Just make sure you take the time to read this story.
This 2,000-word piece by Chicago Tribune religion writer Manya Brachear exemplifies the absolute best of Godbeat journalism. It combines solid reporting, vivid writing, relevant context, excellent sourcing and real-life human drama, all produced by a seasoned professional who obviously gets religion — Judaism in this case.
Brachear goes behind the scenes of a rabbi’s gambling addiction and loss of his pulpit, telling a story that breaks news even for some within the clergyman’s own congregation.
A big chunk of the top of the story:
Rabbi Michael Sternfield had just started pushing buttons at an Indiana casino on a June day in 2011 when he watched the icons flash across the screen: ace, king, queen, jack and 10, all of the same suit.
Bells rang, lights flashed and casino staff descended upon the spiritual leader of one of Chicago’s most prominent Reform synagogues to congratulate him on his video poker royal flush and $10,000 jackpot.
But the big payoff proved to be unlucky. Sternfield, who six years earlier had asked to be banished from the casino because of a longtime but secret gambling problem, was charged with trespassing and identity deception. He said the incident and his initial denial when leaders of Chicago Sinai Congregation asked about it led them to demand that he quietly resign last month rather than explain himself to his congregation.
“If I’ve learned anything from these years of struggling, I’ve learned how terribly painful addictions of all kinds are and how incredibly difficult many are to get rid of,” Sternfield said in a recent interview with the Tribune. “This is a chapter of my life that I regret so very deeply and which is painful for those close to me.”
Temple President Michael Mannis called Sternfield’s departure a big loss for Chicago Sinai but otherwise declined to discuss what he called a confidential matter.
But Sternfield’s abrupt exit after nearly two decades at Chicago Sinai, and an explanation in a letter that it was simply time to retire, left some in the congregation suspicious, particularly because it happened just a month before the busy Jewish season of repentance that includes Rosh Hashana and the just-ended Yom Kippur.
“No one retires right before the High Holy Days. I found that excuse absurd,” said Rick Fizdale, 74, who has been part of the congregation for decades. “We feel slightly less of a gravitational pull toward the synagogue because he’s not there.”
Keep reading, and the Tribune writer paints a complicated portrait of the dismissed rabbi — a fragile human with faith and foibles.
This unbiased account portrays Sternfield neither as all-saint or all-sinner, instead letting the facts speak for themselves, such as this important background: