A few weeks ago, I heard a story about a local Rabbi I have had several interactions over the last few years. He’s from Argentina and leads a very spiritual congregation in my home town. It’s not the synagogue that we belong to, but we have been on several occasions and I have been seated next to him at Shabbat meals and I’ve attended his services. He’s a gentle man, and a very wise one. He leads a very beautiful service, full of song, prayer and passion. If you were to meet him, you would instantly know you were standing before an important leader of our international Jewish community.
The story is that he was arrested for impersonating a policeman in a nearby town. And it happened more than once. At first I was in complete disbelief but after Googling to find out more (basically just the words “police” and “rabbi”), there could be no doubt in my mind that the story was true. He had supposedly tail gated a few individuals, stopped them and taken out a police badge asking them to pull over. With one woman, he started to scream and honk, and she called the police who came to the scene immediately. With another man, he blocked the car and threatened to have the passenger arrested. That man later spotted him on the news and reported the incident. A third incident involves an actual video where a man told authorities that the Rabbi swerved in front him then flashed a badge and demanded that he pull over on the interstate.
The three complaints prompted the trustees of NYC Temple Emanu-El to dismiss him as executive director of the Skirball Center for Jewish Learning “in the best interests of the congregation” and I have been curious to find out how this local synagogue would handle the matter. Everyone in my community that I’ve spoken to has been blindsided and totally confused as to how this gentle scholar could do something so….bizarre.
You are probably as shocked as I was to hear this story. Here we have a local leader, a Rabbi with a dedicated congregation and community who adores him, having broken the law and done something so completely outrageous. How could we ever look up to him again? For days, I could think of nothing else as I awaited a local reaction.
Finally, one came from the synagogue:
“This office represents Rabbi Alfredo Borodowski. At the outset he wishes to express his apologies for any alarm or discomfort his behavior may have caused. What should be known is that he has received mental health treatment for the past several years. Over these years he had been diagnosed with depression and his treatment included antidepressant medication. This medication exacerbated what his doctors have now diagnosed as bipolar disorder and contributed to his engaging in the manic behavior that resulted in incidents reported on by the press. His condition is not being offered as an excuse but rather as an explanation for his unusual behavior. He is currently receiving intensive appropriate treatment and medication for bipolar disorder and has been hospitalized for much of the past several weeks. Rabbi Borodowski and his family are very appreciative of all of the expressions of concern and support received from friends, congregants, students and colleagues during this difficult period. Rabbi Borodowski has served the Jewish community as a rabbi and a teacher for many years and looks forward to returning to serve his community as soon as his bipolar disorder is properly and effectively treated.”
As one who has a knowledge of mental illness, I respect the synagogue for standing by the Rabbi and I, for one, wish him the benefit of the doubt. When I first heard the story, my gut reaction was that he was mentally ill. There couldn’t be another reason in my mind this kind man I have met could do something like this.
In Judaism, forgiveness of the individual cannot be separated from the context of community. The only way a Jew can obtain spiritual completeness is within his or her community. By coming together and showing compassion, his shul has decided to stand by him and I completely respect their decision.
In an email to the congregation, the shul shared a story written by a member about Moses when he crashed one set of tablets of the Law, which God has just carved and written for the House of Israel as a guide for moral and ethical living. Eventually, he makes peace with his people and there is a clear comparison to their Rabbi and this is said:
The lesson could not be clearer. We DO NOT discard broken tablets or anything that is not whole, not perfect. And, we do not discard people who have erred in some way.
We are a sacred congregation. We are a family; and when one of us falls, we rush to help him up, to stand by him and to support him with compassion and love.
We do this because we are Jews and because we are decent human beings. We do this because it is the right thing to do.
No one is discarded, for who among us is without fault? We all have our moments, don’t we? We know what we must do. We know our slogan. It is a phrase we use but five times a year: “Hazzak, Hazzak V’nit’hazzek.”
Be strong; be very strong; and, for God’s sake, and for ours, let us strengthen each other.
This is the sign of a true community. One that forgives and allows people to fall down and get back up. We can all learn a lesson here.
How about you: do you forgive and forget?