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JewishJournal.com

June 6, 2012

The Curious Case of Rabbi Alan Abrams

http://www.jewishjournal.com/cover_story/article/the_curious_case_of_rabbi_alan_abrams_20120606

Rabbi Alan Abrams in July 2009.  Photo courtesy of The Rabbinical Seminary International

Rabbi Alan Abrams in July 2009. Photo courtesy of The Rabbinical Seminary International

Before Elener Jacobs was hospitalized in mid-2011, she was, for a 95-year-old, relatively active. She lived at the Royal Bellingham, an assisted-living residence in Valley Village, and though she didn’t talk to many of the other residents and occasionally lashed out at members of the staff, Jacobs got along well with Lori McKay, the facility’s administrator.

“She liked to go shopping,” McKay said of Jacobs, who would ride in her electric wheelchair for a half-mile to get to the nearest supermarket.

After Jacobs’ hospitalization for a matter related to the long-term management of chronic pain, she was transferred to Windsor Terrace, a skilled nursing facility in Van Nuys that provides a higher level of care than Royal Bellingham.

Just over a month ago, Jacobs could be found sitting near the window in her room in a nonmotorized metal wheelchair, and she told a visitor she hadn’t left the building since she had transferred there almost a year earlier. She said she wasn’t even sure she was allowed to leave.

“I didn’t ask, because I have no transportation,” Jacobs, now 96, said.

The last person known to have had possession of her motorized wheelchair was Rabbi Alan Abrams.

A heavyset man with a full head of gray hair and a close-cropped beard, Abrams, 50, has been working as a rabbi-for-hire in and around Los Angeles for the past two years. Those who have worked with him say he can be alternately kind and gruff, but perhaps more than anything, many people agree, Abrams is relentlessly self-promoting.

He peppers his speech and writings with Hebrew words. (Even the “Sent from my iPhone” tag that appears at the bottom of some of his e-mails is bilingual.) On his Web site, he says he “follows halachah [religious Jewish law] as written in the Torah,” but he doesn’t identify with any of Judaism’s major sub-groups. On his blog, he shares some very personal experiences from his own life, but at the same time, some statements he makes don’t, upon study, always match up to other people’s accounts. 

One of those is whether he is, in fact, a bona fide rabbi.

Abrams claims to have received his ordination privately in Jerusalem, which was later “enhanced” by a New York-based distance-learning program that ordains nondenominational rabbis. The head of the New York program, however, said in an interview that Abrams’ rabbinical ordination was revoked because he acquired it fraudulently.

Abrams began to use the title of rabbi in June 2009, when he was living in Phoenix, Ariz. Abrams was not a member of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix, however, and his own congregational rabbi told The Journal he did not consider Abrams’ rabbinic ordination to be valid.

Abrams also is not a member of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, the 75-year-old organization that offers professional development for its 320 member rabbis, but he appears to have been able to create for himself a rabbinic practice that centers on what he calls “mobile chaplaincy,” through which he visits people in a variety of hospitals, assisted living facilities and, in the case of some hospice patients, in their homes throughout greater Los Angeles.

That Abrams is a rabbi — or uses the title — is only part of what makes the story of Elener Jacobs’ missing property so unsettling. Another cause for concern is that in the many small facilities in and around Los Angeles, there are likely any number of elderly and vulnerable Jews like Jacobs.

According to Janet Morris, an attorney who directs the long-term care project at Bet Tzedek, a nonprofit legal services organization, many elderly people are susceptible to financial abuse, including those who live in skilled-nursing and assisted-living facilities.

Administrators of such facilities have a delicate balance to strike.

“They have to prevent bad things from happening to their residents,” Morris said, “but they also have to allow their residents freedom to have visitors.”

Abrams met Jacobs during the four months in 2011 when he worked as the part-time chaplain at Windsor Terrace. He used to come to the facility every Friday afternoon to lead the seniors, including Jacobs, in welcoming the Sabbath.

