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.
The Rev. Jim Robinson, minister of the Unitarian Church of Sharon, said that Starr, as spiritual leader of one of the larger congregations in town, was one of the moral leaders of Sharon.
“Temple Israel is very important,” Robinson said of the 630-family synagogue. “It sets the community atmosphere, along with the other religious groups, of the kind of town we want to live in, and Rabbi Starr, up until now, has been a symbol of that.”
Robinson said that Starr’s email to his congregation stunned the town’s entire religious community. But the detailed revelations of sex and extortion that followed created a sense of bewilderment.
Robinson said his congregants, some of whom are Jewish, came to him with stories about how much they appreciated Starr. Then they began a conversation about how to understand how such a thing could happen. “What happens when we lose our moral compass?” Robinson said. “What does this say about being human?”
Nestled in the lush New England countryside on the shore of Lake Massapoag, Sharon is unusually diverse for such a small New England suburb. The town has more than one dozen churches and synagogues, one of the largest mosques in New England and is home to about 1,000 Hindus. One-third of students in the schools are nonwhite.
Sharon began attracting Jews as a summer vacation spot during the 1920s and ’30s. After World War II, many Jewish families moved there permanently, and by the 1960s and ’70s, according to local estimates, about 60% of the town was Jewish.
Just a half-hour commute from Boston or Providence, Rhode Island, Sharon has a high concentration of doctors, lawyers, managers, scientists and tech industry professionals. Today, the Jewish population is shrinking — residents estimate that less than 50% of the town is Jewish— as the community ages and as young families are priced out of the housing market.
Property taxes are among the highest in Massachusetts. The average resale price of a home in the past 12 months was $540,000. New homes start at about $800,000.
During the past decade, the town has seen an influx of Asian families lured by some of the best schools in the state. When Money magazine named Sharon the best place to live in America in 2013, the changing face of the town was epitomized by an affluent Asian family, Farzin Karim and Rushdy Ahmad, who were pictured on the magazine’s cover.
Although the Jewish population has declined in recent decades, Temple Israel and the Reform Temple Sinai of Sharon remain two of the three largest congregations in town, after the largest congregation, the Catholic Our Lady of Sorrows Church.
Starr’s resignation has been covered in detail by the Boston Globe newspaper. Yet David Wluka, a longtime Jewish resident of Sharon, said that nearly three weeks after the event, Sharon’s residents are still not talking about it.
Wluka said that Yahoo’s Jewish Sharon Discussion Group, which has 1,100 members, has been silent on the matter. Wluka has not heard Starr discussed in the coffee shop or at the post office. “I think the town is still trying to absorb it,” Wluka said. “It’s been a tremendous shock.”
Wluka said that after serving the congregation for three decades, Starr has officiated at multiple rites of passage for Sharon families: circumcisions, bar mitzvahs, weddings and burials.
“Everybody loved him,” Wluka said.
Starr is most commonly referred to in the past tense. The language most often used by those few people who are willing to talk about Starr, is language most closely associated with a sudden death. People in Sharon speak of “shock,” “trauma” and “grieving.” Temple Israel has made grief counselors available to congregants.
Inside Temple Israel, photographs of Starr still occupy a prominent position in a display cabinet close to the synagogue’s sanctuary. They include a commemorative photograph marking Starr’s 25th anniversary at Temple Israel, which coincided in 2011 with the time that the blackmail began.
The details of the blackmail unfolded over the past couple of weeks in a series of police affidavits in support of search warrants that were obtained by the Boston Globe.
According to the affidavits, Nicholas Zemeitus, of Milton, Massachusetts, began corresponding with Starr by email in December 2011.
Zemeitus claimed to be the older brother of a teenager that Starr had had a sexual relationship with from the age of 16 to 18. Zemeitus told Starr that he had incriminating emails between Starr and the boy as well as photographs of Starr performing sex acts on the boy in Starr’s bedroom. Zemeitus threatened to send the material to Starr’s wife, to Temple Israel and to the police unless Starr paid him $13,500, which would be used for Zemeitus’s brother’s college education.
In his responses to Zemeitus, Starr said: “I have never knowingly corresponded to any young boys under 18, but if that happened it was not my intention. Tell me what I can do.”
In a later email, Starr said, “I know I screwed up, but I need to put this behind me.”
It is still unclear whether Zemeitus, 29, has a brother or whether he had evidence of a sexual relationship between Starr and a young man. According to the Boston Globe, Zemeitus has a long criminal record , including arrests for possession of a stun gun and brass knuckles, and for threatening to kill a man.
The extortion only came to an end in April of this year when Starr became so desperate for money that he approached Freedman to ask for a $50,000 loan. According to the affidavit of Scott Leonard, a Sharon police officer, Freedman pressed Starr for the reason for the loan. Starr told him about his “romantic relationship with a younger man” and about the extortion.
Freedman refused to give Starr the money. Instead, he helped Starr find an attorney. Freedman also contacted Temple Israel’s attorneys, who arranged for a copy to be made of the hard drive from Starr’s work computer.
A police examination of Starr’s Internet browsing history revealed extensive use of classified postings on Backpage and Craigslist for female escorts and transsexual escorts.
Meanwhile, two congregants contacted Sharon police May 2 and May 5 to report that checks they had made out to the rabbi’s discretionary fund for $18 had been cashed for $1,800 each. The bank details of one of the congregants had also been used to pay someone else’s utility bill, cell phone bill and insurance bill out of the congregant’s account.
According to the affidavit of a Massachusetts State Police Officer, Lieutenant David McSweeney, several congregants at Temple Israel reported that checks they had made out to the synagogue had been altered and cashed. Starr told Freedman that the checks had been stolen from Starr’s office at Temple Israel.
The checks had been paid into a joint account held by Zemeitus and his girlfriend, Alexa Anderson.
When police confronted Zemeitus on May 9 he told officers that he met Starr in 2011 after responding to a Craigslist advertisement. Zemeitus said that he believed he was meeting a 55-year-old woman and he was angry to find Starr instead, and that Starr paid him $100 to go away and keep quiet.
Zemeitus said that Starr paid him a total of $200,000 in subsequent meetings. He also said that Starr had given him eight checks belonging to Temple Israel congregants “who were elderly or… who would not know that the check denominations were altered.”
Thomas Hoopes, an attorney for Starr, declined to respond to questions about the extortion. Hoopes said that Starr, “his family, and the community are the victims.”
In his email to congregants, Starr said that he would sell his home and leave Sharon as soon as possible.
Morris Kesselman, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor who loaned Starr $50,000 in November of last year, has placed a lien on Starr’s home to try to recover the money if and when Starr sells his property. Kesselman declined to speak to the Forward.
A spokesman for the Norfolk District Attorney’s Office said no criminal charges have been brought against anyone in relation to the case. Court filings give no clue as to where Starr found the majority of the money he is alleged to have paid Zemeitus.
Many congregants and people in the wider Sharon community are waiting for more information as they try to understand how and why this could have happened.
At a recent Sabbath morning bar mitzvah, the congregation, like one big family, laughed at Cantor Steven Dress’s jokes and asides. Freedman took to the bimah to say a few words to the bar mitzvah boy. But Starr was conspicuous by his absence.
Spitzer said that, likely, the most important answers to the congregation’s questions will never be answered. As she told her class of sixth graders: “Some questions we never get answers to. Part of growing up and going on is being able to live with partial answers and live with unknowns.”