Rabbi Yossi Stern

Dear Rabbi Stern:

I will never forget the last words you spoke to me, about two weeks ago. Like most of the things in your life, our conversation must be kept confidential. But, the last thing you said was how proud you were of me. I wondered, at the time, if you remembered the very first thing you said to me. It was about thirty-eight years ago. Most of the other grown-ups in town had written me and my friends off as miscreants. Not quite ne’er-do-wells. We weren’t bad kids by any measure. Just loud. And insensitive. Maybe a little misguided. It was easier to ignore us. But you wouldn’t. In your quiet, dignified way, you encouraged us to get involved in our community. To give back. You singularly reminded us of all the gifts and advantages we received simply because we were growing up in Teaneck, America. You didn’t make us feel bad. Or that we were bad. To the contrary. You made us feel like each of us mattered. Your love for every Jew, every human being, big and small, was an earth-shattering revolution. None of our parents or teachers could reach us in the way that you did. And, looking back I realize that you did it without trying. You didn’t strategize. Or play games. You did it simply and without pretense. As a ten year old, I wanted to be a better person because I wanted you to be proud of me.

This week, I listened to your son eulogize you. I remember him as a baby. Big cheeks, huge smile, and a giggle that was infectious. I haven’t seen him in thirty years. He is a man now. You probably knew that. Most of what he said about you, I already knew. Frankly, everyone knew. But, I didn’t know how much he loved you. That sounds silly. Every child loves their father and everyone loved you. But, he made a case for your legacy that surprised me. Yes, you learned Torah all day and night. Yes, you had a jewelry business. You started Project Ezrah and devoted every waking minute to helping the mal-affected find jobs, pay bills, and get back on their feet. I just assumed you did all of this at the expense of your family. After all, we are taught that Moshe Rabbenu’s family life suffered because of his service to Am Yisroel. So, I think you’d get a pass if you couldn’t attend your child’s siddur play. Or parent teacher conferences. If you were too tired listening to communal maladies to listen to familial problems. But, once again, I underestimated you. Listening to your son describe your life together – - business trips, chavrutot, quality time, and some laughs thrown in along the way – - listening to how unconditionally, without reservation, he loved and respected you, was yet another lesson you taught me. Lots of people contribute. They donate time, money, energy. There are activists and leaders and role models. You have undoubtedly read about them in the newspapers Or on their blogs. They are heroes. But, dear Rabbi Stern, you didn’t want attention. Or respect. You didn’t want anything. Your every breath was motivated by love. Nothing more. You loved your community. You loved people. Jewish, and not so Jewish. You loved your wife and children. And, yes, you loved the young trouble makers who constituted the earliest generation of a nascent Jewish community. When you are motivated by love, life is good. Even when it’s not. Ironically, your heart was larger than its walls could hold. Your love just couldn’t fit. I suppose it was inevitable. The human heart is just not made to hold as much emotion, as much benevolence, as much kindness as you dispensed on a daily basis.

I spent decades chasing your approval. Two weeks ago, it seemed in hand. But, I reject it. I am not worthy of your pride. You are a giant and I constantly struggle with my inner and outer good. But, you deserve credit for yet another soul. And I pledge mine to your memory. Every day, I will endeavor to perform an act of love and kindness. Not in your memory or in your honor. You would hate that. But, simply because I should know better. Thanks to you.

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Happy Valentimes Day!