At that time, Jacobs was not in contact with any member of her own family, and she struck up a friendship with Abrams, enough so that, in August 2011, she asked him to transfer some of her belongings from Royal Bellingham to Windsor Terrace.

On Sept. 13, 2011, as required by Royal Bellingham administrator McKay for release of the property, Jacobs signed a one-page “authorization to release property,” giving Abrams permission to collect her mail, her clothing, her motorized wheelchair and “any and all property being held in ‘safe keeping,’ including cash.”

Days later, Abrams brought the signed paper to McKay, who handed over Jacobs’ various belongings that Royal Bellingham had been storing, including her mail, her clothing and toiletries, her walker, her electric wheelchair, a certificate of ownership of two burial plots and $1,500 in cash.

Around this same time, Jacobs also granted Abrams her power of attorney.

According to McKay and other staff at Royal Bellingham, Abrams also asked multiple times for Jacobs’ Social Security checks, which were among the pieces of mail being held at her former residence. McKay said she refused to give those to Abrams, and instead sent them directly to Jacobs at Windsor Terrace.

The administrator at Windsor Terrace said that any mailed checks were delivered directly to Jacobs.

The release Jacobs signed did not mention what Abrams was to do with her belongings, but of the items that Abrams picked up from Royal Bellingham, only the burial plot certificate was returned to her.
By late 2011, through Abrams, Jacobs had reconnected with her son, Jay Jacobs, a retired agent who had worked at the William Morris Agency and International Creative Management, and who says he has fallen on hard times since the economic collapse.

In April 2012, after both mother and son had spent months trying to get the rabbi to meet with them and return her property, the Jacobs reported the matter to the administrator of Windsor Terrace, who in turn contacted Los Angeles County Adult Protective Services.

Jay Jacobs has alleged that Abrams also took $4,000 worth of Social Security checks belonging to his mother and claims that Abrams, using his power of attorney, withdrew $1,100 from her bank account in March, and then closed it.

Detective Sherri Stanley, the elder-abuse coordinator in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Van Nuys Division, is now involved. “This is an Adult Protective Services investigation,” Stanley said, when asked last week about the case by a reporter. “I have absolutely no evidence at this point that a crime has been committed.”

Who is Rabbi Alan Abrams?

Abrams appears never to have met a social networking platform that he didn’t like.

He describes himself as “The Networking Rabbi,” and, indeed, he maintains a Facebook account, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles, a YouTube video channel and a photostream on Flickr. He has uploaded resumes to at least two different job search Web sites, and he has accounts on the photo-sharing Web site Pinterest and on Plaxo, an online address book network.

Consequently, Abrams’ background is relatively easy to discover, and it is nowhere more overtly spelled out than in the biographical sketch on his Internet Movie Database (IMDb) page.

The three-paragraph essay posted there is attributed to “Anonymous.” It starts with Abrams’ birth, then goes on to list everything from his earliest schooling (Brentwood Elementary) to the details of his meeting his now ex-wife Sheana Abrams (Texas, 1985; they met while Abrams was on vacation) to the years their three children were born (twin boys in 1992, a third son in 1995).

The biography stops in 2007, when Abrams created a golf-themed reality TV show. The pilot episode, the only one produced, aired locally in Phoenix, in January of that year, according to IMDb.

Not included in the biography are Abrams’ many appearances in civil and criminal court over those years. A search through court records in the last three states where Abrams is known to have lived — California, Arizona and Florida — turned up the following results:

— In 1993, Abrams, then 32, was charged with 25 counts of illegally practicing veterinary medicine without a license. Officially, he was running the business side of a clinic in Chatsworth owned by his father, a licensed veterinarian. But according to articles about the case in the Los Angeles Times, clients accused Abrams of representing himself as a veterinarian, and prosecutors charged that he “operated on a cat with cancer, even though the pet’s elderly owners thought that the animal had been put to sleep months before.” Abrams pleaded no contest to four of the charges and was sentenced to serve six months in jail.

