Michelle Sternfeld

1949 - 2013


Michelle I. “Mitch” Sternfeld, 63

A lifelong advocate for women’s rights and citizen empowerment, Michelle died on January 1 at her home in Washington, DC, after a long and courageous battle with cancer. She was surrounded by loved ones.

Michelle was born on August 18, 1949 to Jack and Bessie “Betty” Sternfeld in Scranton, PA. There she attended Central High School and graduated in 1967. Jack, known as “Tiger” to his friends, owned Capital Flooring and eventually passed the business on to Michelle’s older brother, Fred Sternfeld.

Michelle, meanwhile, went off to the big city to earn a B.A. in English at American University in 1971. Being a college student in Washington, DC during the era of Vietnam, women’s lib, and civil rights, Michelle became actively involved in politics and advocacy. She volunteered with Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 presidential campaign and over the years became extremely close with Humphrey and his sister, Frances Humphrey Howard. After college, Michelle headed to Capitol Hill, where she worked for Representative Lindy Boggs (D-LA) as a legislative aide and press assistant.  Michelle quickly gained a reputation for her sharp wit, quick thinking, and dedication. She went on to several legislative positions with the American Society for Medical Technology, the American Trucking Association, and the National Association of Truck Stop Operators. Michelle later moved to New Jersey to look after her mother, and became the Director of Public Information for the NJ Taxpayers Association.

In 1983, Michelle got married and moved to Maplewood, NJ, where she continued to be active in civic affairs while raising her two daughters, Vanessa (Emily) and Gwen. Over the years, Michelle served as the founding director of the Women’s Political Action Committee of New Jersey, president of the Women’s Career Network, and as a founding member of the Barbara Boggs Sigmund Public Service Scholarship. After her divorce, Michelle moved with Gwen to Westfield, NJ and later Lawrenceville, NJ. She continued to work as a campaign advisor – and at one point turned her home into campaign headquarters – as well as a fervent defender of human rights through the Coalition for Peace Action, the Mercer County Coalition for Civil Liberties, and the League of Women Voters.

When Michelle was diagnosed in 2006 with Stage IV Metastatic Lung Cancer and given a prognosis of four months, she turned to her doctor and said, “try another number.” Michelle set one goal after another to keep fighting: Gwen’s college graduation, Gwen’s graduate school graduation, Gwen’s first job… Despite the pain she was enduring, many did not even know she was sick because of her incredible energy and spirit. In 2011, after a long hospital stay, Michelle returned to Washington, DC to be closer to Gwen, who was, at the time, living in the exact same apartment that Michelle had occupied in 1971. Together, they refused to give in to the cancer. 

By moving to DC, Michelle also had the opportunity to come to know, and love, Gwen’s boyfriend (now husband) Nic. When Michelle began her final journey with an emergency room visit in December, Gwen and Nic were by her side. Even as it became apparent that her time was short, Michelle kept being Michelle: demanding that she return to chemotherapy, mentoring the nursing assistants, offering help to everyone else and, of course, being the bawdy broad she always hoped to be.

Michelle’s greatest joy and achievement was her daughters. She is survived by both, as well as a dear niece and nephew, Lisa Sternfeld and Paul Hedrich. She is also survived by her legacy of courage, generosity, incorrigible humor, and commitment to tikkun olam, the Jewish commandment to “repair the world.” In keeping with her spirit in life, Michelle asked that no flowers or cards be sent, but rather that donations be made to the charities and organizations she supported so that she might “educate and inspire thousands even beyond her small corner of the world.” Shortly before passing, Michelle put together a list of such organizations and the particular reasons she cared for them. Please consider a donation in her honor and memory.


American Jewish World Service

AJWS was established in Boston in 1985 when Larry Phillips and Larry Simon, together with a group of rabbis, Jewish communal leaders, activists, businesspeople, scholars and others came together to create the first American Jewish organization dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease among people across the globe. 