HVD

I love my wife. We are celebrating our twentieth Valentine’s Day together. This may sound obvious but hear me out. I have long objected to the frivolous use of the word “love.” In my self-styled dictionary, we are not in love with our girlfriends. We are not in love when we get engaged and we are not love when we get married. For many, we are not even in love when we have children. Love, as I see it, is not a condition that can be moderated or adjusted based on external influences. You cannot fall out of love. If you think you have, it is far more likely that you were never in love in the first place. Imagine a friend that has wronged you. You are angry. Hurt. You may want vengeance. You may decide that the relationship is toxic and needs to be adjusted downward. But, do you hate him? Think about hatred. It is all-consuming. It is a state of being that requires animus. It is an active condition that leaves you hoping for bad things to happen. I submit that few people are capable of “hatred” in its purest sense.
Love, like hate, is a living thing. It must be nurtured and raised. It must be fed with respect and tragedy. It breathes an oxygen constituted of a tailor-made formula that needs constant adjustment over many years. You cannot love someone you just met. You cannot love someone who you know for a year. You can find love in a couple that has been together for 20 years, who have successfully raised children together, who shared a lifetime of common experiences, philosophy, and culture. When the proverbial house is empty, you can still sit for hours and talk. The little things that annoyed you in the beginning have not sharpened; they have blended into the fabric of your relationship. The word “couple” is singular and for good reason. The finished product of a loving relationship is a single cohesive unit that co-exists and constantly evolves and solidifies. In other words, love is the outcome not the impetus.
Here’s my proof. Half of all marriages end in divorce – - most of which are acrimonious and hostile. These same couples started out professing their eternal love for one another. Ask any couple at the alter and they will nauseate you with the depth of their love. But more than half of them are no longer in love after they leave the starting gate – often within the first year. Sometimes after raising children. What happened? In my world, love is not so fleeting and ditzy that it can turn on itself in short order. So, we can all agree that these couples were likely not in love in the first place. At least not LOVE, love. And, if they weren’t, no one was. Love cannot be a crapshoot.
So, we get married because we see a future. Because we enjoy each other’s company. We have common interests and shared personality traits (and flaws). We marry because we can envision falling in love. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn’t. But, the seed that we plant on our wedding day can either grow or die. That’s not love.
Some of my closest friends are now divorced with children. They have loved and lost and, I am willing to bet, in retrospect would have chosen never to have loved at all. Others have reached a state of love that can be felt anytime you are in a room with them. Even when they are fighting.
Which brings me to my point. After twenty years, I am ready to declare my undying love for my wife. We still laugh. And go on dates. We are raising four terrific children, who are a joint venture that incorporates the very best of each of us (mostly her). But, lately, I find our relationship to be much deeper than those common ingredients. Her love is unconditional. She gives me space to make mistakes but then gently counsels me back to reality. She protects me and nurtures me and makes me a better person. And, perhaps most challenging of all, she understands me. I hope I am requiting that love and offering her the same benefits that she brings to the marriage. Happy Valentine’s Day Francine!

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Double Diamonds

I am proud to be a lawyer, but that doesn’t stop me from frequently criticizing lawyers.  Quite the opposite; I feel uniquely qualified – - and obligated – - to point out the foibles of my fellow attorneys, particularly those that make me cringe.   Same with my Jewishness.  I hold my breath whenever a Jew or non-Jew has something critical to say about my people – - even when overwhelmingly deserved.  With that disclaimer, permit me to list ten things I hate about seeing fellow orthodox Jews on ski-vacations.

  1.  I appreciate that you need thermal underwear, leggings, jeans, and ski pants.   But a top layered skirt?  Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate your modesty.  And, your consideration.   After all, without that snow-hugging, form fitting, ankle length skirt, I would surely lust after you.   As I blow past you on the slope, focusing on staying vertical and, well, alive,  the last thing I want in my head is a picture of your unskirted behind covered with a mere 4 layers.   Do you think you are complying with some Torah law?   I am no expert, but there has to be something in the good book about turning religion into a huge mockery.
  2. Hey, Shmuel.  The meatball hero in the summit lodge is assuredly not kosher.  Even if you make sure there is no cheese.  I don’t care if you take off your black hat and yarlmakuh.  The beard, side-burns, string fringes, and Hebrew blessings before and after the hero, are dead giveaways.  Oh wait; you are wearing a Yankee hat.  Maybe you are Amish.
  3. Just got back from the pool.  I met your wife.  She was in a bikini.  And a scarf covering her hair.   She doesn’t look bad considering the 7 kids she is trying to keep from drowning.  I know she was wearing a skirt this morning, and now I know why.  She is modest.   Wait.  This might be your Au Pair or your live-in girlfriend. Either way, thank you for keeping her hair covered.
  4. Ahhh.  The chairlift.  Is there anything more relaxing and majestic?  Literally this is why I go skiing. I can hear myself thinking.   So, can you shut your damn cell phone?  Really? In that silly Yiddish accent, and your rank refusal to learn our language, you are going to yap the entire 15 minute ride? The sad part?   Cell phone coverage stopped about 10 minutes ago.
  5. The complimentary ski-check does not accept your poles.  Or your boots. Just your skis.  It says it right there.  ON THE DOOR.   “Attention Jews:  we will not accept your poles or boots.  No matter what horrible curses you wish upon us in Yiddish.”   At least have the courtesy to make believe you aren’t Jewish.  You are embarrassing me.
  6. Matzo is for Passover.  Not ski trips.  Unless you are skiing on the matzo.
  7. Yes.  She is hot. And blond.  30 years old.  And catholic. And wearing skin tight ski-pants.   And, yes, she can see you staring.  Can you stop waiving your poles around?  It’s just gross.
  8. No.  You cannot re-arrange seating on the chairlift.  If she’s good enough to stare at, she’s good enough to sit next to. 
  9. Watching TV in the lobby is just as much as sin as watching it at home.   No one believes you are just waiting for the messiah.
  10. Next year in Jerusalem.  But, if Jerusalem is not available, how about the Atlantis?  I hear they have four minyans every day.