— In 1996, Abrams moved with his family to Coral Springs, Fla. Between 1997 and 2003, he was sued in Broward County on at least five different occasions, each time for amounts less than $15,000. At least one of those cases ended in a default judgment against him.

— In 2002, Abrams and his family moved to Phoenix, Ariz. Between 2005 and 2010, Abrams was sued in Maricopa County civil court on at least four separate occasions. In each of those instances, he was named as a defendant along with his then-wife or one or more of the corporate entities he created. Three of those cases ended in transcript judgments against Abrams. The combined awards to the plaintiffs in those cases totaled more than $14,000.

— In March 2007, Abrams was arrested in Tolleson, Ariz., in connection with the theft of $73,000 reported by a group of medical doctors. According to a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Attorney, the case was never prosecuted because there was “no reasonable likelihood of conviction.”

— In 2009, Abrams was charged with 12 misdemeanor counts of issuing bad checks in Maricopa County. According to the complaint drafted on April 13, 2010, by the county attorney’s office’s check enforcement unit, between July 10 and Nov. 22, Abrams allegedly issued or passed 12 separate checks to a variety of vendors, including OfficeMax, Costco and Prestige Cleaners. In May 2010, when a summons could not be delivered to Abrams, a warrant was issued for his arrest. 

When contacted on June 1, Abrams initially refused to answer any questions about these events and directed this reporter to speak only to his attorney. Eventually, though, Abrams offered some explanations of his involvement in some of these cases.

About the 1993 criminal case of illegally practicing veterinary medicine, Abrams said, “I did something to help my dad. It was 20 years ago. It’s over, it’s done with, and there’s nothing to talk about.”

Asked about the five civil cases brought against him during the years he spent in Florida and the four civil cases that were brought against him in Maricopa County, Ariz., Abrams wrote in an e-mail, “People in business are often sued and also sue people and entities. In some people prevail and others people lose.” 


Elener Jacobs, 96, a resident at the Windsor Terrace skilled-nursing facility in Van Nuys, met Abrams, who served as a part-time chaplain there, in 2011.  Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld


Regarding his 2007 arrest in connection with the theft of $73,000 from the doctors, Abrams said, “That was something that was dropped, and there was nothing that was pursued.”

Asked about the 2009 case of bad checks, Abrams wrote in an e-mail to The Jewish Journal that the checks had gone missing from his company’s office and were reported as lost or stolen. “The person who we believe took them disappeared,” he wrote, noting that the checks totaled less than $1,700 and that the county was looking to recover “just under $3,000.”

Since he moved from Phoenix back to his hometown of Los Angeles, Abrams has, thanks at least in part to his skillful use of social media, managed to attract a modest amount of attention.

In August 2010, Abrams caught the eye of this reporter through an entry on his blog. I arranged to meet him. Days before our meeting, however, a letter to the editor arrived from Debra Abrams, Alan’s youngest sister. Alan Abrams, she wrote, had received his ordination through fraudulent means. “Help me to publicize the facts and truths associated with this imposter,” she wrote.

Over lunch that week, Abrams spoke very disparagingly of his sister, accusing her and her then-husband of being anti-Semites. When I asked about his rabbinic credentials, he responded, “I was ordained privately.”

At the time we met, I was not pursuing an article about Abrams, but rather about the claims about other rabbis he had made on his blog; he was a little-known individual in a city full of rabbis. Then, a year later, in October 2011, Abrams approached The Journal saying he literally had been resurrected from the dead. A column published in The Journal described Abrams’ claim, and Abrams reproduced the article on the Web site of the Mobile Rabbinical Chaplaincy Services (MRCS), a nonprofit Abrams established in 2011.

Then, in April 2012, Jay Jacobs contacted The Journal with his mother’s story.

