Without personally saying goodbye, the longtime leader of one of Chicago’s most prominent Reform Jewish synagogues has stepped down, abruptly announcing his retirement in a letter to the congregation that was mailed the day after he quit.
Rabbi Michael Sternfield, 67, who has led Chicago Sinai Congregation on the Near North Side since 1995, told the Tribune that the retirement plans came after several months of quiet conversation with the synagogue's board of trustees.
“The bottom line is my heart wasn’t in it any more,” Sternfield told the Tribune, adding that he has begun to question the value of organized religion in recent years.
But the manner and timing of his departure, just one month before the Jewish High Holy Days, was not his decision, he said. Though he said he’s open to saying goodbye to the congregation in person, he doesn’t know what the board has in mind. Instead, members received letters from Sternfield and the temple president in the mail.
“The method of saying farewell is being decided,” said temple president Michael Mannis. “We’ll have a way to accomplish that. We’d like to work together to make it meaningful for all.”
Since its foundation in the mid-19th Century, Sinai has been a cornerstone of American Reform Judaism. Its spiritual leaders have included Rabbi Emil Hirsch, a towering figure in the Reform movement. The late Sears, Roebuck and Co. President Julius Rosenwald and former Illinois Gov. Henry Horner sat in its pews.
As Reform Judaism sought its place in the American religious landscape, Sinai became a pioneer of Sunday worship services. To this day, the synagogue still offers occasional family services on Sundays.
Sternfield also distinguished himself as an innovator, arriving shortly after the synagogue moved from the Hyde Park neighborhood to its current location on the corner of Delaware and State streets.
The congregation grew from 200 to 900 members under his leadership, Mannis said. Sternfield led the development of the Sinai edition of the Union Prayer Book, which has been adopted by other Reform congregations. He also developed a year-round partnership with nearby Fourth Presbyterian Church, and became an outspoken supporter and officiant for interfaith marriages.
Without the day-to-day role of running a temple, Sternfield said he hopes to do more interfaith work. Over the years people have asked him how he could stand by organized religion when it's responsible for so much hostility, he said.
“I could tap dance around that all I want but that doesn't answer the question,” he said. “I want to be someone who knocks down barriers. It doesn't make me any less loyal to my Jewish faith or less positive about my Jewish identity.”
Before coming to Chicago Sternfield served as the rabbi of the Durban Progressive Jewish Congregation during South Africa’s transition from apartheid to an integrated democracy, and he also was senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego.
He resigned from the San Diego position after admitting to an extramarital affair with a colleague eight years earlier.
Mannis said Sternfield’s sudden departure is “nothing like that.” In fact, Sternfield said he will stay in Chicago, where his wife, Cantor Deborah Bard, sings at Temple Anshe Sholom in Olympia Fields and KAM Isaiah Israel in Hyde Park.
“He’s led us in a thoughtful, reflective, spiritual and engaged manner for 18 years,” said Mannis, who would not provide reasons for Sternfield's sudden exit. “We wish him well.”
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