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August 31, 2015 / 16 Elul, 5775
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Gambling Chicago Reform Rabbi Loses Pulpit

His explanation came in the form of a good bye letter saying it was "time to retire."
Reform Rabbi Michael Sternfield officiating at the wedding of Karyn and Brian, in July of 2011, and, as a congregation member put it in her blogpost: "blending Catholicism and Judaism." Sternfield blended a gambling addiction with a devotion to promoting intermarriage.

Reform Rabbi Michael Sternfield officiating at the wedding of Karyn and Brian, in July of 2011, and, as a congregation member put it in her blogpost: "blending Catholicism and Judaism." Sternfield blended a gambling addiction with a devotion to promoting intermarriage.
Photo Credit: Metropolitan Imageworks

Back in 2011, Reform Rabbi Michael Sternfield, spiritual leader of Chicago’s Sinai congregation, was charged with trespassing and identity deception at an Indiana casino, after scoring a video poker royal flush and $10,000 jackpot, the Chicago Tribune reports. But soon after the bells started ringing and the lights flashing, it turned out that Sternfield was a persona non grata at the casino.

In fact, six years earlier, Sternfield himself had asked to be banished from the casino because of a longtime but secret gambling problem.

According to the Tribune, the incident—prominent rabbi kicked out of casino—coupled with Sternfield’s denial after leaders of his Chicago Sinai Congregation asked about it, resulted in said leaders insisting that he resign quietly a month ago, without the benefit of explaining himself to the congregation.

Apparently, his explanation came in the form of a good bye letter saying it was “time to retire.”

“The bottom line is my heart wasn’t in it any more,” Sternfield told the Tribune back in August, adding that he has begun to question the value of organized religion in recent years.

On the eve of the high holiday? seriously?

Temple President Michael Mannis said Sternfield’s resignation was a big loss for Chicago Sinai, but refused to discuss this “confidential matter,” says the Tribune. But rank and file folks would not buy any of it.

Back in August, the same Michael Mannis told the Tribune: “The method of saying farewell is being decided. We’ll have a way to accomplish that. We’d like to work together to make it meaningful for all.”

Departure is such a crapshoot, isn’t it?

“No one retires right before the High Holy Days,” Rick Fizdale, 74, told the Tribune, “I found that excuse absurd.” Then he added with the hint of a threat: “We feel slightly less of a gravitational pull toward the synagogue because he’s not there.”

Do you really dump your rabbi—of 20 years—because he’s had a relapse? Public life is nasty, brutish and short over at the Reform rabbinate…

Sternfield’s life of service has been colorful, to say the least. In 1993, Sternfield confessed to a brief affair with a younger rabbi while serving at a prominent synagogue in San Diego. he told the LA Times: “I am here to confess to the worst sin I ever committed in my life. This, for me, is Yom Kippur.”

The Central Conference of American Rabbis temporarily suspended Sternfield from working in the U.S., so in 1994 he was hired by a Reform congregation in Durban, South Africa. And there, in Durban, is where he picked up the gambling habit, he told the Tribune.

The Tribune also reports that Sternfield was a champion of interfaith weddings, and—possibly as a result—the Sinai congregation in Chicago grew from 200 to 900 members under his leadership. No idea how many of them are Jewish. They also moved from the Hyde Park neighborhood to a new spot on the Near North Side. And Sinai was a pioneer of Sunday worship services, catering to such celebrities as the late Sears, Roebuck president Julius Rosenwald and former Illinois Gov. Henry Horner.

The synagogue website lists David Levinsky, an Associate Rabbi, as the current spiritual leader. He has a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Stanford University, and used to work as the director of the Interfaith Program at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

The torch has been passed.

About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.

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18 Responses to “Gambling Chicago Reform Rabbi Loses Pulpit”

  1. Interfaith marriage, the worst mistake ever.

  2. Interfaith marriage, the worst mistake ever.

  3. Shemayah Shiloh Phillips says:

    Interfaith marriage, the worst mistake ever.

  4. The tone of this article clearly does not reflect the Jewish tradition of compassion and that the synagogue is a "House of Worship for All People." Shame.

  5. This guy is a real piece of work. Did you know that he actually opposes circumcision?! I have had personal experiences with this guy and he makes my skin crawl!

  6. Shimmy Atlas says:

    Gambling should be his worst transgression….