Abrams at that time was preparing to stage a concert on June 20 to benefit MRCS and was seeking publicity for the event. When we spoke in late April, he talked at length about his work as a chaplain for ailing elderly people and of his concern about the isolation of Jewish hospital patients and residents of skilled nursing and assisted living facilities.

“I see so many people that have absolutely no family, and no connection, and no anything, and they’re just waiting to die,” Abrams said, “and it’s sad.”

MRCS, according to its Web site, “provides Rabbinic visits to Jewish patients and residents of Skilled Nursing Facilities, Assisted Living facilities and hospitals, who are mostly unaffiliated and otherwise would have no Judaic connection.” Abrams is the only rabbi mentioned, but MRCS also offers pet therapy via Abrams’ dog, “Samantha [who] loves seniors and is always excited to go to work with her dad, the Rabbi.”

Abrams said he is trying to raise funds for his work so he won’t have to charge fees to facilities that may not have money for even a part-time chaplain in their budgets. Advertisements on the MRCS Web site and Abrams’ frequent posts on his Twitter feed promote the singer Neshama Carlebach as the headliner for the concert.

However, contacted by The Journal, Carlebach said that as of May 31, she hadn’t yet seen a contract or confirmed her appearance.

Abrams, she wrote in an e-mail, “was promoting my presence prematurely.”

When questioned about this, Abrams wrote on June 4 in an e-mail that, “Neshama herself sent the contract.”

But Carlebach, responding to Abrams’ claim by e-mail, wrote that while she did send Abrams a copy of her standard contract that had been prepared by her office, she never signed it. “The issue now was that he [Abrams] didn’t sign/send the updated contract back to us with the deposit (which included cancellation fees as promised).”

“We were waiting for weeks,” Carlebach added.


“He won’t furnish a bill, he keeps breaking appointments”

While there are Jewish community groups — among them Bikur Cholim, an 84-year-old Orthodox-run nonprofit — that actively coordinate volunteers to make visits to patients who are ill, skilled nursing and assisted living facilities need some amount of rabbinic attention but often find it difficult to attract or keep a rabbi coming back.

“I‘ve been to Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, I’ve gone everywhere,” Windsor Terrace administrator Tina Hecht said. Windsor Terrace is Jewish-owned and, according to Hecht, about 25 percent of its residents are Jewish. Abrams, who was being paid a stipend of “a couple hundred a month” to conduct the Friday Shabbat services, stopped working at Windsor Terrace because, according to Hecht, he was so busy with other facilities that he couldn’t make it on time.

“The residents don’t like to wait,” Hecht said, “so we had to find a rabbi who had a little more time.”

Since he stopped coming, Hecht, an Orthodox Jew, has led some Friday services herself. About four months ago, she began paying a Chabad rabbi to welcome the Sabbath with her residents.

In the years Abrams has lived in Los Angeles, he has also had brief stints with two hospice-care providers and has worked for at least one assisted living facility — Windsor Terrace.

Elener Jacobs, who is not religious, met Abrams in 2011, at a time when she had been estranged from her entire family for at least a year.

“I thought he was a nice gentleman,” Jacobs said, recalling their first visits. “He was clean. Well-dressed — I admired that. He spoke very calmly, and, what I thought, he was becoming a friend that I could talk to.”

Sometime in the last three months of 2011, Abrams, at Jacobs’ request, contacted her son, Jay. The mother and son hadn’t spoken in five years.

Jay Jacobs recalled the reconnection in a recent interview: “He wrote me a letter, an e-mail, saying, ‘I’m the rabbi that’s looking after your mother ... and it’s her great desire that you connect with her again, and she wants to have a relationship with you,’ ” he said in late April. “I wrote him back all the reasons why I couldn’t.”

Jay reconsidered, though, and when he reconnected with his mother, he initially had only positive feelings toward Abrams. So much so that, in the beginning of 2012, when Elener informed her son about her missing property, Jay asked Abrams about it. Everything was in a storage unit, Abrams told Jay, but he could not retrieve the belongings because he owed money to the storage company.

