This story was corrected at 4:17 p.m., Sept. 12, 2011, to state that Alice Goldfinger provides the primary residence for her two children under her divorce judgment.


FALMOUTH — When Rabbi Alice Goldfinger’s mother was dying in the hospital from a brain tumor, her rabbi stood by her side. Goldfinger called him a “professional shower-upper” who was there supporting her mother and family when others shied away from the difficult situation.

Goldfinger had thought about being a rabbi since third grade, but that moment made her certain.

She, too, wanted to be a “professional shower-upper.”

“I can’t be that anymore,” she said through tears.

In December 2009, Goldfinger, a divorced mother who provides the primary residence for her two children under her divorce judgment, had a serious fall. Her brain slammed against her skull, damaging the left side of her brain and her visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes what one sees.

“I’ve been told many, many times what my diagnosis is, but I don’t remember,” she said. “All I know is that I’ve heard the word ‘TBI’ many times.”

TBI stands for “traumatic brain injury” in medical circles. For Goldfinger, who loved learning and teaching and being an active rabbi with a congregation, TBI has meant losing her grip on who she is and her purpose in life.

She remembers the fall, in the icy parking lot of Temple Bet Ha’am in South Portland, where she had been rabbi for about 10 years. She went down, blacked out, and when she came to she didn’t feel the pain, just the intense cold.

“I remember waking up and feeling the ice and loving the ice.”

She was helped to her office and, as best she can remember, tried to continue her usual duties. But she fell again that day, this time in her office, and realized she needed help. She went to the emergency room and was diagnosed with a concussion, but nothing more.

Later in the week, she still didn’t feel right and went to a neurologist, who told her to take time off from work to rest. She eventually returned to her congregation at Bet Ha’am, but struggled to fulfill the myriad duties of a spiritual leader, from sermons to providing counsel.

She went to another doctor and scaled back her work to 15 hours a week on partial disability. Eventually she had to leave the congregation altogether.

For this kind of injury, recovery is a mystery. Full or partial recovery may come with time, but nothing is certain.

Today, Goldfinger tells the time of year by the weather outside and keeps track of the days by her pink digital watch. She has no concept of time, and sometimes forgets who she is. Large crowds overwhelm her, and she can “function” well only for four to five hours a day between periods of rest.

And she can no longer study Hebrew and Judaism for hours on end, a tragedy for her. Instead, her days are filled with therapy and caring for her children, ages 9 and 10.

She goes often to the Woodlands Club in Falmouth, a country club where she learns how to work with her disability through tennis and which she calls holy because of the way people there have helped and welcomed her. At home, she meditates, and from her bed, she writes her blog, Brainstorm.

The blog has become her sermon. No longer outwardly addressing a congregation on matters of faith and the world, she turns her focus inward on her blog, describing what her world has become because of the injury, and how her faith plays a role.

“I’ve gained time with the two most precious people in the world, my children,” she wrote July 30. “I did not know it was possible to love and be loved so much until this injury destroyed a family groove that needed tweaking anyway. Sometimes the children and I sit out on the porch swing after dinner and do nothing for a really long time. At least, I think it’s a long time.”

Goldfinger is full of humor and laughs heartily when she has the energy. She describes cooking dinner as an adventure, because she doesn’t know whether or not she will burn down the house. Luckily, she has hired a nanny to help with such tasks. She is finding ways to cope, but that doesn’t make it easier.

“People want to see you get better or die,” she said.

All she wanted after this injury was to return to her job as a working rabbi, but it’s impossible to say whether that will ever happen.

“I am still brain damaged and have plateaued in certain areas,” Goldfinger wrote on Brainstorm on Aug. 22. “This means I know I will never, ever feel a Tuesday or April. Every day, I will wonder how much longer until Shabbat (Sabbath), including on Shabbat. I will look at my watch with the month, day and year and memorize. My short-term memory won’t improve much nor will my attention span.”

And although she has changed, that doesn’t mean she has lost all of who Rabbi Alice Goldfinger was before her fall.

“I’ve tried to reassure her of her many gifts that are still hers,” said Rabbi Janet Marder, who worked with Goldfinger in California. “I don’t know if Alice can see it in herself, but I’ve seen quite a lot of improvement.”