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Shoot!

Antiq Hennis was shot to death last month in Brooklyn. He didn’t do anything wrong. He was not a gang member or a drug dealer. He wasn’t involved in a drunken argument over which New York football team is worse. He was not the victim of mistaken identity or a tragic hunting accident. He was sitting outside his apartment complex on a warm September afternoon watching a neighbor’s dog. And, the bullet hit him in the face. He died instantly.
He was 16 months old.
My first thought, after seeing the story buried 20 minutes into the nightly news, was to grab the remote and rewind the DVR. I couldn’t believe my eyes. “I know that prosecutor!” I told my wife, excitedly. I then launched into a memory from my days as an Assistant District Attorney. She quickly fell asleep. Neither of us offered Antiq a second thought.
We are now a society where one dead child is insufficient to muster more than a disinterested shrug. Hell, 20 dead kindergartners only boils our blood for a few weeks. Then, we move on the much more important matters. Like the latest iPhone. We can expect approximately one mass killing per year. Then, we can check them off like a shopping list. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook, Killeen, Aurora, Columbine, Foot Hood, Red Lake, and on and on. It is much easier to remember the venue than the victims. And, when the dust settles, what do we do to avoid the next chapter? Exactly nothing.
Why? Because 10,000 gun murders each year is merely collateral damage to our freedom and liberty. We have an inalienable constitutional right to bear arms. But, here is the unspoken truth: we are literally the stupidest society in history. Is there another culture that would defend its miserable failure to protect our children from violence because of an imaginary right to carry weapons? 20 children died in Sandy Hook. 80% of Americans supported a complete overhaul of gun laws. Nothing was done. Nothing changed.
So, let me set the record straight. We have the right to free speech and assembly. The Bill of Rights offered no limitation on those fundamental manifestations of freedom. But, even those unambiguous rights were circumscribed by the Courts to ensure the safety of its citizens. You know why you cannot yell “fire” in a movie theater? Because someone might get hurt. If any idiot dared demand the right to yell “fire” in a movie theater, you would lock him up, because this is someone who presents a clear and present danger to the rest of us. In our upside down conscious, a man in a crowded dark movie theater is more dangerous with his words (unconstitutional) then the guy carrying an assault rifle into that same theater (constitutional).
And, yet, our founding fathers did not offer the same blanket endorsement of guns. Unlike any other fundamental right, the right to bear arms has a restriction that seems to have been omitted from the NRA charter. Here is what the Bill of Rights says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” No right to assault weapons. No right to hunt. Nothing about defending your home or women. The right to bear arms is specifically limited to the formation of a militia necessary to the security of the State. That’s it. Ironically, if you tried to form an armed militia, you would be promptly arrested and prosecuted – - and, yet, that is the limit of the constitutional right to bear arms. It is the one thing the constitution permits, and it is probably the only thing our current law prohibits.
Does anyone really think that Thomas Jefferson intended to guarantee every American (white, male), the inalienable right to carry an AK-47, but not the right to food, water, or medicine? You do not have any constitutional right to eat or receive medical attention. You have no right to work or have children. But, you definitely have the right to walk around with a rifle in your jacket.
Therein lies the fundamental mistake (or fraud) perpetrated by the gun lobby. The right to bear arms is not a personal right. It was a communal measure designed to protect society as a whole.
200 years ago, guns were single shot muskets and blacks were considered 3/5ths of their white neighbors. Subsequent leaders and judges recognized that the ancient wisdom relating to blacks was misguided, unfair, and dangerous. And, they changed it for the betterment of our society. We did that even though blacks had not actually changed at all. It was our perspective and wisdom that expanded. Any argument that the constitution is unassailable – - even in the face of 200 years of improvements in weapons, and the mass murder they cause – is not being intellectually honest.
Don’t tell me guns save lives. That’s another lie. The United States, with our right to bear arms, suffers 2.97 gun murders per population of 100,000. Japan, where guns are illegal, sees .01 gun death per 100,000 citizens. France, .06. England, .07. We have 42 times more gun deaths than England – - where guns are illegal. We have has many gun death per capita as the Gaza Strip – - where everyone has a gun. Take a look at the statistics: Countries with the least gun control suffer the highest rates of gun violence.
But, the NRA will assure us that the only defense to a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun. You know who they are talking about? George Zimmerman. They will never admit it, but a guy patrolling the neighborhood armed with a firearm, seeking out ne’er do wells, is a “good guy with a gun.” Yet, since killing an unarmed black teenager, George Zimmerman has been arrested three times for threatening someone with his gun. When he finally kills an innocent man, no one will be particularly surprised. Because he is a good guy with a gun. And, anyone with a gun is bound to shoot it. And, when a gun gets shot, someone might get killed. This is not what our racist, elitist founding fathers wanted to protect, along with life and liberty. It has no basis in the bible or the Hammurabi code. No person in history was granted the unfettered right to carry a weapon with no purpose other than to injure other living things.
We are victims of a fraud. People like to carry guns. People like to shoot guns. They will rely upon any justification they can find. But it is a canard. It has no basis in the constitution. It is a right that serves no one but the nuts with small guns who feel that carrying a weapon somehow makes them a man. This will never change. It is too controversial, too misunderstood to justify a change. Meanwhile, thousands of children will be killed in the cross fire. It is a huge price to pay and should be rejected by all civilized persons who understand that we are defending the very existence of our society.
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It’s Either One Thing or Your Mother