“I believed that it cost him $300 for storage,” Jacobs said in April. “I gave him a check for 25 bucks to start to pay him back, because I felt so bad that he laid out this money.”

But then, as the weeks and months went by and Abrams kept rescheduling or delaying his meeting with Jay Jacobs and made no apparent progress in the effort to return his mother’s property, Jay’s attitude began to change.

“It didn’t take a rocket scientist,” Jay said, “to suddenly realize, wait a minute: He’s not telling me where the storage is. He won’t meet me there, he won’t furnish a bill, he keeps breaking appointments — dozens of them. Guess what? This guy is a liar.”

Reached by phone in the hours just before this story went to press on June 5, after two weeks of refusing to discuss the Jacobs’ missing property, Abrams said, “I never stole a thing. It’s currently being investigated, and that will come out.”


“I’ve already got your funeral planned”

In multiple interviews with people who have come in contact with Abrams at work in recent years — including former employers, administrators of assisted living facilities who declined to hire him, and clients — many have described him as having an aggressive, unsettling personality. They also reported that Abrams is unusually interested in having one-on-one interactions with patients.

Carol Anderson, the administrator of Fine Gold Manor in North Hollywood, met Abrams when he came to the 100-bed assisted living facility in late 2011 to meet with a resident. Anderson said she doesn’t know how the resident first met Abrams, but from what she saw of their meetings, which took place in her office, she wasn’t impressed.

“This particular resident would say, ‘You know, I’m dying tonight,’ ” Anderson recalled. “He’d say, ‘Well let’s get it over with, because I’ve already got your funeral planned.’ ”

This conversation took place many times, Anderson said. In 13 years at Fine Gold Manor, she hadn’t seen anything like it.

“It was just not the way most priests that I have been around would talk to my residents,” she said. “They were always encouraging, and stuff like that. He was just the opposite.”

Abrams said this was a tactic. “This is part of my counseling with this patient,” he said in an interview on June 5. “What generally jumpstarts her into feeling better is responding in that manner.”

Abrams is known to have worked briefly for at least two hospice-care companies in Los Angeles over the last two years. He worked for Sanctuary Hospice from September until December 2011, and in December 2011, he was hired by Roze Room Hospice of the Valley on a per diem basis to provide spiritual counseling to any Jewish client who requested a rabbi.

His employment at Roze Room, a hospice program that serves patients in and around the San Fernando Valley, lasted less than two weeks — roughly the length of time it took for a background check to reveal the extent of his criminal record, according to Alon Beker, a lawyer who, with his wife, runs the hospice-care company. During a two-week orientation period, Beker said, Abrams met with at least five patients in their homes, always under the supervision of at least one other employee.


According to the administrator of Windsor Terrace, skilled-nursing facilities often have difficulty attracting and retaining Jewish chaplains. Abrams led weekly services here for four months in 2011.  Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld


According to Beker, Abrams sent e-mails to his supervisor during that two-week period expressing a strong desire to work alone with patients. Abrams also asked to meet with all of Roze Room’s Jewish patients. The supervisor, Beker said, replied to Abrams that he would only be meeting with the patients who specifically requested a rabbi.

“He seemed to be, through his e-mails, very anxious to get as many [patients] as possible as quickly as possible and start right away,” Beker said.

After Abrams was terminated, Beker said employees started reporting to him how glad they were that he had been let go.

“They said he was just a strange man,” Beker said. “Very aggressive, very inappropriate with patients.”

Beker said his other staff also reported that Abrams had been asking Roze Room patients if they were interested in paying him to perform additional chaplaincy services, on the side.

“It appeared that he was using us to gain access to patients in order to conduct some sort of side business,” Beker said. “If he was doing that during his orientation period, what could he have done when he was out on his own, unsupervised?”

“In no way,” Abrams wrote in an e-mail in response to questions about these allegations, “did I ever solicit from any person connected with Roze Room.”