  7. David Blatt says:

    Harry Maryles- It was a terrible tragedy for Rabbi Sternfeld, his Bait Knesset, and Chicago Jewry. We should not rejoice over this. The Tribune should not have ran a story on his downfall.

  8. Shi Yuehan says:

    Marriage usually is a gamble.

  9. The man (and I use that term loosely) is an adulterer; is pro intermarriage; and anti circumcision. If there was ever anyone who over whom we should be happy about losing his influence over any Jew… it is this fellow. I have had personal experience with this guy. Trust me – it wasn't pretty. I could not be happier about this turn of events. But I do not rejoice. In fact I hope he does Teshuva. But until he does, he is a Rasha, an Apikores and a Mesis.

  10. @Shemayah Shiloh Phillips You don’t know what you’re talking about. Open your mind. I’ve been married outside the faith for almost 13 years and our marriage is going strong.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Most of the people posting on here sound like the jewish inquististion. Rabbi Sternfiled has been a compansionate leader and a thoughtful teacher to the Sinai community. My family has benefited from his time as our Rabbi. All I know in my 57 years of life, that if you can get through your time on earth, were nothing bad happens to you or someone you love at, you are very lucky.

  12. David Blatt says:

    Harry you are so wrong.

  13. David Blatt says:

    Harry you are so wrong.

  14. David Blatt says:

    Harry you are so wrong.

  15. DavidBlatt says:

    Dan Gershenson -I pray Rabbi Sternfield will get through this bad time

  16. Audrey Prins says:

    This rabbi does not deserve lashon hara, gossip and slander. He faced a personal difficulty and was trying to help himself. He deserves his community's support, sympathy, empathy, need for privacy. He deserves our gratitude and respect for his years of service and commitment to the Jewish community.

  17. Their is a place where Teshuva happens. The place is called Beit T'Shuvah, the house of return, a non-profit Jewish Treatment Center in Los Angeles. My soul was saved by this place and I was able to recover from gambling and drug addictions. I am a fellow Chicagoan and my family are members of Sinai. We are all redeemable. I pray that Rabbi Sternfeld finds his way to Teshuva or joins us in recovery at Beit T'Shuvah. "And whosoever preserves a single soul merits to him as though he had preserved a complete world"

  18. CRochelG says:

    It’s amazing. I just learned these two points today
    and they add clarity to our dilemma.
    earnestly ask of my esteemed listeners not to cast aside my words, in which I
    have asked that every man be upright and walk with integrity, just as* “G‑d made man upright”; nor to seek* 
    “numerous calculations” regarding** “the pretexts of man’s steps and a
    person’s thoughts and devices.” Tanya Iggeret HaKodesh, end of Epistle 22
    –From * Kohelet 7:29 and **Mussaf
    prayer of Rosh HaShanah; Machzor for Rosh HaShanah [Kehot, N.Y., 1983;
    bi-lingual edition], p. 135.
    It is not a man’s task to
    weigh the motives of his fellow. For that is the work of heaven and not an
    occupation for flesh and blood.
    Not weighing another’s
    motives does not mean anything goes. And it doesn’t ask us to remain “non-judgmental
    and mute.” A Jew is required to take Torah to heart, mind, and soul and to help
    his fellow do the same. We are also asked to continuously improve our spiritual
    The Lubavitcher Rebbe tells
    us regarding our roles and the role of a leader is that each person has his or
    her role in life based upon how he or she came to this world. For example, the
    essence of a Japanese person is to be a Japanese person. The essence of an
    African American person is to be the best African American person that he or she
    can be.
    “The essence of a Jew is
    tied to G-d Almighty through Torah and Mitzvos.” What Torah and what mitzvos?
    Jews are tied to Hashem through the Torah and mitzvos exactly as they were
    given to Moshe Rebbeinu by Hashem. Three examples of Torah and mitzvos; 1)
    Every Jewish father is obligated to make sure his son has a bris. 2) No Jewish
    person is allowed to commit adultery. 3) A Jew cannot marry a non-Jew. It is
    not about love and happiness. Jews marrying Jews is not just a long-time
    tradition. Jews marrying Jews is a Torah law. “You shall not marry them (the
    gentiles, about which the Bible speaks in the previous verses), you shall not
    give your daughter to their son and you shall not take his daughter for your
    son.” (Deut. 7:3)
    we cannot weigh the motives of our fellow, we can make sure those who influence
    and lead us and other Jews are Torah observant Jews. If not, who are we?

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