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The Miami Herald
BY CASEY WOODS, cwoods@MiamiHerald.com
Supporters call for the return to the congregation of Brazil’s most prominent rabbi, despite his shoplifting arrest in Palm Beach.
The recent Palm Beach vacation of Brazil’s most prominent Jewish leader ended abruptly when police arrested him on charges he shoplifted neckties at swanky stores on Worth Avenue.
Rabbi Henry Sobel blames pills to treat his insomnia and depression for behavior unbecoming a rabbi.
The stunning fall from public grace of Sobel — the charismatic leader who faced down Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1970s and has become a key player for interfaith work in Latin America — threatens his leadership in that country’s largest synagogue.
Sobel was arrested after a Louis Vuitton shopkeeper said he took a $170 red tie without paying. Police found four more ties in his car from other stores.
After his release on a $3,000 bond, Sobel checked himself into a Sao Paulo hospital. His doctors later said he was taking unidentified but powerful insomnia and antidepressant medications before his March 23 arrest.
Wearing a hospital gown and a yarmulke perched on his mop of gray hair, Sobel held a press conference at the hospital. ”The Henry Sobel who committed these acts is not the Henry Sobel that you know,” said Sobel, 63. “I want to apologize for the troubles I created.”
Sobel took a leave from the Congregacao Israelita Paulista, or CIP, which under his watch increased membership to unprecedented levels. His shoplifting case was downgraded from a felony to three misdemeanor charges, and he will soon have his day in court — if his attorney doesn’t manage a plea.
”I hardly need a defense . . . because this is someone who has led an exemplary life up until now, and this is inexplicable except for the stress he was under and the medication he was using,” said Sobel’s attorney, Marc Shiner. “He really didn’t know what he was doing.”
In March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued safety warnings for 13 popular sleeping pills, cautioning that the drugs could cause unusual behaviors like sleep-eating or sleep-driving.
Those effects generally occur while someone is sleeping, not when they are apparently functioning during the day as Sobel seemed to be, said Dr. Julio Licinio, head of the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine’s psychiatry department. ”In cases like this, many people point to the drugs, but depression and anxiety alone . . . can make people behave in unpredictable and bizarre ways,” Licinio said.
Dr. Flavio Huck, Sobel’s doctor, said that Sobel had changed antidepressant medication a week before his arrest and that he was taking more sleeping pills than he was prescribed. ”I believe it was a combination of factors — his state of stress and depression, the excessive use of sleeping pills — that led him to do things he normally wouldn’t do,” Huck told The Miami Herald on Friday.
Sobel’s troubles are an aberration, his supporters say, for a figure beloved by Brazilians of all faiths.
In 1975, Sobel, a naturalized American citizen ordained in New York and later hired by CIP, presided over the funeral of prominent journalist Vladimir Herzog. Herzog was tortured and killed by the military, but government officials declared his death a suicide.
For Jews, suicide is considered a sin, one marked by burial near the wall of the cemetery. Sobel buried Herzog near the cemetery’s heart — among the first acts of open defiance against the old dictatorship.
”He stepped forward at a time when it was very dangerous to do so,” said Aventura resident Leo Ickowicz, a member of the Sao Paulo synagoguein the 1970s.
When Sobel came to CIP, he spoke little Portuguese. ”He very quickly found the best way to learn a language was to have a girlfriend, and so he got one,” Ickowicz said. “He never lost his heavy American accent, and I think he keeps it now because it’s part of his charm. He wants people to know he’s American.”
Sobel went on to revitalize the CIP with a school, social events for young people and classes for the elderly, Ickowicz said. The once-fading congregation now has more than 1,800 families.
”I was blown away by the attendance,” said World Jewish Congress Secretary General Stephen Herbits of a visit to CIP. “He’s like a superstar, so warm and engaging.”
Sobel’s charisma helped him lead the World Jewish Congress’ interfaith work in Latin America and move past painful historic scars.
In 2003, he convinced members of the synagogue — started in the 1930s by Jews fleeing the Nazis — to accept a visit from Germany’s then-foreign minister, Joschka Fischer.
”No one else could have done it,” said Maram Stern, deputy secretary general of the World Jewish Congress. “To ask Jewish kids to sing in front of a German foreign minister you have to be strong. . . . If any other rabbi had tried to do it, they would have killed him.”
Sobel is not popular with everyone. He was censured by the synagogue’s board in 1993 for using a Playboy magazine interview to question the practice of celibacy for priests, statements that angered many Catholics. More conservative Jewish factions have taken issue with his focus on interfaith work, and in 2000, he survived an attempt by the board to remove him.
Those who admire Sobel insist he should continue to lead CIP despite his arrest.
”If he did that, it’s wrong, but everyone is human,” said Aventura resident Paula Klein, who Sobel converted to Judaism. “CIP is his life, and I don’t think they can find someone else who can possibly replace him. I can’t imagine CIP without him.”