A Jewish Mother Goes To Bat For The World’s Children
Wed, 11/06/2013
Jewish Week Culture Editor
In “I Believe in Zero,” Caryl Stern writes about the lessons she’s learned working on behalf of youngsters around the world.
In “I Believe in Zero,” Caryl Stern writes about the lessons she’s learned working on behalf of youngsters around the world.

Caryl M. Stern is a top foundation executive with sophisticated leadership skills and the soul of a Jewish mother.

Since May 2007, she has been president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. She joined the organization the previous year as chief operating officer and then became acting president when the chief who hired her, Chip Lyons, took a position with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Before that, she spent 18 years at the Anti-Defamation League in several positions, most recently as chief operating officer and senior associate national director. While at ADL, she spearheaded a diversity-training project, “A World of Difference.”

The 56-year-old mother of three sons ages 14 to 40 is a bundle of energy and empathy, with a strong sense of Jewish identity. She lives in Bayside, Queens, and is on the road a lot. Wherever she is, she takes her sons’ calls. “There’s nothing I’m prouder of than being a mom. My kids are my greatest accomplishment,” she says in an interview in her Manhattan office.

From her travels in the developing world, Stern has learned that when she sees groups of children, there will probably be some sort of ball that they’re playing with, whether it’s made of rubber or old rags. She has also come to realize that her lap isn’t personal property, that when she sits down, a child will inevitably make his or her way onto her lap. And, she understands that parents everywhere want the same things for their kids — health, safety, education and the knowledge that they are loved — “to dream big dreams and have a fighting chance to realize those dreams,” as she writes in her book, “I Believe In Zero: Learning from the World’s Children” (St. Martin’s Press).

The title refers to her hope (and UNICEF’s mission) to reduce the number of children who die every day from the lack of basic needs from 18,000 to zero — no more starvation, exploitation, preventable deaths, poverty, and disease.

“I do believe that zero will be possible,” she says.

In conversation, it’s hard not to notice her fingernails, painted a shade between turquoise and light blue. It’s her signature color. Otherwise, she’s dressed in all black. Her office is filled with family photos, gifts and trinkets from her extensive travel (and every item has a story), a tzedekah box from her former ADL boss Abe Foxman, a pack of stuffed animals  and a photograph of two young boys in Sudan holding up a sign, “No Water/No Life.”

Her own background is entwined with Jewish history, and that continues to influence her. Her grandfather was a passenger of the St. Louis, the ship that sailed in 1939 from Hamburg, Germany, was denied entry in Havana and then in the United States, and ultimately sailed back to Europe. He was fortunate to get off the boat in London, and after that he made his way to Canada and then the U.S. Her mother was born in Vienna, and was able to leave after Kristallnacht with a friend of the family. When she arrived in New York City, she was met by an aunt, and then placed in an orphanage.

Stern grew up hearing the voice of her father asking how the world could let this happen, and her mother saying that one person can change the world, using the example of the woman she barely knew who got her out of Austria.

“Every time, when I’m in one of those places in the middle of nowhere, I hear those two voices,” she says. One voice says, “Sees what happens when no one cares” and the other sees the amazing potential of every individual. “You have a choice,” she asserts.

Stern grew up in upstate Peekskill, in very small but tightly-knit Jewish community, and is still friendly with the people she met there. She became active with Young Judea and identifies strongly as a Zionist.

The lessons she learned at ADL — about issues of diversity, about trying to see the world through the cultural lens of a particular group, about listening and asking questions rather than making assumptions about others — have been key in this job. In her travels, she has learned to step back and let the people she meets teach her about their needs and how those needs might be met.

“It’s not do unto others as you would like them to do unto you,” she says, but how they would like to be done unto.”

In the book, she draws on stories of her travels, to Bangladesh, Mozambique, Haiti, Sudan and the Brazilian Amazon. On all of her trips, she seeks out Jewish communities. In Mozambique, she found a once beautiful white colonial building in Maputo, where there was once a flourishing Jewish community of Europeans who escaped from the Nazis. On her visit, there were seven Jews, and, of course, two separate worship services.

The scenes of poverty stay with her, and at home, she cringes now when food is thrown away after dinner She has brought her sons along on her travels, so that they would come to understand how privileged they are.

Stern repeats that she loves her work, and is proud that when it comes to contributions to UNICEF, 93 cents on the dollar go to children. When asked if she has faced anti-Semitism on the job, she says no, but recognizes that she has been in situations where people don’t realize there’s a Jewish person in the room, and make comments that they might not have made otherwise.

To those who criticize UNICEF for its work with Palestinian children in Gaza and the West Bank, she asserts, “Our only cause is children. Their basic rights should never be denied.”

“For me, children are defined by their age, not by their border. It doesn’t matter where you happen to be born. If a child is hungry, you have to feed that child. There’s no stronger conviction in my religious beliefs.” In the Middle East, she says, both sides accuse UNICEF of bias — and she says that neither is correct. “The only side we are on is the side of the child.”

Her perspective is shaped by her work in the Jewish and secular worlds. She comments, “I feel that it’s time for the Jewish world to see humanitarian relief organizations and the United Nations as more than the Security Council. At the same time, it’s time for the UN to see the Jewish world and Israel as more than the settlements. I’m caught between those two sometimes.”

Stern is married to real estate developer Donald LaRosa. Their three sons are ages 14, 18, and 40, and they have two grandchildren. She admits that she’s the stereotypical Jewish mother, and embraces that in the office and at home.

She gains inspiration in her work from the kids themselves. “Most children see themselves as survivors, not victims. They know that life is tough and that they’re going to make it. Their strength is contagious.” 

editor@jewishweek.org