Local Judaic authority Gershon Shterman dies at 92

Shterman, a well-known figure in the San Francisco émigré community, died on April 25 in San Francisco. He was 92.

Shterman was born in 1910 in Skulyany shtetl in Bessarabia, which at that time, was part of Romania.

He came from a large family, and several of his siblings died in World War I. His father supplied food to the Romanian army.

In his shtetl, he attended a Jewish school and was drawn to Jewish history. Studying under the tutelage of a well-known teacher at that time, Rabbi Portugal, Shterman decided to become a rabbi and became Portugal's most loved pupil.

"Rabbi Portugal was a very big influence on him, and all his early life, he dedicated to the Jewish people," said his daughter Lilya Vaisman of San Francisco.

Fluent in Hebrew and a passionate Zionist, Shterman was an exceptional speaker. Combining these interests, he first joined Agudat Yisrael, a religious organization, and then Keren Kayemet and Keren Hayesod, the predecessors of the Jewish National Fund. With these groups, he traveled around raising money to buy land in Palestine. Through his work, he met many early Zionist leaders, including Chaim Weizmann and Ze'ev Jabotinsky.

"People listened to him and opened their hearts and opened their pockets," said Vaisman. Through this work, he became well-known, and thought he had a future in politics, perhaps as a minister of religion.

That changed when the Russians invaded in 1940. In one night, Zionist organizations were declared illegal, and those involved with them were arrested without being charged of anything. Shterman and his colleagues were thrown into prison.

From there, Shterman was deported to one of Stalin's hard labor camps. Called Vorkuta, the camp was in Northern Russia, where the ground never thaws. He and his fellow inmates were forced to dig up the roots of trees.

He was incarcerated there for six years, and was released in 1946, after which he was reunited with his family.

Under Stalin, Shterman was classified as a political prisoner and was therefore prevented from living in a big city. He obtained false papers and a passport, and got a job with the railroad. "It was a small position," said Vaisman. "If they found out where he came from or why he was imprisoned, he would have lost his job."

Once Stalin died in 1953, things got easier, but Shterman still feared that his political prisoner status would be found out.

When Soviet Jews started immigrating to Israel in the 1970s, Shterman clandestinely taught Hebrew to those who were about to leave.

In 1976, Vaisman and her family, as well as her parents, decided to apply to emigrate to the United States. Vaisman's family was granted permission; her parents were denied.

"They went through his papers and saw he was a political prisoner," said Vaisman. "They became refuseniks."

Vaisman did not want to leave her parents behind.

"I couldn't imagine going without them," she said. But Shterman "practically commanded" her to go.

"If you don't go now, we'll stay here forever," Shterman told his daughter. "You can influence people where you go, and find someone to help us." He was right. Vaisman came with her husband and son in 1977, and Shterman and his wife were able to follow in 1979.

Once here, Shterman became very involved in the émigré community. He also was an active member of Congregation Torath Emeth, where he went almost every day.

He was known for his command of Yiddish, especially, both spoken and written, and was a contributor to the Algemeiner Journal, a New York-based Yiddish newspaper.

At the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Shterman was a frequently featured lecturer in the émigré department. "He was an excellent speaker, and could speak for hours about Jewish history, and never used any notes," said Vaisman.

Shterman remained deeply committed to Israel, and in 1983, he made his first trip to the Jewish state with a group of Russian Jewish émigrés. Vaisman recalled that at Weizmann's grave, her father got so choked up remembering his meeting with the deceased Israeli president, that he fell and broke his arm.

In 2000, he published his autobiography, "Pages of Life." He wrote it in Yiddish, but a friend of his translated it into Russian. He began writing it when he felt himself physically declining, and "wrote it very fast," said Vaisman. He dedicated it to his wife, Basya, who died four years ago.

Barbara Litt, director of the émigré department at the JCC, called Shterman "our Judaic authority about everything."

He and his wife attended every JCC social event, she said, and "he always introduced all of our holiday programs. We all deferred to him in terms of his judgement and knowledge."

Litt concluded that Shterman's death almost represented the end of an era at the JCC. "I think of the demise of an entire culture and civilization," she said. "Not very many people on earth have had the kinds of experiences he had and use them to such great effect."

In addition to Vaisman, Shterman is survived by his grandson, Alexander Vaisman of San Francisco.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."