In his writings and in conversations, Abrams has said that part of why he chose to work with the elderly and gravely ill is because he himself experienced a brush with death.

In 2007, on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, Abrams’ heart stopped. After 14 minutes, doctors were able to restart his heart, but Abrams remained on life support for two months afterward. Then he woke up.

This story is one that Abrams has told many, many times, including to this reporter when I first met him in 2010, and again to a Journal columnist in 2011.

And when working with elderly, ill and dying patients, Abrams frequently relies on this story of his near-death in order to connect with them.

Roze Room employees, according to Beker, said Abrams would tell the story to each of the hospice patients he would meet, and that he called himself a “hospice survivor.”

In an essay posted on his blog in July 2009, Abrams wrote that he considered telling the story to a dying man in the hopes of restoring the man’s faith.

“How could I convince this man that G-d can help him?” Abrams wrote on “Normal Is Overrated,” a blog he launched at the beginning of 2009. “Would I need to turn to my own personal story of how I died a year before and that G-d returned me to Olam HaZeh [this world] after a two month coma to do Teshuvah [repentance] and help people like him?”

This essay was, Abrams wrote, part of his preparation to receive rabbinical ordination. While every previous blog post was signed “Alan,” this was the first one signed “Rabbi Alan Abrams.”

But Abrams’ rabbinic credentials aren’t recognized by some reputable rabbis who know him — including the spiritual leader of Abrams’ former synagogue.

“I do not consider Alan Abrams to be a rabbi,” said Rabbi Mark Bisman, who retired recently after spending 29 years as rabbi of Har Zion Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Scottsdale, Ariz. When Abrams lived in Arizona, he and his family were members of Har Zion. Bisman remembers visiting Abrams during his near-death experience and his recovery in 2007. But because of the seminary Abrams attended, the New York-based Rabbinical Seminary International (RSI), Bisman wouldn’t call his former congregant a rabbi.

“We’re not in any way a diploma mill, for want of a better word,” Rabbi Roger Ross, executive director of RSI, said in a phone interview on May 22. Established in 1995, RSI is a pan-denominational school through which most of the students are pursuing the rabbinate as a second career. They come from all over the country but do most of their studying remotely.

In a resume that was, until recently, accessible on a Web site linked to Jobing.com, Abrams claimed to have been ordained in Jerusalem in February 2009. (According to posts on his blog, after not having visited Israel in 25 years, Abrams spent two weeks in Israel in 2009.) He also claimed to have completed his studies at the “Beit haMidrash haBeinleumit,” in New York — a Hebrew translation of RSI’s name.

On the LinkedIn page for Rabbi Alan Abrams, the first entry in the education section says that Abrams spent the years 2005-2009 studying at the “Beit Midrash laRabbanut Beinleumit,” which, the entry says, ordained him.

But Ross doesn’t recognize Abrams as a rabbi, either. In spring 2009, at the end of one year of study, Abrams, one of nine students in the graduating class, had completed most, but not all, of the required coursework. But, according to Ross, Abrams hadn’t yet paid any of the $5,000 tuition.

On the weekend of the ordination in June, Abrams wrote a personal check for the full amount and handed it to Ross.

“My response to him was, ‘When the check clears, if your work is finished, I will give you your certificate,’ ” Ross told this reporter.

According to Ross, Abrams simply found the briefcase that held his certificate and took it. Ross also said Abrams’ check later bounced.

On that LinkedIn page and on Abrams’ personal Web site, the description of the rabbi’s Jewish educational background and his rabbinic credentials does not mention RSI by name.

“His highlights in education have been having the opportunity to study Talmud with R’ Pesach Schindler in Jerusalem and with his wonderful friends and colleagues at and affiliated with the Union for Traditional Judaism,” reads part of the text from the rabbiabrams.org homepage. “His initial Smicha [ordination] gained while in Jerusalem was enhanced by “Yoreh Yoreh” distinction in *New York City in 2009.”

