Stern’s family moved to the United States and settled in San Francisco when he was one year old. His mother, a professional singer, gave him his first music lessons. He began studying the violin at the San Francisco Conservatory in 1928. In 1932 he became the third immensely talented San Francisco-area boy to train with the San Francisco Symphony concertmaster Louis Persinger (the others were Menuhin and Ruggiero Ricci). However, he considered Naoum Blinder, with whom he studied until the age of 15, his only true teacher. Stern made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony on February 18, 1936, with Pierre Monteux conducting the Third Concerto by Saint-Saëns.
However, Stern was to become as famous internationally for his contribution to public causes as he was for his concert performances and recordings. His social contributions took many forms: his most noted involvement as a cultural activist was his pivotal role in the 1960 salvation of Carnegie Hall, then facing demolition. Elected president of the Carnegie Hall Corporation, he guided the affairs of the edifice he called “our country’s affirmation of the human spirit” (Stern and Potok, p. 141) until the end of his life. He was chairman of the board of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation and founder and chairman of the Jerusalem Music Center, and in the United States he campaigned for and became a founding member of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1964. In 1975 he received the first Albert Schweitzer Award for “a life’s work dedicated to music and devoted to humanity” and two years later was made a member of the French Légion d’Honneur.