Sharon, Mass. — Rabbi Miriam Spitzer did not have to mention him by name.
The class of sixth graders at Temple Israel, in Sharon, Massachusetts, knew exactly whom Spitzer was thinking of when she dedicated that day’s lesson to Elisha ben Abuyah, a revered rabbi who became a heretic.
“The lesson was that the Torah taught [by Abuyah] was still Torah,” Spitzer said. “What we learned from somebody who left the fold or was flawed is still good Torah.”
Spitzer taught the class days after the shock resignation of Rabbi Barry Starr, a hugely popular Conservative spiritual leader in this verdant suburb of pastel-colored clapboard houses.
Starr, a former president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, sent an email to congregants on May 6 explaining that he was stepping down immediately after 28 years, “with great remorse and deep regret,” after engaging in “marital infidelity and other serious personal conduct.”
“Human frailty is a part of life, and I leave bearing the guilt and shame of that frailty for the rest of my life,” Starr wrote. “I am sorry for what I have done and for what I have inflicted upon my family and upon my community.”
That same week, Benjamin Maron, executive director of Temple Israel, sent an email to congregants, urging them to put a stop on any uncleared checks made out to the rabbi’s discretionary fund.
At that time, the precise reasons for Starr’s resignation were vague. Congregants were understandably confused by how their rabbi, a former member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the body that sets halachic policy for the Conservative movement, could have strayed so far.
That sense of confusion and disbelief only increased in the weeks that followed as allegations surfaced that Starr had paid between $200,000 and $480,000, over a period of two years, to an extortionist who threatened to expose Starr’s sexual relationship with a 16-year-old boy.
Starr, a 64-year-old father of two, borrowed $50,000 from a congregant of Temple Israel, a Holocaust survivor, to pay part of the extortion money. Several small checks from the rabbi’s discretionary fund also appeared to have been paid into a bank account linked to the extortionist.
Several officers of Temple Israel, as well as members of the congregation, declined to speak to the Forward. One congregant who spoke on condition of anonymity described Starr as a pillar of the community. “He was extremely smart, and people did revere him, and it’s a total shock,” the congregant said.
Arnie Freedman, president of Temple Israel, did not respond to several requests from the Forward for comment. Earlier in May, Freedman told the Boston Globe that Starr’s departure was “the most tragic thing that has happened in the life of this community.”
But the sense of shock in Sharon, a town of about 18,000 people, rippled way beyond Temple Israel.