I do not recall the moment of my children’s births. In fact, in 45 years, there are surprisingly few images seared into my consciousness. Tonight, I saw my mother in a medically-induced coma, recovering from open heart surgery. The surgery, I am told, was successful and she should be able to fight with me first thing tomorrow. But, for now, the vision of her helplessly asleep, intubated, and eyes wide shut, brought back haunting memories of my father’s death bed. I did not think about our fight last week, or last month, or the month before that. Suddenly, I could not remember why we see things so differently.
Instead, for the first time in decades, I was able to picture her holding me as a child. Letting me climb into her bed when I had chicken pox. And the time she had tears in her eyes when I left for camp. (in retrospect, probably tears of joy). The special dinners and occasional walks around the block. I recall the horrible, but well-intentioned advice she gave me about girlfriends. But mostly, I finally understand how she felt when she received the phone calls from my teachers. And the crippling fright she must have felt every time I left the house.
She spent the last 41 years teaching and advising a generation of grateful high school students. Without fanfare, and without much remuneration. Yet, she raised a financial advisor, a doctor, and a lawyer. And, by all measures, we are doing pretty well. Perhaps her greatest legacy is her 10 grandchildren, each one happy, secure, and talented, with unlimited potential for the future.
It’s funny. Sharks get a whole week; mothers get one day. Maybe it’s because sharks aren’t nearly as scary as the realization of adulthood that your parents are human. Their mistakes are almost certainly involuntary and, while it is easy to blame our parents for our shortcomings, it is important to recognize that, in most cases, they did the best they were capable of – - even if their best fell far short of our own lofty (but, perhaps, misguided) revisionist expectations.
Late in life, I have forgiven my childhood bully and high school nemesis. I have made peace with my close relatives who still insist on seeing me through the outdated prism of my youth. I hold no grudge against some of my contemporary friends, colleagues, and community leaders, who preach inclusion and tolerance, but practice neither. So, isn’t it time to let my parents off the hook?

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A Special Place in Hell

I could not believe my eyes. I was a young prosecutor handling night court arraignments. Basically, I was formally accusing each defendant of a crime and then asking for bail. The courtroom that night was packed with Hasidim, each one trying to get my attention. And, then, I found out why. Next up? A 23 year old Yeshiva student accused of sexually abusing his 10 year old nephew. The audience included his family, friends, rabbis, teachers, neighbors, and community leaders, each calling me over with a pssst. They all wanted to press me for the release of the defendant. The message was the same; the approach subtly different. Some appealed to my Jewish sounding name. Others wanted me to know that my unborn children would never marry if I did not consent to the Defendant’s release. A couple of people cursed me. Some implied that my career as a prosecutor would meet an untimely death if I did not “do the right thing.”