Since that time, AJWS has remained true to that vision and commitment to tzedakah (charity): empowering people throughout the world to achieve justice and self-sufficiency through the promotion of human rights, education, economic development, healthcare and sustainable agriculture.


Girl Up

Girl Up is a United Nations Foundation campaign. It gives young American girls the opportunity to become global leaders and channel their energy and compassion to raise awareness and funds for United Nations programs that help some of the world’s hardest-to-reach adolescent girls.

Girl Up envisions a world where all girls, no matter where they live, have the opportunity to become educated, healthy, safe, counted and positioned to be the next generation of leaders.


Women for Women International

Women for Women International  is a nonprofit humanitarian organization that provides practical and moral support to women survivors of war. It helps them rebuild their lives after war’s devastation through a year-long tiered program that begins with direct financial aid and emotional counseling and includes life skills (e.g., literacy, numeracy) training if necessary, rights awareness education, health education, job skills training and small business development. The organization was co-founded in 1993 by Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi-American who is herself a survivor of the Iran-Iraq War and Salbi’s then-husband Amjad Atallah. They were motivated to act after learning of the plight of women in rape camps during the Yugoslav Wars and the slow response of the international community.


National Partnership for Women and Families

Initially the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, The Partnership was formed in 1971, the year I graduated from college. My first job back then was as an executive secretary, in a major trade association and lobbying group, making $6250 a year. On that sum I supported my mother, my brother’s family, and myself. I had no health care or retirement benefits, but compared to my former female classmates, I was “lucky”. And when I had a medical emergency that cost me $600, I simply took a waitressing job at night to pay it off. Unfortunately, I was never able to afford the time or funds to fulfill my own dream of law school. 

When I was hired in 1971, 3 women worked in that Association: another executive secretary and 2 lawyers. When I left in 1973, having been promoted to a full executive but not making a penny more, I was the only woman remaining.

The National Partnership goal is to create a society that is free, fair and just; where nobody has to experience discrimination, all workplaces are family friendly, and no family is without quality, affordable healthcare and real economic security.


American Association of University Women

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) empowers women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research. The nonpartisan, nonprofit organization has more than 150,000 members and supporters across the United States, as well as 1,000 local branches and 700 college and university partners. Since AAUW’s founding in 1881, members have examined and taken positions on the fundamental issues of the day — educational, social, economic, and political.

AAUW is a favorite, because of the depth and leadership it brings to vital, sometimes emerging issues. It also recruits young women for leadership training and internships in various organizations: Congress, non-profits, advocacy, etc.



For more than 60 years, SERRV has worked to eradicate poverty through their direct connections with low-income artisans and farmers. They market their crafts and foods, find joint solutions to their challenges, and help them grow and embrace the future. One of the first alternative trade organizations in the world, SERRV is a founding member of the World Fair Trade Organization (formerly IFAT) and a founding member of the Fair Trade Federation (FTF). 

SERRV strives to enrich lives around the world and to inspire real change for the better. Their work encompasses more than just buying and selling. They offer
prepayments so partners can sustain their business. They create new designs so
they can build their markets, teach new skills so they can develop their craft, and 
provide grants so they can expand their resources. 

SERRV supports equal rights for women, guides to sustainable development, and of course, fair wages.


Habitat for Humanity

I was blessed with the resources to always provide a decent, safe, and loving home for my extended and immediate family. It is a critical element of nourishing our children and their futures. Yet, nearly 2 billion people around the world live in slum housing and over 100 million are homeless. In the U.S., Habitat for Humanity lends no-profit, no-interest mortgage loans to its beneficiary families. Habitat for Humanity is a non-profit, ecumenical Christian ministry founded on the same principles and convictions as mine. They build with and for people in the U.S. and around the world, regardless of race or religion.


