Jackie Stern very comfortably admits that she attempted to kosher her kitchen seven times and tried tying the knot with her husband Andy five times since meeting him 38 years ago. From her Los Angeles home, with the sunlight gently filtering in, Stern smiles as she explains how the fifth time, the time she wed in accordance with Jewish law, evolved.

The Jewish educator's quest began on a 1976 trip to Europe with her husband, a Holocaust survivor. They visited the site of the German concentration camp in Dachau, and on that particular winter's day, were the only two people there. And although they walked in silence for two-and-a-half hours – "We didn't say one word," says Stern – the air was filled with sounds.

"You can hear voices in the silence, and can still smell the ovens even though they've been cleaned out," she insists. "I had the feeling that every Jew that lived since survived that."

While standing amidst the camp's echoes, Stern felt that it meant something to be a Jew, and she began a quest to find out more and acquaint herself with her identity. At the time, the only thing she knew about Judaism was a vague concept of kosher that she remembered from her grandmothers.

"It was the last time I ever ate what I knew to be traif," she says about stopping to eat milk and meat together, and refraining from shellfish and pork.

About two years later, she tried to kosher her house using random books on the topic as her guide.

In her search for books about Judaism, Stern came across a bookshop owned by a Jewish man who offered her a book his father had written about how to be a perfect Jewish homemaker. The Jewish storekeeper even autographed it. Trouble was, Stern was a self-described "hardcore feminist" opposed to traditional "women's" roles.

Bringing in Shabbat

Jackie Stern
Jackie Stern
Born in Chicago to a "typical, non-religious" family, Stern moved to Los Angeles when she was seven. In the 1960s, she joined the hippie movement and got involved in anti-war activities, sit-ins and other political and social causes.

Of course, it didn't stop there. In the early 1970s, she quite naturally became active in the National Organization for Women and led women's consciousness groups. She became a Consciousness Raising Coordinator for many group leaders and eventually became vice president of a large NOW chapter.

So at the bookshop, desperate to learn more about Judaism, Stern purchased the book, but kept it in a paper bag. She hid it under her mattress, away from the eyes of her feminist friends.

For six years, her attempts to kosher her home led to comical results. When a friend who had converted to Judaism told Stern that all milk and meat dishes had to be separated, she sprinkled salt over them and rinsed them with hot water before dividing them into dairy and meat. She remembered her grandmother koshering meat by sprinkling salt on it and thought "it would be good enough for Tupperware if it's good enough for meat."

She also began making Friday night meals at home, and asked one of her two young daughters to light the Shabbat candles. She says she felt too embarrassed at the time to do so herself.

Jackie tried out all the Jewish movements, but ended up at Chabad-Lubavitch.

Her first three marriage ceremonies were done according to Reform, the third being a "feminist, egalitarian wedding" in honor of the Sterns' fifth anniversary. For their tenth anniversary, they had a fourth ceremony by signing a Reconstructionist ketubah (Jewish wedding contract) in Malibu, Calif.

After moving to Westwood, Calif., Stern was invited by friends to attend the local synagogue one Shabbat. When she heard Olivia Schwartz speak there about Chasidism, Sterns says she was hooked: "It was like milk to a baby."

At a Moshiach's Seudah, the celebratory Chasidic meal on the last day of Passover, in Los Angeles, the Sterns "fell in love with the vibe."

Now friends for 22 years, Stern considers Schwartz as a sister: They both come from hippie backgrounds, have birthmarks on their right hands and even lost their mothers the same week. Wherever each one goes in the world, people ask if they are related.

Fifth Time's the Charm

It was Schwartz who told Stern that she "probably didn't have a kosher wedding" with her husband. First, Andy Stern had to track down his ex-wife, who was Jewish and had never received a get, or divorce document. The couple then prepared for their fifth wedding, this time a Chasidic ceremony led by Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz in the Sterns' backyard and followed by dinner in their house. Although the Sterns had been married for almost 17 years, they separated the week before their last wedding in accordance with Jewish tradition.

Around the same time, Stern's husband celebrated another milestone: a bris at the age of 43. Although he had been circumcised when he was six, he discovered later that he had never had a proper bris. He was born in Hungary on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Elul – the same birthday as the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, and the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi – and when he found out that he needed a new bris, he didn't think twice.

"Andy felt he had no choice," says Stern. "He was put on the [spiritual] path to get where he needed to go."

Today, Stern is in her third year as principal of the general studies department at the junior high at Bais Chaya Mushka, a school named after Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Scheerson, of righteous memory. She shares her life story with students and lectures throughout the world.

"My goal in life is to tell people they can't exist without connection," she states.

Although she still considers herself a feminist, her definition of the term has broadened a bit. As a religious woman, she says she understands now that women can live fulfilled lives in accordance with the Torah.

"Fulfillment means different things to different people," she adds. "If a woman's fulfilled, she's true to herself."