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September 26, 2016 / 23 Elul, 5776
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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.

Yori Yanover

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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