Brazilian Community in Shock After Rabbi Jailed for Shoplifting
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Brazilian Community in Shock After Rabbi Jailed for Shoplifting

Jewish leaders are awaiting a medical and psychiatric evaluation of Brazil’s best-known rabbi after Henry Sobel was charged with shoplifting designer neckties in Florida.

Sobel checked into Sao Paulo’s Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital on March 30, a day after he asked to be temporarily relieved of his duties as head of the Sao Paulo Israeli Congregation, the largest Jewish synagogue in Latin America.

A hospital statement said the rabbi had taken large quantities of insomnia-treatment drugs that “cause potential states of mental confusion and amnesia.”

Sobel returned to Brazil after being released March 24 by the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office, where he was arrested and charged with retail theft in multiple locations. He was released from jail after posting bond.

Sobel was arrested March 23 after a surveillance camera in a Louis Vuitton store allegedly showed him shoplifting a tie. It reportedly was found later in his car along with four other expensive, brand-name ties, but Sobel allegedly did not have receipts for any of them.

Sobel, 63, a Portuguese-born American citizen, will be arraigned in a Florida court April 23, when he will enter a plea.

At a televised hospital news conference March 30, Sobel said “the Henry Sobel that committed the act is not the Henry Sobel that you know. I don’t possess the psychological knowledge to explain what happened, to explain the unexplainable.”

JTA could not reach Sobel for further comment.

Since the arrest, Jewish leaders have stressed the ecumenical nature of Sobel’s work. Sobel has helped create dialogue between the Jewish and Christian communities in Brazil.

Before rendering their own verdicts, Jewish leaders say they are waiting for the medical community to explain whether his “mood disorder” could have induced him to shoplift.

“We need Sobel’s doctors to say what if any kind of illness he had,” said! Osias W urman, vice president of the Jewish Confederation of Brazil, which unites the country’s 13 regional Jewish federations. “Otherwise, how can we know if he is sick or guilty?

“Maimonedes said that if you’re not sure if someone is guilty, it’s better not to punish him than punish him unjustly. But he said that if a Jewish scholar, who should know right from wrong, is guilty, he should be punished far more severely than an ignorant person who doesn’t know any better.”

Sobel is the chief spokesman for Brazil’s Jewish community, and his arrest made national headlines here. On March 24, Rio de Janeiro’s O Globo newspaper, the country’s second largest, published part of his arrest document, with his mug shot and booking data on its front page.

Humorists have had a field day. One cartoon in O Estado de Sao Paulo, another major paper, pictured Sobel’s face and below a black-and-white, prison-stripe print tie. One O Globo humor column suggested that a Jew should know how to bargain.

“The media hasn’t exploited Sobel; it has just jumped on a hot story,” said Rabbi Nilton Bonder, who heads a Rio de Janeiro congregation. “It’s hot because Judaism is considered to be a highly moral religion and because Sobel has for years courted the media, which helped make him a well-known public figure, if not a larger-than-life character. And the media can break you as easily as it can make you.”

Bonder believes Sobel’s arrest may tarnish his reputation but won’t ruin it.

“One incident of this type cannot erase all the good Henry has done in his 36 years of being a rabbi in Brazil,” Bonder said. “Besides all of his regular religious duties, he has also been a bridge between the Jewish and Christian communities in Brazil, and has helped create an ecumenical dialogue between them.”

Sobel, who had met with Pope John Paul II, was one of 10 non-Christian spiritual leaders chosen to meet with Pope Benedict XVI when he comes to Brazil in May. Sobel has met numerous times! with Br azilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who visited his synagogue in February for a service marking the 62nd anniversary of the liberation of Nazi death camps.

Sobel became well known in par, for vehemently criticizing torture under the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. In the early 1980s he joined forces with Sao Paulo Archbishop Paulo Evaristo Arns and Presbyterian Pastor Jaime Wright to collect documents verifying acts of torture during the military regime, a project that became a book, “Brazil: Nunca Mais” (“Brazil: Never Again”).

Sobel has shown unwavering support for Israel, backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and has been highly critical of what he called the “anti-Semitic rhetoric” of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Both Sobel and Bonder are members of Brazilian Jewry’s Liberal movement, which most resembles the Conservative movement in the United States. His synagogue has segregated seating for men and women.

Of the 150,000 Brazilian Jews who are observant and practicing, 90 percent belong to Orthodox synagogues and 10 percent belong to Liberal ones.

“Sobel’s arrest has not rocked the Jewish community here because it is mostly made up of Orthodox Jews, not Liberal movement ones,” said the confederation’s Wurman, who is Orthodox. “But his arrest has had a big impact on the non-Jewish community because for non-Jews Sobel has, for most of his 36 years here, been the face of the Jewish community here.”

Although the non-Jewish public was shocked by Sobel’s arrest, most tended to give him the benefit of the doubt. Eight of 11 letters to the editor in O Globo the day after his hospital news conference were sympathetic.

In one letter, a man named Valdemiro Dias wondered what led Sobel, whom Dias claimed earns $26,800 a month, to steal ties worth $680.

“There’s no other explanation than ! he is a kleptomaniac urgently needing treatment,” Dias wrote. “Any other explanation would leave people with a sense of spiritual emptiness.”

In another letter, Maria Franca wrote, “As a Catholic Brazilian educator, I give Rabbi Sobel my total support. His voice was always heard during this society’s critical moments. I ask that we temporarily suspend judging him and, in the worst-case scenario, to have the grace to pardon a great leader who wounded himself.”

Although the media attention to Sobel has subsided, the O Estado de Sao Paulo has continued to publish letters about him, most of them sympathetic.

Nevoiro Junior, mayor of the city of Rio Claro, wrote recently, “I can’t but support Rabbi Henry Sobel. His small error can’t stain the biography of someone who has so greatly served our country.”

Columnist Zuenir Ventura wrote April 4 in O Globo, “One must believe that what happened to Rabbi Henry Sobel was an emotional breakdown, a pathology, or the collateral effect of an improper mixture of medications, as his doctors diagnosed.”

Ventura added that this explanation was the only way “to mitigate the shock” of his arrest.

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