I had to make some phone calls.

And, then word came down from the top. No special favors. No deviation from the bail guidelines. I asked for, and received, an un-meetable bail. Yaakov was spending Shavuot in the hoosegow. But, I was not satisfied. I wanted to indict everyone in the room as a co-conspirator.

A few years earlier, my best friend asked me to testify before a beit din proceeding brought by Baruch Lanner accusing him of defamation for alerting the public to Lanner’s sexual and physical abuse of children. I had some information and agreed to testify. And, then the phone calls began. Rabbis, friends, people of influence. Imploring me not to appear before the tribunal. I didn’t care. I was determined. Then, I was told that one of my high school teachers would be sitting at Lanner’s table and would discredit me in a way that had proven extremely successful in discrediting other witnesses. And, he had the goods on me. I had been a trouble-maker in school. Of course, disrupting History class should have no impact on the veracity of my testimony, but the warning was clear: I would do more damage than good to the case. And, in a decision that has since landed on the list of my top two lifetime regrets, I withdrew from the Beit Din. My friend lost and had to apologize publicly to a monster. I have never recovered from my disloyalty and cowardice. He died a year later.

These long-suppressed memories clawed their way back into my consciousness in recent months as the Jewish Community has been rocked with a series of sex abuse scandals. I do not have much to say about the alleged abusers. They are defective and need permanent supervision. Here’s why: science suggests that they will never be cured. Even if physically restrained, their inclinations cannot be controlled. Are they capable of repentance and teshuva? I have no idea but I submit that anyone who claims to know the answer to that question has an agenda. God alone knows what is inside our hearts. Lanner was among the most charismatic show men in modern Jewish history. Only those who supported and loved him through his crimes and tribulations are ready to declare him repentant. And, you will excuse me if I am skeptical of their bias.

But, there is a special place in hell for those among us who condone, excuse, facilitate, or ignore the physical or sexual abuse of our children. And, the penthouse of that place is reserved for anyone tasked with educating and protecting children but who dare place the interests of the abusers over young putative victims. What’s that? You don’t want to offend the convicted pedophile? Don’t want to embarrass him? Ready to accept his half-witted declarations of regret and teshuva? You credit his contributions to society and the Jewish people?

Here’s the thing. You are ten levels worse than the pedophile. You know why? Because he likely cannot help himself. He is sick and demented. You, however, are a misguided enabler of sexual abuse. You are a far greater threat to my children than Lanner. Because you lend credibility and militation to his mis-deeds. Your message is that he can be forgiven and forgotten. But, you have no right to make that declaration. Not only because you are not a victim, but because you have no basis for your opinion other than your relationship to the abuser or your liberal acceptable of any semblance of repentance.

I am not a victim so I would never presume to speak on anyone’s behalf. But before I can accept the public embrace of a known abuser, before I normalize relations with someone who has left a path of destroyed lives in his wake, I would like to hear a public apology; a credible acknowledgment of the horrors wrecked upon the innocent. I would like to hear from the victims to discover if any actual attempts were made by their abuser at legitimate repentance. I would like to know that there has been real progress in therapy. Finally, I would insist on knowing what efforts have been made to contribute in a meaningful way to the community. But, that’s just me.

The tragedy of the Lanner story is not Lanner. It is a beit din, a youth organization, a yeshiva high school, a national orthodox organization, a school psychologist, a troupe of loyal rabbis (some still teaching in the yeshiva system) and many others who enabled ten more years of victims and who, today, are nobly ready to let bygones be bygones. Some, like the OU, have taken steps to change the way they do business in a nod to the outrage and cycle of mistrust. But, others continue to facilitate and enable the abusers, to the detriment of the victims and potential victims. If you think I am talking about any specific person, you are wrong. But, here’s my thinking. If the choice is between forgiveness and compassion, on the one hand, or ultra-vigilant protection of our children, on the other hand, I land on the side of the children every single time. Let God forgive the pedophiles. Let their families and friends support them. But if I am trusting my children to you, I want to know that there are no circumstances, no excuses, no justifications that will lead you to err on the side of the abuser.

Reprinted from the Jewish Link.

