Rabbi struggles with gambling addiction, loss of pulpit

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."