Goldfinger was the acting regional director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in Los Angeles before moving to Maine to serve at Bet Ha’am.

Ordained in 1992, she has a master’s degree in Hebrew literature from Hebrew Union College in New York, and a bachelor’s degree in French literature from Boston University.

“She is exceedingly bright, energetic and totally focused on doing her best,” Marder said.

That road has been hard, largely because Goldfinger’s injury left her with little awareness of how she comes across to people. After she left Bet Ha’am, she sought another working rabbi position at a different synagogue. When she didn’t get the job, she asked why.

The congregation responded that Goldfinger was interrupting them, unable to answer their questions, and not making much sense. She couldn’t understand.

This baffling disconnection between reality and her perception of it went on for about eight months after the injury, until her brother came to visit and realized how bad the situation was.

Abram Goldfinger, who works at New York University in the medical center, set up appointments with rehabilitation specialists at NYU.

It was there at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine at NYU that she discovered what was wrong.

Currently, her rehab is focused on regaining mental stamina and relearning basic skills such as getting dressed and going grocery shopping — and remembering to take the groceries out of the car afterward.

Still, there are times she speaks inappropriately or gets lost in her own neighborhood. She sets three alarms during the day to remind herself to eat. When she gets dressed in the morning, she has a list on her nightstand that tells her what to wear so she doesn’t forget anything.

And she no longer can read for long periods of time. When she does read at all, she has to take notes to keep up with the characters and plot. She said that no matter how much she wants to focus and concentrate on a page, she cannot.

“She used to be able to work long hours, juggling tasks and always on call to help so many people,” her brother said.

She can no longer learn and teach Judaism in the way that she wanted, and she got rid of about two-thirds of her religious book collection because she said they would have taken over her home if she didn’t.

“That was like having my heart removed without anesthesia,” she said of getting rid of books that have been the core of her life for so long.

She is fully disabled and lives on Social Security, and while all she wants to do is work, she cannot. In her blog, she describes how everyday events are difficult for her.

“A group of brain-damaged, former high achievers was brought together by a mutual acquaintance with all his marbles. He called, emailed, confirmed and reconfirmed. After our first meeting he sent us off to meet on our own. We were supposed to get together this week. I wish I could publish the email chain!

‘So what day are we meeting? Where? Is it this week? On what day? Where do you live? Is it this week? On what day? Today? I have an appointment today? What time? Where?’ Needless to say the get-together didn’t come off. But the last time we met it was thrilling to be with formerly fabulous people. They haven’t lost the juice, just the power to pour without spilling. One, thank God, managed to sell his very successful company six months after injury, before anyone, including himself noticed that he couldn’t run it anymore.”

Her blog helps her communicate to the world, she says.

“I had a vision, and there were things I wanted to do to heal the world and make a difference,” Goldfinger said. “Writing may be the only way I can contribute.”

When Goldfinger began her blog, she had no idea how to start one. A rabbi she didn’t know very well wrote her an email that she said was beautiful, and that encouraged her to pursue this challenge. Her young son quickly set it up.

“I’m a speaker, not a writer,” she said.

Her intelligent posts are proving that wrong. She can write for about 10 to 15 minutes at a time, and her blog had 2,428 page views as of Friday at noon.

“She is a woman who sounds good, looks good and sounds bright,” said Fran Schneit, a friend and member of Bet Ha’am. “I love her.”

That makes it so much harder. Goldfinger has had to learn many compensatory skills all over again.

“A person with a brain injury needs the support of those around and who really care,” said Schneit.

Schneit decided to join Bet Ha’am after she read an article about Goldfinger showing up to help a woman who was ill through surgery. Goldfinger was there before the surgery and as soon as the woman woke up afterward.

Schneit didn’t know it at the time, but Goldfinger was being the “professional shower-upper” she had vowed to become.

“I had never experienced a rabbi in that kind of way.” Even now, Goldfinger never fails to ask Schneit if there is anything she can do for her.

In her own way, Goldfinger still shows up to work every day, but now it’s as “Rabbi Brainstorm.”

“I know I’m not done,” Goldfinger said.

Staff Writer Ellie Cole can be contacted at 791-6359 or at: ecole@pressherald.com