DC’s Children’s Law Center

The Children’s Law Center in DC is one of hundreds of such organizations across America. They work to give every child a solid foundation of family, health and education. They challenge bureaucracies to get children’s basic needs met, and they train and mentor lawyers from the most prestigious law firms to serve as pro bono attorneys for vulnerable children. Believing that a healthy mind and body are critical to children’s success, in DC they have partnered with the Children’s National Medical Center to work with doctors to ensure safe and sound access to the often complex health care needed for children and their families. And the Children’s Law Center directly represents children in foster care and represents foster parents and relatives seeking to give foster children safe and stable families.


National Museum of American Jewish History

When I was a child, I attended 2 hours of Hebrew school each day after public school, and Sundays. I remember little. But the principal, who had made an amazing on-foot and across Europe escape from the Nazis and cherished being an American, told us of American Jewish heroes in every field - academia, science, medicine, business, military, and sports. To this day, when I visit my father’s and my brother’s graves, I always stop at Louis Wolf’s, to whom I and so many of the other children owe a debt for his love and inspiration.

Affiliated with the Smithsonian, this is the only museum dedicated to the history of Jewish contributions to America. It is situated within the Independence National Mall Historic Park in Philadelphia, and just for its brilliance and depth, is one of my proudest efforts. When founded in 1976 it shared space with a congregation. In 2005, it moved to new building that opened in 2007. The 100,000-square-foot glass and terra-cotta building includes an atrium, a 25,000 square feet area for exhibits, a Center for Jewish Education, and a theater. The project, including endowment, cost $150 million.

The museum’s collection includes over 20,000 objects and ranges from the Colonial period to the present day. This year they held a special exhibit that featured one of the most important documents pertaining to religious freedom in the United States. The letter was written in 1790 to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, addressing our new country’s religious freedom. The letter expressed our new government’s commitment for religious freedom and equality for all faiths. The exhibition included timeless artifacts as well as early printings of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Due to my failing health, I kept abreast by phone & email of the planning, building and eventual opening. And then Gwen and I visited the museum a few months ago and were amazed. Pushing my wheelchair, it took Gwen and me over 4 hours to look at one of the 4 floors. Everything about it was exciting, wonderfully laid out and very thoroughly described. The photos and artifacts were incredible. The layout felt similar to the Guggenheim, and we both wished we had budgeted more time. I knew for sure that I had made a good investment when I watched a large number of African American and non-Jewish children from the U.S. and elsewhere, entering, and looking quite awed.


National Museum of Women in the Arts

Art is very much a family thing for us, men included. Gwen originally went to college as an art student and my homes have been full of her paintings, photography, drawings and pottery. My niece Lisa is a Parsons graduate and was recently named one of the country’s top 20 interior designers. 51 percent  of visual artists today are women. But, only 5 % of the art currently on display in U.S. museums is made by women. Only 27 women are represented in the current edition of H.W. Janson’s survey, History of Art—up from zero in the 1980s. Though women earn more than 1/2 of the MFAs granted in the US, only 1/3 of gallery representation is women. And, less than 3% of the artists in the Modern Art section of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, but 83% of the nudes are female.


National Women’s History Museum

The Museum researches, collects and exhibits the contributions of women to the social, cultural, economic and political life of our nation in a context of world history. The museum uses permanent and online exhibits, educational programs, and outreach efforts to communicate the breadth of women’s experiences and accomplishments to the widest possible audience. Sharing this knowledge may illuminate and encourage women and men, people of all classes, races and cultures to move into the future with respect, equal confidence, greater partnership, and opportunity.


United Nations Association of the United States of America

The United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA) is a membership organization dedicated to inform, inspire, and mobilize the American people to support the ideals and vital work of the United Nations. For 70 years UNA-USA has worked to accomplish its mission through its national network of Chapters, youth engagement, advocacy efforts, education programs, and public events. UNA-USA is a program of the United Nations Foundation. UNA-USA and its sister organization the Better World Campaign represent the single largest network of advocates and supporters of the United Nations in the world.

I am an NGO (nongovernmental official) serving the UN and UNA as a liaison for the AAUW and the US League of women Voters.