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O-Cho No No

Chad Ochocinco Johnson will spend the next 30 days in jail for slapping the backside of his lawyer after a short probation hearing in Florida. Broward County Circuit Judge Kathleen McHugh felt that the show of gratitude demonstrated that Chad was not taking the proceedings seriously. Is there a single trial lawyer in this country that believes Judge McHugh belongs on the bench? You bet! Former prosecutor Star Jones defended the sentence on the Today Show this morning. Sort of. Star does not take any hard positions (except where she can inject the race card into any news item) and sort of waffled. Yes, it was justified. No, it was too much. The judge was right. But, she crossed a line. Classic Star Jones. But, here is where she demonstrates a complete lack of legal acumen. Ocho was not showing disrespect. He was not mocking or making faces. He was not laughing or making gestures. He was not being disrespectful to the Court or the proceedings. He was thanking his lawyer for doing a “good job,” as he uttered simultaneously with the back-slap. And, why? Because seconds before, the Judge told him to thank his lawyer for doing a great job! If she even saw the slap, she did not find it disrespectful because she did not react for several moments. She only responded when several court officers found glee in the gesture and laughed. So, she is punishing Chad because her court officers (who she controls) showed disrespect by laughing out loud during a court proceeding. If he had shaken his lawyer’s hand, or tapped him on the back, there would be no story and no jail. But, he is a football player and a butt-slap is the legal equivalent of a hand shake. Everyone knows it.

Look at the Judge’s face when she imposes sentence. Her expression betrays hesitation. She feels like she should do something, but is obviously unsure whether Chad actually did anything wrong. And, she allows her emotions take control. She lashes out and does what every lawyer fears: she imposed an irrational, unfair, and arbitrary punishment. And then, pride kicks in and she won’t back down or admit her mistake.
Anyone who has spent anytime in a court room in the last 20 years (not you, Star) knows inherently that the judge was out of line and should be reversed and disciplined.

I am not defending Chad. He is accused of head-butting his wife and should have been in jail ab initio. He deserves no leniency or mercy. But, this Court made a determination that his crime did not warrant jail time. So, let’s review. Hitting your wife? No jail. Hitting your lawyer? 30 days! Great message.

Oh wait. This is Florida. The Iranian justice system makes more sense. I just realized this blog has had more inadvertent entries on Floridian jurisprudence than any other topic. (See, http://ariweisbrot.com/2011/07/01/i-think-youve-had-enough-2/ AND http://ariweisbrot.com/2011/07/05/evidence-we-dont-need-no-stinkin-evidence/

If I lived in Florida, I would not rest until Judge McHugh was reassigned to traffic court. Heck, give me a call Ocho, I will handle your appeal for free.

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What Happens in Vegas (Ends up on CNN)

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My eighth grade yearbook predicted that I would have a dual career as a lawyer and the starting quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers. As I look back, it occurs to me that my mistake was not in my ambition, but in my priorities. Lawyer first? What was I thinking? Lawyers get neither the money, the girls, nor the dedicated page on TMZ. Trust me, the absolute last thing you want to see on the internet is a 40 year old lawyer partying in Las Vegas, or frolicking in Tahiti. No one ever talks about a lawyer’s “out of the courthouse” antics.

So why do sports fans care about “off-the-field” antics? In fact, we don’t. We forgave Michael Vick’s caninacide, after a great season in Philly. We welcomed Plaxico Burress and all of his offensive weapons, because the Steelers needed a receiver. Who could forget the allegations of sexual misconduct against Ben Roethlisberger? Just about every Steelers fan watching the 2011 Super Bowl, that’s who. And, everyone mourned the retirement of putative role model Ray Lewis.

Poor Tim Tebow. His off-the-field behavior consists of prayer, confession, and charity. Yet, he was, arguably, the most compelling distraction to befall New York since, well, Jesus.

Rob Gronkowski is, perhaps, one of the best tight ends to play the game and a likely hall of famer. Predictably, we have seen a lot of Rob this off-season, mostly featured in stories about his “off-the-field” antics. Or, on ESPN trying to defend himself from those who accuse him of excessive partying, or having too much fun. If this guy buys a beer in public, we are likely to read about it the next day. He is 23. And rich. And talented. And single. And a celebrity in his own right. And he has four brothers who love him – each one cooler than the next and they all look out for each other. He has achieved a stratospheric level of success that is literally every eighth grader’s dream.

