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Jewish Journal

The Curious Case of Rabbi Alan Abrams

by Jonah Lowenfeld

June 6, 2012 | 2:57 pm

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.” 

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