The Los Angeles Jewish community lost one of its most distinctive and distinguished members on May 24. Arthur Stern, award-winning engineer, visionary leader, and beloved family member and friend, died at 87. In his professional life, Arthur was responsible for a stunning range of scientific breakthroughs, from his pioneering work on the first transistor radio to his significant hand in helping to develop the Global Positioning System (GPS).
For all of Arthur’s achievements in the realm of applied science, it was his commitment to applied ethics that made him so remarkable and inspiring a role model. Arthur was relentless in his pursuit of justice, both in agitating for civil and economic rights at home and in advocating for peace between Israelis and Palestinians abroad. He was a prominent figure in progressive Jewish causes on the local and national scene: Americans for Peace Now, the New Israel Fund and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, among others. As those who know him recall, Arthur was forceful, eloquent and at times cantankerous in support of these causes. He believed them to be the fullest realization of his deeply held Jewish and humane values, which he never regarded as mutually exclusive.
Arthur was an avid reader of Pirke Avot, especially at this time of year, a habit developed as an Orthodox youth in Budapest, Hungary. He took seriously the famous admonition from that text: “Al tifrosh min ha-tsibur” (Don’t separate yourself from the community.) Notwithstanding his progressive stance and his frequent frustration with mainstream politics, Arthur participated actively in a wide range of communal institutions, including Federation, Jewish Community Relations Council, Bureau of Jewish Education and California Israel Chamber of Commerce.
Arthur learned the importance of that kind of communal commitment in his native Budapest. His father, Leo, was the leader of that city’s Orthodox community and took on the job of assisting Jews, both foreign and local, in the years of the Nazi terror. Arthur’s own sense of collective responsibility was forged in the crucial months following the entry of the Nazis into Hungary in March 1944. Through his father, Arthur got to know many of the major figures in Hungarian Jewry during this time, including Rudolf Kasztner and the Satmar Rebbe, R. Joel Teitelbaum. It was Kasztner, a Zionist official, who negotiated with Adolf Eichmann for the release of some 1,700 Hungarian Jews, including the family of Arthur Stern. Members of the transport were detained at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for some six months, during which time Arthur slept on a spare bunk above the Satmar Rebbe. What he took from this trying experience was not bitterness and anger, but an unceasing moral imperative to seek justice in the world.
A recollection of Arthur Stern would not be complete without mention of his vast erudition. Trained in traditional Jewish sources in his Orthodox home and schools, he was equally conversant in the history, literature and languages of the world. His ecumenical wisdom, so uncommon in our time, was the foundation of his activism. Both remained lifelong pursuits.
Leaders of this kind, possessed of extraordinary intelligence, curiosity, courage and a sense of moral urgency, happen along very rarely. The Los Angeles Jewish community was privileged to have had Arthur Stern as a beacon of conscience in its midst. May his memory be for a blessing.
David N. Myers teaches Jewish history and chairs the History Department at UCLA.