Following the asterisk to the bottom of the page leads a reader to this note: “Rabbi Abrams has absolutely no affiliation with Roger Ross or their program for ‘Modern Rabbis’ who practice non-halakhic Judaism. ...”

Ross said that the term “Yoreh Yoreh,” is the Hebrew equivalent of “Hear Ye, Hear Ye,” which is how a quorum of at least three rabbis begins the statement by which they confer smicha on a new rabbi.

Ross’ signature appears on Abrams’ smicha certificate, a photo of which he sent to The Journal in an e-mail as evidence of his ordination. It also appears on an April 2010 letter sent to Abrams by the four primary rabbis at RSI demanding that he return that certificate. Ross said he believes his being rejected by Abrams is somewhat ironic.

“He repudiates the people that signed the smicha certificate that he stole from us,” Ross said.

When questioned by The Journal, Abrams refused to answer a direct question about his rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem in 2009, and instead sent the photograph of the certificate from RSI, signed by Ross and three other rabbis affiliated with RSI. He also said in an e-mail that he stands by his claim that he enrolled at RSI in 2005 and denies having taken the certificate in the way Ross described. He did not respond to a written question asking whether he had paid the $5,000 tuition.

Abrams also claims other affiliations. In the same Jobing.com-linked resume, he called himself a “contributing member” of the Union of Traditional Judaism (UTJ) and a member of the International Rabbinical Fellowship (IRF).

According to the heads of these two organizations, such claims are misleading.

In an e-mail sent on May 30, when Abrams’ resume was still accessible online (as of June 4, it had been removed), Rabbi Jason Herman, executive director of the IRF, said Abrams had requested an application form two years earlier but never turned it in. Rabbi Eugene Shafir, the only paid employee at UTJ, said that it is possible Abrams may have donated to the 27-year-old educational institution at some point, but his affiliation wasn’t significant.

“He was on our mailing list,” Shafir said, “but anybody can get on our mailing list.”

Abrams also claimed on that resume to be certified by the National Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC). NAJC is one of a half-dozen organizations in North America that certifies chaplains. According to NAJC Executive Vice President Cecille Asekoff, “Most major health-care facilities nationwide require their chaplains to be certified.”

Today, NAJC has 292 certified and professional members, but Abrams, Asekoff said, was never among them. Abrams may have applied and may have even been accepted as an NAJC “affiliate” at some point, Asekoff said, but unlike NAJC members, who have to meet certain Jewish and secular educational criteria and must sign a “Statement of Accountability for Ethical Conduct,” affiliates need only pay a $75 annual fee.

Abrams, when asked if he was a member of either the IRF or NAJC, or if he had ever donated to UTJ, said he had “disposed” of his online resume, which he said was three years old. He said he had sent an application to IRF, but that it was never received, and he said he is “active with UTJ.”

Regarding the NAJC, Abrams said he is a member “in good standing.”

He described it as “an affiliate membership. It’s just a different amount paid. I’m an affiliate member.”

Asekoff, however, clarified that affiliates of NAJC are not considered members of the organization. “We intentionally do not use the word member,” She said. “He was never a member.”

It is possible that because Abrams presents himself as a rabbi, he may be subject to less scrutiny than others would be. At Roze Room, the employee who interviewed Abrams may have been less vigilant in her questioning than she would have been with a nonclergyman.

“I don’t know if she’s religious, but she keeps the faith,” Beker said of the interviewer. “Obviously, when a rabbi comes in, there are certain things that you automatically assume, and I think her interview was not, perhaps, as thorough as I think it should’ve been.”

Hecht, who interviewed Abrams before he started work at Windsor Terrace, said he had made a good first impression. 

“He seemed like a very nice man, a very caring person, very compassionate,” she said. “And he did a really beautiful job leading the services.”

Hecht said she did check his references and performed a background check on Abrams as well.