I spent a couple of days with Rob and his brother Gordie in Las Vegas. I sat at a dinner table with him and watched the chef offer specially-prepared meals, the owner ply him with free appetizers, men offer free drinks, women offer free, um, dating advice, and the hostess offer him a Diamond Knife to cut his prime rib. Even Darrell Revis – - the guy who was supposed to stop Gronk from catching passes – - had to drop by to pay his respects.

I also saw the famous dance that landed him in the headlines. I saw the bar-tab and the parties. And, we all watched the round-the-clock coverage of his short vacation. We were incredulous at the negative press. And, the inaccuracies. He kicked a friend. He kicked a stranger. He re-injured his arm. He was out partying and drinking all night. In fact, he was with his brothers and playfully flipped one brother to the ground. He was not wasted and he did not injure his arm. It may be a minor point but who doesn’t wrestle with their brothers? Also, minor misstatements from the press are rarely insignificant. The story doesn’t quite sell as well if it is framed as ordinary horsing around.

Here is what he will never tell you. He spent four hours each day in the gym carefully working out after a long rehabilitation. Four hours. I cannot think of a single thing that I can do for four hours. This guy cares about his body. He cares about his team and his career. And the fans. Trust me, I am sure he would have preferred to sleep in but his work ethic and his commitment to his fans wouldn’t abide such reasonable behavior.

He spent quite a bit of those two days working out the details of several upcoming charitable events that he was quietly sponsoring. He has a charitable foundation that he deeply cares about but he only talks about it publicly if it will expand its reach.

He talked a lot about his family and it soon became clear that the Gronk is a family man. A dedicated and loving son. And, he and his brothers care about each other in a way that you just do not expect from anyone, let alone such fiercely independent (and large) men.

Perhaps most impressive was the patience he showed with fans. I did not see him turn away a single autograph seeker. He did not turn down a single request for a picture. And, if the image was blurry, he laughed and took another. I had trouble sitting through the first ten requests while he must have smiled through about 100. And, that has to happen everywhere he goes.

Over two days, I saw a role model. A guy who loves his fans, his team, and his teammates. An athlete thoroughly committed to success and to the game. One terrible truth emerged: this life-long Jet-fan and Patriot-hater is going to be seriously conflicted next season.

And, so, for the next few months, I watched with surprise as commentators, sports writers, analysts, bloggers, and even fans, questioned Gronkowski’s work ethic, personality, and commitment. Even his sanity.

I came to the following truth. As a society, we crave heroes. But, role models are too damn boring (Tebow). You know what isn’t boring? Bad men acting badly. So, we have invented a counter-culture by which we highlight the lack of role models by attacking anyone who might qualify. It is a self-fulfilling process.

I do not know if movie-stars or athletes deserve to be role models simply because they can act or catch a football. I would love for my children to aspire to professional success by following the paths of those who excel in any career. That does not mean I want them mimicking the off the field behavior of those very same people. There are those who merit our scorn – - even while we cheer for them to win the game for us. There are those who merit our respect, even if they couldn’t quite fulfill their NFL dreams. And, then there are the role models – - those who can balance both personal integrity and professional success. We need to embrace those people – - even if they occasionally but responsibly let off steam and engage in reasonable distractions in their personal time. We all do it. Let’s vilify the villains and cultivate the heroes.
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Sex, Lies, and Rabbinical Red-Tape

My childhood Rabbi stands accused of sexual abuse.  As fun as that may sound, in the two hours since the news broke, it has spread like wildfire over the internet.  Phone lines are blowing up.  I heard about it while in court, so it took a few hours for me to actually read the story.   And, here it is:  over a 40 year career in education, and 20 years as a pulpit Rabbi, one former student accuses the Rabbi of checking out his “physical development” during a one-time dorm-room visit over 30 years ago, and then sodomizing him with a toothbrush.   If guilty of the accusations, he should be jailed for the rest of his life, where he can look forward to many years of ironic retribution.   I am not soft on this issue.  I was outspoken ten years ago against a second Rabbi who physically and sexually abused scores of children over his career.  There was no doubt of his guilt. I witnessed it first-hand, and many of my friends were victims.  He spent 7 years in jail for his crimes but my calls for a more appropriate punishment were ignored.   After all, he is still very much alive and enjoying retirement in Florida.

