June 6, 2012
The Curious Case of Rabbi Alan Abrams
(Page 3 - Previous Page)
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.