One of the first things Rabbi Alice Goldfinger said as we sat down for our interview is that she would likely forget all about me.
“I’ll know you were here, because the appointment is in my calendar,” she said. “But I won’t remember it. I have no short-term memory. I don’t feel time, so by the way, if we go on too long, you have to tell me.”
It was 10:00 a.m. on a cold wintry morning in Falmouth, Maine, and we were drinking coffee at the long wooden table in her dining room. Goldfinger, 48, has short brown hair, peach skin and tan glasses; a Star of David necklace dangled above the v-neck of her gray sweater. Behind her, French doors opened into a library filled with religious texts, potted plants, a rocking chair and a stand thick with Hebrew sheet music. Photos of her 10-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son hang on the refrigerator.
Everything about Goldfinger appears utterly normal — the passionate way she talks about being a rabbi; her insatiable appetite for helping people; her infectious cackle; even the fact that she is a divorced mother who shares the responsibility of raising her children with their father, who lives in California.
It’s all too easy to forget she has a traumatic brain injury, known medically as TBI.
In December 2009, Goldfinger fell and hit her head, hard, on ice outside Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland, where she had served as rabbi for 10 years. Her brain crashed into her skull, injuring the left side of her brain and her visual cortex. (TBIs occur when a sudden trauma damages the brain. The result can be anything from a mild concussion to amnesia, coma, and short- and long-term problems affecting memory, motor function, sensation and emotion.) It wasn’t until August 2010 — after struggling to return to work, and seeing doctors in New York City, where Goldfinger was formally diagnosed — that she finally understood that her career as a rabbi was over. As she wrote on her blog, Brainstorm: “I was really brain damaged. So much so, that I thought I was fine.”
But this terrible trauma — the very kind she had spent her life helping others navigate — led to a remarkable partnership between a Reform female rabbi and an Orthodox male rabbi who transcended the strictures of his faith and observance to welcome a colleague in need.
Goldfinger leaned back in her chair and calmly clasped her hands as she listed the many tragic losses she’s endured since her injury. She left Bet Ha’am and found herself religiously stateless. She went on disability. She can no longer pursue two of her greatest joys: reading and studying. She relies on her iPhone (“the brain I don’t have”) to remind her when to eat. Even attending services — another joy — is challenging, because the combination of people, sounds and commotion makes her feel ill.
“But I need to go to worship the way you need to eat breakfast,” she said.
What was once an auspicious future leading Maine’s Jewish community became an uncertain world filled with passions almost entirely and forever out of reach. But then a hand reached out from the blurry abyss. Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld, of Portland’s Modern Orthodox synagogue Shaarey Tphiloh, straddled the denominational aisle and invited Goldfinger to help him lead Friday night services and say Kaddish for her mother, who died when Goldfinger was 15.