Jackpot! Godbeat pro shows her winning hand

If you’re in a hurry, there’s no need to finish the rest of this post.

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:

[Read more...]

Australian Anglican Indulgences

An Australian bishop’s veto of a gaming industry proposal to donate funds to a church social service agency to hire additional gambling addiction counselors has been met with incredulity by the Sunday Telegraph.

In a story entitled “Unholy fight over gaming as Bishop refuses money from clubs” the Sydney-based newspaper’s editorial voice spoils an otherwise interesting story. It does not appear to comprehend that the Anglican Bishop of Armidale Rick Lewers is taking a moral stand that the gaming industry cannot buy redemption.

This is not a bad article in that there is an attempt to present both sides of the story. We do hear from the bishop and the casinos — but the context is missing and the story framed so as to paint the bishop as a prig. The article begins:

A BISHOP has refused thousands of dollars from clubs to pay for more counsellors to help problem gamblers.

Clubs around Tamworth and Armidale, in the state’s north, want the local Anglicare counselling service to put on extra staff as demand grows across the region. After nearly two years of talks, the clubs have agreed to give a percentage of their takings – up to $30,000 a year – in return for access to additional counsellors. However, the talks unravelled last week after the Anglican Bishop of Armidale, Rick Lewers, canned the idea as he felt it would compromise his ability to speak out about gambling.

Instead, Bishop Lewers wants gamblers to consider joining their local church to socialise instead of spending hours “pouring pension money” into poker machines.

The construction of the lede determines the trajectory of the article. Proposition A holds that clubs, private gaming establishments, have created a need for gambling addiction counseling services. Proposition B is that these counseling services are provided by Anglicare– a church-run social services agency.

Fact A is the news that the casinos and Anglicare have been in talks about providing addiction counseling services and that the casinos would donate “up to $30,000 a year”. Fact B is the bishop’s refusal to take the funds. Fact C is the explanation that the Bishop believes he would be compromised by taking casino money.

Assertion A by the Telegraph is that the bishop does not want to help gamblers and B is that he wants to steer them away from casinos so that they may join “their local church to socialize”.

Standing in back all of this are the assumptions that the casino industry can atone for its sins by giving money to the church — Australian Anglican indulgences — and that the church should be a good sport and take the cash. The implications of the construction of the lede are that the bishop is opposed to a good deed because of petty concerns about pumping up church attendance — perhaps pulling in the punters to the church hall for bingo rather than have them use the slot machine at the casino.

The Telegraph does give the bishop three paragraphs to explain his position — that gambling is a social evil; the church’s social service agency will help anyone with a gambling addiction problem; the church would welcome the opportunity to minister to those with gambling problems on casino grounds; taking money from the casinos — who facilitate the addiction — in order for the church to help them break the gambling addiction is morally compromising. Well and good.

The article then moves to comments from the casino industry criticizing the bishop’s moral qualms. It then closes with a jab from a casino executive that seeks to puncture what he believes to be the bishop’s moral pomposity.

[Read more...]


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