National African-American History and Culture Museum

Some 41 years ago, I met a middle-aged man with a love of African art. He lived in a rowhouse on the Senate side of the Hill and one day I asked to see his collection. I was astounded. I was a poor Jewish kid from Scranton, Pa. The walls and tables were filled with exquisite paintings, sculptures, jewelry etc., most of them quite tribal. Eventually he donated that collection to the Smithsonian.

Forward a few years. I was contacted by Rachel Roberts, an NPR reporter and daughter of Cokie and Steve, niece of my children’s godmother Barbara Sigmund, and granddaughter of my former boss Lindy Boggs, about a new museum to be headed by Lonnie Bunch, a fellow alum of my alma mater, American University. The National Museum of African American History and Culture will be a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience, what it means to their lives and how it helped us shape this nation. It’s a place that transcends the boundaries of race and culture that divide us, and becomes a lens into a story that unites us all.


Wounded Warrior Project

This is a veterans organization started by a fellow veteran in 2003 to raise awareness and enlist the public’s aid for the needs of injured service members, to help injured service members aid and assist each other, and to provide unique, direct programs and services to meet their needs: healthcare for their physical injuries, mental health care, job retraining, mortgage assistance, etc.  Recently the group’s efforts expanded to include the wives and especially the children.


Starlight Children’s Foundation

For nearly 30 years, Starlight Children’s Foundation has been dedicated to improving the quality of life for children around the globe with chronic and life-threatening illnesses and life-altering injuries by providing entertainment, education and family activities that help them cope with the pain, fear and isolation of prolonged illness. Unlike any other charity, Starlight offers a comprehensive menu of outpatient, hospital-based and Web offerings that enable them to provide ongoing support for children and families - from diagnosis through the entire course of medical treatment.

Many of these children are so sick and frail they can’t go the hospital play center. Gwen used her Bat Mitzvah in 1999 to raise funds for a rolling computer for the bedsides of such children at Overlook Hospital in Summit, NJ. This machine brings entertainment technology that helps fill hours in hospitals or treatment centers with therapeutic fun; find distraction during long and painful medical procedures; access Starlight’s online educational programs and communities; and to stay connected with the outside world so they can keep up with school work.


Shriners Hospitals for Children

This was one of my father’s favorites, and I was honored to continue in his footsteps. My father was a Shriner member, as was my brother, and for the big Thanksgiving football game, he would stand outside the stadium doors with a cigar box asking for donations. People who gave him large bills were stunned when he refused to give anything back. He put it in the box, said thanks with a smile, and moved on.

With great compassion, Shriner’s Hospital continues to provide the highest quality care to children with neuromusculoskeletal conditions, burn injuries, and other special healthcare needs. They counsel families, feed the hungry, assist the elderly and protect the vulnerable, without regard to race, color, creed, sex or sect, disability, national origin, or ability of a patient or family to pay.  The hospital in St. Louis is ranked #8 in the nation.


National Jewish Health

This hospital began serving tuberculosis patients in 1899 when the disease was called “consumption”, and many came to Denver for what they thought were the benefits of the climate on respiratory ailments. At that time, no hospital in Denver would take these penniless patients, and many just lived and died on the streets.

The founder, Frances Wisehart Jacobs, the “Mother of Charities”, and known in the 1800’s for her benevolent work in Denver, often stopped to offer food and medical help. She realized that the homeless consumptives needed more help than she could provide, so she set out to raise funds to open a new hospital to treat them. She found support from the Jewish community, which in 1889, agreed to plan, fund and build a nonsectarian hospital for the treatment of respiratory diseases. The hospital was completed in 1893, a year after Jacobs died. The first patient, from Minnesota, checked in under the hospital’s official motto: “None may enter who can pay – none can pay who enter”

Today, National Jewish has expanded to include many respiratory, immunological and related disorders. And today, it is rated the number one respiratory hospital in the country.