June 6, 2012
The Curious Case of Rabbi Alan Abrams
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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.