“Nothing showed up that would’ve been a question to us,” she said.

Adding to the challenge, the idea of consulting with rabbinical organizations before hiring a rabbi appears to be more helpful in theory than in practice.

For Bisman, Abrams’ former rabbi, the fact that Abrams was not a member of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix when he lived there is as significant a statement as any rabbinical body can make about another purported rabbi’s status. 

“Except to deny someone admittance to a particular board of rabbis, the rabbis, per se, have no ability to regulate or inhibit individuals from calling other people rabbis if they call themselves rabbis,” Bisman said.

In other words, if Abrams calls himself a rabbi, all that any Board of Rabbis can do is deny him membership. But with so many rabbinical organizations in existence, it can be hard to gauge which certifications are relevant.

Indeed, rabbis, even when they are suspicious of another rabbi, are often reluctant to say or do anything publicly to call into question a rabbi’s credentials, perhaps in part because they fear they might be sued.

This fear of litigation appears to have kept at least one other person who came across Abrams in the past from speaking up about him later on.

Days before this story went to press, I spoke with Mike Blumhoff, a primary-care physician who is the majority partner of Alliance Urgent Care, a company that runs six medical clinics in Arizona. Blumhoff was one of the three doctors who, in 2007, filed a complaint with police alleging that Abrams had stolen $73,000 from them in a complicated scheme involving loans from a medical equipment company.

“The same thing that he [Abrams] did to us he had done to several other businesses,” Blumhoff told me.

Abrams was arrested, his home was searched, but the charges against him were eventually dropped, Blumhoff said, because the judge in the case decided that the doctors had been complicit with Abrams.

“There were no charges filed,” Abrams wrote in an e-mail in response to questions about Blumhoff’s allegations. “I have never been charged with anything of the like in any State or jurisdiction.”

And because the Maricopa County attorney did not proceed with criminal prosecution, Blumhoff said that he and his partners would only have been able to pursue Abrams’ company in civil court. Blumhoff said other doctors and veterinarians had tried to sue Abrams in the past, but he and his partners never did.

“We did a quick asset search and his company had nothing,” Blumhoff said.

A few years ago, Blumhoff did notice that Abrams had begun calling himself a rabbi. Blumhoff considered calling the organization with which Abrams was then affiliated, but ultimately decided against it.

“If I call them and I say, ‘Hey this guy’s a fraud,’ I could have some liability there,” Blumhoff said. “I didn’t feel comfortable calling him out, but the thought certainly crossed my mind.”

In Abrams’ case, the fear of litigation appears to be warranted. According to Roze Room’s Beker, after his termination from the company, Abrams alleged that a female employee had sexually harassed him during his two-week orientation period.

According to Beker, Marina Kats Fraigun, a lawyer representing Abrams, later sent an e-mail to Roze Room’s attorney demanding a “significant” sum of money as a settlement.

Reached by phone on June 4, Fraigun would not comment, nor would she say whether she was in fact continuing to represent Abrams.

On March 10, Roze Room filed a suit against Abrams, claiming fraud and extortion.

In an e-mail responding to questions about these claims, Abrams wrote that his cases with Roze Room “are in the midst of being settled with no admission of liability.”

Meanwhile, Daniel Perlman in mid-May began serving as Abrams’ attorney in reference to the case involving Jay and Elener Jacobs. Perlman cited the ongoing law enforcement investigation as the reason Abrams is refusing to answer questions about where Elener Jacobs’ property is, as well as whether Abrams had emptied her bank account or if Abrams ever took possession of her Social Security checks.

Perlman did claim, however, that Jay Jacobs has been harassing Abrams with e-mails and phone calls. Noting that Abrams had brokered the mother-son reunion, Perlman suggested that Jay himself was just looking for money.

Perlman further said that he believes Abrams’ intentions “were charitable.”

“He developed a very close friendship with Elener Jacobs,” Perlman said. “Obviously it’s not ending well.”

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