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."
For the first time in his 44 years as a rabbi, Sternfield said he spent the High Holy Days alone in his home, praying, reflecting and wondering what he will do next.
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."
Separated from his soon-to-be-ex-wife, he took a job in 1994 leading a synagogue in Durban, South Africa, on the brink of that nation's historic election of Nelson Mandela as president.
But the shame of what he had done, the exile from family and friends and the question of whether he would ever return to the U.S. left him feeling lonely and isolated, he said. In search of an escape, he wandered into a Durban casino and planted himself in front of a video poker machine. He developed a habit of returning a few times a week.
Later that year, Sternfield said he got a call from an old acquaintance who was then-Gov. Pete Wilson's chief of staff, offering him a political appointment. Sternfield returned to California as the chief deputy director of the state's conservation corps, an agency dedicated to developing youth skills and protecting the environment.
He also reconnected with a cantor named Deborah Bard, whom he had auditioned and hired at the San Diego temple. They fell in love and got married. By then the rabbinical suspension had been lifted and he had landed a position at Chicago Sinai, a bastion of American Reform Judaism since the mid-19th century.
He joined a long line of esteemed spiritual leaders there, including Rabbi Emil Hirsch, a towering figure in the Reform movement. Two prominent figures in Chicago history, Sears, Roebuck & Co. President Julius Rosenwald and former Illinois Gov. Henry Horner, sat in Sinai's pews.
Sternfield carried on the classical Reform tradition but also distinguished himself as an innovator, arriving shortly after the synagogue moved from the Hyde Park neighborhood to its current location, at Delaware Place and State Street, on the Near North Side.
He led the development of the Sinai edition of the Union Prayer Book, the standard Reform Jewish prayer book, which has been adopted by other Reform congregations. In addition, he became an outspoken supporter of and officiant for interfaith weddings. The congregation grew from 200 to 900 members under his leadership. Some members made a point of attending Friday night worship services just to hear what he had to say.
"He had a way of expressing, particularly in sermons, a very modern approach to day-to-day life," said Carolyn Neuman, 52, a member since 1998. At an interfaith service after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, "nothing put me at peace more than hearing Michael's words."
But not long after he arrived in Chicago, Sternfield discovered the riverboat casinos within easy driving distance. Again drawn to video poker, he returned frequently, sometimes playing for hours at a time. Every year, he asked the casinos to provide financial reports for tax purposes. Every year, he saw his losses far exceed his wins.
"I never looked at it as a social activity," he said. "I could sit there for 8 to 10 hours just pushing the buttons. I didn't want anything to drink. I didn't want to eat anything. Somebody would sit down next to me, and I'd get upset," because they were encroaching on his emotional bubble.
By 2005, Sternfield said even though he didn't like what he was doing, he couldn't stop it. And so he sought therapy. He wrote a letter to casinos in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, asking them to bar him from their premises and placed himself on statewide self-eviction lists in Indiana and Illinois.
"With this letter, I am permanently self-excluding from your casino," Sternfield wrote to Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City in May 2005. "Please do not me permit (sic) to engage in any activities in your facility. … I realize that this request is irrevocable."
Two days later he signed a "self-eviction request" acknowledging that if he entered the Blue Chip property, he could be arrested and charged with trespassing.
Shortly after sending letters to the casinos, he was indeed arrested, he said. Playing the machines at a Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, he won $1,200. When he told the staff his name, they denied him the money and police took him into custody. But the casino didn't press charges, he said.
Six years later, at the Blue Chip Casino, came the $10,000 jackpot. As the staff congratulated him on his apparent good luck, they also asked for his name. There were too many cameras for him to walk away, he said.
"I simply panicked," Sternfield said. "I made a serious and very unwise decision on the spur of the moment. I made up a fictitious name."
Court documents allege that Sternfield also presented a bank card with the name Michael Fainstein, but Sternfield insists that he only scribbled an imaginary name and the staff took him at his word, "which I, of course, very much regret."
Blue Chip Casino chose to press charges of trespassing and identity deception. Sternfield hired a lawyer, who advised the rabbi to turn himself in, he said. He drove to the courthouse in Michigan City, Ind., where his mug shot was taken. Sternfield met criteria established by prosecutors to get his charges dismissed in January of this year. What remained of the $10,000 prize after taxes covered his legal fees.
Shortly thereafter, Sternfield said, someone in the Chicago Sinai congregation spotted the mug shot posted on a website called justmugshots.com. When a temple leader first confronted Sternfield about the photo, he said, he made up a story involving an altercation.
He logged onto the site and paid its asking price of $199.99 to have the photo removed.
After more temple leaders came to him less than a week later, he said, he eventually told them the whole story.
"This is the nature of addiction. You can't admit out loud that you have this problem," he said. "It was unbearable for me to admit."
Within a few months, he said, the temple's executive committee told Sternfield he was leaving. He insists that the reasons for his dismissal didn't extend beyond gambling and his dishonesty about it. He said he offered several drafts of a resignation letter, one of them explaining his addiction to the congregation.
"I had that letter ready to go," he said, "and I was not permitted to send it."
Some members of the congregation say they would like to have heard a more candid explanation.
"I think he should've been given an opportunity to tell his story about what happened and allow the congregation to decide what they wanted," said Crystal Van Der Linden, 32, when the Tribune told her Sternfield's explanation of what had occurred. "We were not given a choice. Still there are so many people that just don't know. There are just wretched rumors."
Neuman said if anyone could deliver a graceful public confession, it's Sternfield.
"Knowing Michael, it would have been great sermon material to be out with it," she said.
Rabbi Michael Balinsky, an Orthodox rabbi who serves as the executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, said knowing where to draw the line when a spiritual leader goes astray can be a complex decision for a congregation to make.
"The question is, 'Are there certain red lines that people accept about the humanity of clergy and other cases where it becomes more problematic?'" he said, adding that he had no knowledge of the situation at Chicago Sinai.
Mannis, the temple president, said many congregants feel a profound sense of loss after Sternfield's departure, since Sternfield is the only rabbi many of them have ever known.
"I've had questions and discussions on where we've been and where we're going from here," he said. "From the very beginning our aim at Sinai has been to respect Rabbi Sternfield. He helped a lot of others in a lot of ways."
Sternfield said setting the record straight, which he did only when approached by the Tribune, heightened his High Holy Days experience. 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.
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