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Sacrifice and a Full House Are Tenets of Rabbi's Life

May 05, 1988|IRA RIFKIN | Rifkin is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

One boy fled his Iranian homeland, sneaking into Pakistan with a truckload of other young people, and leaving his family behind. Another boy fled his home in Encino in search of a family more observant of the tenets of Orthodox Judaism.

Despite their diverse backgrounds, both have found sanctuary in the home of Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger.

In the yeshiva world of strictly Orthodox Jews, where teachers are expected to be traditional role models for their students, it is fairly common for a rabbi to take in students. What sets Stulberger apart is the number of students who share living space with him, his wife and their four children.

At present, six students live in the Stulberger home, off Chandler Boulevard in the heart of North Hollywood's growing Orthodox community. In the past, as many as a dozen boys have crammed into the six-bedroom home for as long as two weeks at a time.

Willing Sacrifice

"He and his wife personify what's called in Hebrew mesirus nefesh, a willingness to sacrifice oneself for Torah ideals," said Rabbi Chaim Schnur, the California director of Agudath Israel. The international Orthodox Jewish political and social action organization recently honored Stulberger for his community service and "considerable impact on Jewish education in Los Angeles."

"He's an outstanding example of someone who is willing to do all he can to help kids, and that's worth at least as much as just teaching them lessons," Schnur added.

Stulberger, who as a baby left his native Hungary with his family after the 1956 uprising, took in his first teen-age boarder when he was a counselor at an Orthodox youth camp in New York's Catskill Mountains more than four years ago. The boy was an emotionally troubled 12-year-old from a broken family who opened up to Stulberger during their summer together.

When fall came and the boy had no place to return to, Stulberger offered him a home. At the time, he and his wife lived in a two-bedroom Kew Gardens, N.Y., apartment with one child of their own and another on the way.

The boy lived with the Stulbergers until last year and now attends college in New York. "He's doing fine," the rabbi said.

When Stulberger moved west two years ago to become principal at Valley Torah High School, "opening up the house just became part of the package," he said.

Valley Torah, the only Orthodox Jewish high school in the San Fernando Valley, had a student body of just 19 boys and 12 girls and a lagging reputation when Stulberger arrived.

Today, the 12-year-old school has 50 boys and 25 girls (who attend classes separately from the boys in accordance with Orthodox practice). Schnur credited the school's resurgence to Stulberger's efforts.

Most of Valley Torah's students live with their families in the Valley, but because the school has no dormitory, those who need a place to live in the area must be privately housed. About half of those in need of local housing live with the Stulbergers. The rest stay in the homes of other Orthodox community members.

'Like a Father'

"He's unique. Not many people would do what he does," said Chaim Tropper, a 16-year-old Canadian living with Stulberger and his wife, Peshy. "Who wants a houseful of guys when they're not even yours? "

"He's been like a father to me," added Michael Glasser, 18, the Encino youth in need of a religious home. "Living here has really bettered me."

To Stulberger, a house full of rambunctious young men is part and parcel of his commitment to helping preserve Orthodox Judaism in an increasing secular world.

"I try and set an example to show them being religious, being Orthodox, doesn't mean you're out of society, which is what so many of these kids think," said the 33-year-old Stulberger, a slightly rumpled man with a ready smile and an abundance of energy.

"When I'm able to shoot the breeze with these guys on sports, movies and still study 12 hours a day and be committed to Torah (Jewish Scripture) it puts the whole thing in a different light."

Although she is on leave following the birth of her fourth child, Peshy works full-time as a preschool teacher. Even with the help of a housekeeper, the pace around the Stulberger home can be difficult to keep up with.

"If there's a will, there's a way," 29-year-old Peshy replied when asked how she handles the load. "Of course, there are times when I wish I had my house to myself. I'd be insane if I didn't feel that sometimes."

The layout of the Stulberger home also helps. The rabbi and his wife, along with their two youngest children, occupy a two-bedroom, one-bath downstairs corner of the house that is set apart from the rest of the structure and is strictly off-limits to their student boarders.

Five of the boys occupy two upstairs bedrooms and also share a bathroom and telephone. A sixth student prefers to sleep downstairs in a converted sewing room next to bedrooms used by the Stulberger's older children.

Peace and Quiet

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