U.S. history. As an immigrant to America and a world traveler, Dr. Stern, one of the longest employed teachers in the school, has an exciting past that is a history in and of itself.
Dr. Stern was born in the British Mandate of Palestine, modern day Israel, to German parents who fled their home country to escape the Nazis. He lived in Israel until age eight, speaking only German and Hebrew. After his father’s death, his mother decided to move with him to New York to escape the fighting in Palestine, just prior to Israel’s independence, and to find greater opportunities for her son.
They arrived at Ellis Island in March of 1948. “It was frightening. I never wanted to come,” said Dr. Stern, recalling how he disembarked in shorts, inappropriate attire for the New York winter. “I wasn’t used to the cold weather,” he said.
Though he was hesitant at first, the wonders of the country gradually won him over. While at Ellis Island, he saw snow on the ground for the first time. And later on, when he visited relatives, he rode an elevator, which he had never done before. “I loved the elevator so much that I remained in it for several hours,” he said. Eventually, he said, he “became an American.”
Dr. Stern and his mother settled in Far Rockaway in Queens, where he enrolled in the third grade in a local public school. The transition was difficult, as it took him three months to become fluent in English. They later moved to Washington Heights, where Dr. Stern attended P.S. 115 and later George Washington High School.
Showing talent in mathematics and the sciences, Dr. Stern decided to enroll in City College for engineering, but ended up switching to the liberal arts because “it was more interesting,” he said. He started studying for a Bachelor’s Degree in History, but quit school in his sophomore year in favor of going abroad. In an act the Jews refer to as “aliyah,” he immigrated to Israel. “I went thinking I would never return. But that didn’t really work out,” he said. He stayed at different kibbutzim, Israeli communal villages, for six months, but had difficulty adapting. “I was too American. It was a whole new life,” he said.
Upon his return, Dr. Stern reenrolled in college, only to leave again in the middle of his senior year to join the Peace Corps. He trained for the Ivory Coast in Africa, but never went. It was the Peace Corps’ year of inception, and Dr. Stern was an outspoken critic of the way it was run at the time. “It was a mutual separation,” he said. He returned to City College and finished his senior year, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in History.
Dr. Stern entered the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to study for a Master’s Degree in European History, but left before its completion, switching back to City College, where he finished the degree. “I missed the energy of New York. [Amherst] is a small hick town compared to New York,” he said. Then, he started a Doctorate in History at New York University, but never completed it because he got involved in another field: health education.
Meanwhile, Dr. Stern got married to his wife, a teacher at the time. Her time off in the summer appealed to Dr. Stern, an ardent traveler, and he thought he would try being a teacher, like her. “I was willing to try anything,” he said. Consequently, he quit his job working as an investigator in the New York City Department of Welfare and, in September of 1967, he began teaching.
He started off working in Richmond Hill High School, teaching general science for three years. Subsequently, he taught a variety of different social studies courses in Bushwick High School. At the time, the school received a grant to train a teacher in sex education and have the teacher train a group of students to manage a room where other students can walk in to learn about sex and receive informative videos, condoms, or simply information. His students nominated him for the position. “The kids felt comfortable with me,” he said. He accepted the nomination and began taking special training classes at schools such as Hunter and NYU. In the process, he earned a Master’s Degree and Doctorate in Health Education, with a major in Sex Education.
After teaching sex education, Dr. Stern participated in Holocaust studies. This subject interested him because of his family history; most of his relatives were killed in World War II. After giving workshops to teachers, in which he taught how to approach the genocide in the classroom, working with organizations such as the Anti Defamation League, and becoming involved in the network of teachers and professors working to educate the public in Holocaust studies, Dr. Stern was invited to Albany to take part in the committee of teachers putting together a syllabus for genocide studies for New York State. In 1988, he was recognized for his work and was awarded the Louis E. Yavner Teaching Award, a prestigious award given annually by the New York Board of Regents to a New York State resident for distinguished contributions related to the Holocaust and human rights teaching. “I’m very proud of that award,” Dr. Stern said.
Subsequently, Dr. Stern taught social studies at Franklin K. Lane High School, where Assistant Principal Organization Randi Damesek’s father was principal. Though he said he “enjoyed being a teacher under him,” in 1990, he transferred to Stuyvesant in order to teach in a more challenging environment. He has taught Global History, Advanced Placement European History, and Government, and currently teaches regular and Advanced Placement U.S. History. He also served as a dean, a job he enjoyed because he “got to meet many students who were not in my AP class,” Dr. Stern said.
Outside of his career, Dr. Stern enjoys traveling. During the summers of his college years, he went backpacking around Europe. He continued to do so with his wife after their marriage, and later with his children once they were old enough. Every couple of years, Dr. Stern visits his family in Israel. “I’m always emotional about going to Israel,” Dr. Stern said. Some of his favorite trips were to China, which, he said, was “something different from most of my travels,” and Vietnam, which, he said, “was really something to see after being active in the antiwar movement. The people in Vietnam are amazing.” He also fondly recalled his trip to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, which “was quiet an experience,” and to Paris, the capital of France, and Petra, an ancient city constructed by the Nabataeans in Jordan.
Dr. Stern is also an avid reader. He reads fiction and nonfiction, bestsellers, and historical novels. “Whatever seems to be current,” he said. The latest book he’s read and enjoyed is To the End of the Land, by David Grossman, an eminent Israeli author.
But most importantly, Dr. Stern loves spending time with family. He has been married to his wife for what will be forty-six years in May, and together they have one son and one daughter and three grandchildren aged six, eight, and nine.
Of his forty-four years spent teaching, twenty-one have been at Stuyvesant. “Whatever I teach, I usually enjoy,” Stern said. He acknowledges that his teaching career spans an exceptionally long time, and he attributes it to his students. “It’s the interaction with the students that keeps me going,” he said.
Many of his students reciprocated his sentiment. “Dr. Stern is one of those rare teachers whose mentoring extends far beyond the classroom. His engaging teaching style coupled with his disarming smile and unique style truly make him one of a kind,” junior Gil Spivack said.
“Funny, dedicated, and outstanding, Dr. Stern not only understands his students’ needs inside of class, but also outside of class. He gives a reasonable amount of work and devotes entirely to his students that they will do well on the AP,” junior Jennifer Huang said.
Dr. Stern says he wants his students “to think and question everything. I try to give all points of view to every topic. I try not to be subjective. I also try to teach the class as a flowing story, from beginning to end. I’d like [the students] to be anxious for the following day’s lesson, and have them say ‘What’s the next chapter?’” Dr. Stern said.
But the question students may want answered is not only what the next chapter in American history is, but also the next one in the already rich history of Dr. Stern.