But, there is one thing I have learned in my years as a prosecutor, lawyer, and advocate.  Sexual predators do not commit just one single crime in 40 years.   Nor,  do they typically victimize a vulnerable child on only one occasion.   I do not know if the exposure of this story will call forth more victims, more evidence, and more proof.   Frankly, I do not know if the Rabbi is innocent or guilty.  He never abused me or, to my knowledge, any of the many children in our community.  But, predators never seemed particularly attracted to me.   I’m sure it was nothing personal.

But, anyone who sexually or emotionally abuses a child should be locked away in a tiny cell, with only bread, water, a long rope, and some sort of ceiling pipe.   I hope I am making my feelings clear because of what I am compelled to say next.   Here is what no one will ever dare say publicly.  Not everyone who cries abuse was, in fact, abused.  Not everyone accused of heinous crimes is guilty.  Anyone who responds to this truism with outrage is fooling themselves.  Gasp.   Children (or otherwise screwed up grownups) might actually lie or exaggerate a claim of childhood abuse?   Of course.   And, here is a theory why:  it is much easier to blame a lifetime of failure on some ambiguous childhood “trauma” than to face the reality of one’s own limitations.

None of this suggests that every allegation of abuse should not be taken seriously and investigated without reservation or unturned stone.   Nor, do I suggest that a single allegation of abuse should be discredited for lack of evidence.   And, any tie goes to the accuser, at least when it comes to allegations of child abuse.  Better to part ways with an unproven, unsubstantiated abuser than to risk future harm to others.

But, really? One victim, one incident, over 40 years of daily interactions with thousands of students?   I want to know more.  Everyone should want to know more.  Before we stone him.  And, dare I say, before we convict him on Facebook.

There is a current faculty member of a local Yeshiva high school who should be in jail.   He is not permitted near my children because I know what he has done, and I know what he is capable of.   I cannot say, for certain, that he has committed any crime and, therefore, turning him in or outing his misconduct is not viable or appropriate.  People with more credibility than me have tried, unsuccessfully, to do something about it.    But, I often wonder how similar attitudes have led to graver consequences.  And, it raises the following conundrum:  By the time we have sufficient evidence to convict, the damage to our children has been done.  If we act prematurely, we will face certain censure for slanderous persecution.   There needs to be a balance and a process to protect children, detect evil-doers, but respect and defend the rights (and reputation) of the accused, until we are certain of the steadiness of our hands.

For now, I pray that the accusations are false – - although that will not fix the damage already inflicted.  On the other hand, if the allegations are true,  there is simply no damage sufficiently inflicted.

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For The Love of God

In recent months, I have lived through a hurricane, a road trip across the United States, two noteworthy lawsuits, another dismal Jets’ season, and a life-changing decision with far-reaching professional consequences. Typical fodder for this blog and many have noticed my unusual silence. It’s not writer’s block – - that requires writer’s talent. It’s the creepy feeling that I keep saying the same things over and over again. But, once again, tragedy forces my hand.

She died this afternoon. She was 12. She was my neighbor and friend but I was not there for her final days. I didn’t even know these were them. But, I know how she died. With courage. And spirit. And love. And, her wry smile on her face. I sat with her a few weeks ago in temple while she waited to meet friends. She was telling me why she prefers chicken fingers over chicken nuggets. I laughed, but not to be polite. She was mesmerizing.   I told her she should blog about it and I even offered a guest voice in these pages. She politely demurred.  She did everything politely.  

I talk a lot about strength and conviction and love. But to spend 5 minutes with her is to realize I don’t know the first thing about any of those things. And, I don’t know many who could stand within a football field of her expertise on those grown-up topics. Wait. I just thought of two people: her parents. The quietest, most humble, strongest people I know. Individuals who do not deserve this pain but who would immediately stand in anyone’s shoes if it meant absorbing other people’s hurt.  Gentle souls who, quite literally, glow with the presence of God and all his kindness.

Their child was nothing less than a giant. She stared down pain and death, not in defiance, but with conviction and perspective. She transmitted more love in her short years than most will experience in their lifetimes. And, it transformed everyone with whom she came into contact.

She won’t be just missed.  That is too trite and is an inadequate, meaningless perspective.     Her powerful light, which illuminated the way for so many people, is extinguished.   But, for the lucky ones who knew her, she leaves a roadmap that is prudently followed.

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