Jackpot! Godbeat pro shows her winning hand

Jackpot! Godbeat pro shows her winning hand September 19, 2013

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:

To better understand events that led to his gambling problem and departure from the pulpit at Chicago Sinai, it helps to revisit what happened after his exit from another. In spring 1993, Sternfield confessed to a brief affair with a younger rabbi while at a prominent synagogue in San Diego.

“I am here to confess to the worst sin I ever committed in my life,” Sternfield told the congregation at a board meeting, according to a news story at the time in the Los Angeles Times. “This, for me, is Yom Kippur,” the Jewish Day of Atonement.

With the congregation divided over whether it should fire him, Sternfield tendered his resignation, according to the Times. After an ethics investigation, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents about 1,600 rabbis in North America, temporarily suspended him from working in the U.S.

“They did the responsible thing,” Sternfield told the Tribune. “They wanted to make sure before I served another congregation I had worked through personal issues. … The best opportunity I had was to serve a foreign congregation.”

I’d love to know the inside story of how this piece came together. It’s obvious that the congregation’s leaders did not want the story told. And the Tribune notes near the end of the story that Sternfield himself set the record straight “only when approached by the Tribune.”

It could be that a lay member contacted Brachear and asked her to investigate the circumstances. Or it could be that Brachear herself found the departure — and the stated reason for it — perplexing and decided to do a little digging.

Whatever the case, this story delivers the journalistic goods, reaching a crescendo at the end:

Rabbis often spend the entire year preparing their sermons for Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

“For 44 years, I’ve conducted High Holy Day services delivering sermons that would be meaningful and would inspire and motivate,” Sternfield said. “That was always my objective. For the first time, I didn’t have to worry about the public presentation. I had to focus on my inner life and my relationships with people most important to me.”

On Saturday, Sinai’s turnout for Yom Kippur services soared, as usual. Congregants sat inside the synagogue’s sanctuary as well as at nearby Fourth Presbyterian Church, reciting prayers and confessions as a community — a ritual intended to signify each Jew’s responsibility for one another.

Sternfield spent the day in his high-rise condominium fasting and praying alone.

I’ll resist the urge to copy and paste the entire story and instead suggest again that you read it — all of it.

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