Rabbi Barry Starr, who in May resigned from his 28-year position with Temple Israel of Sharon amid allegations surrounding an extramarital sexual relationship and payments to an alleged extortionist, remains connected to the congregation “in hearts and minds” but is no longer involved in temple activity, its president says.
Starr has sold his Sharon home and plans to move out of the area as early as this month, temple president Arnie Freedman said in an interview. The Conservative congregation is still reeling from the loss of its beloved religious leader, during whose tenure the congregation had grown, and who had held national and regional leadership positions in Conservative Judaism.
“He leaves behind a lot of people who care very deeply about him and are concerned for him and the welfare of his family,” Freedman said.
As the investigation into the alleged extortion continues, Temple Israel has been forced to compensate for the void left in synagogue life.
Rabbi Leslie Gordon of Needham has been named interim rabbi on a part-time basis for some services from September through June, including for the High Holidays. She has previously led some of Temple Israel’s parallel High Holiday services — simultaneous services held at the temple, but not in the sanctuary, to accommodate an overflow crowd, she said.
In a telephone interview, Gordon said she considers herself a longtime friend of Temple Israel and is glad members called on her in their time of need.
“I have just a great affection for the community,” she said.
Gordon has lived in Needham for 17 years. She works part-time as an instructor for the Jewish Discovery Institute, which offers Conservative Jewish conversion programs throughout the Boston area, and she teaches a few classes at Mayyim Hayyim, a mikveh — a ritual immersion pool and education center — in Newton. She also does fill-in work at Needham’s Temple Aliyah, where she is a member.
When Gordon is not available, Temple Israel members, including some who are rabbis, will lead Shabbat services and children’s programs, Freedman said.
The temple plans to have a rabbinic search committee in place by the end of August and to conduct interviews in the fall and winter. The synagogue’s vibrant congregation is likely to attract many good candidates, he said. He anticipates hiring someone in March or April to start July 1.
The investigation into the alleged actions of Starr, and into extortion allegedly perpetrated by Nicholas Zemeitus of Milton, remains ongoing. No criminal charges have been filed, according to Michael Connolly, a spokesman for Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey.
Sworn statements that are part of the court record allege that, beginning two years ago, Starr engaged in a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old male, and that he may have paid as much as $480,000 to Zemeitus, who allegedly threatened to expose the relationship.
According to court records, e-mails to the rabbi that allegedly came from Zemeitus say that he discovered e-mails between Starr and the 16-year-old, and that they included photographs of sexual activity with the teenager, and that he would print the e-mails and make them public if Starr did not follow his instructions.
Starr is alleged to have taken some of the money to pay Zemeitus from the rabbi’s discretionary fund, which is often used to help congregants in need.
But Freedman questioned that allegation, saying it came from a statement made by Zemeitus.
According to a statement to the court by Scott Leonard, a Sharon police detective, Zemeitus said Starr gave him checks that belonged to the temple or to the rabbi’s discretionary fund and told him to alter the amounts and deposit them into his bank account. Zemeitus allegedly added zeros to the dollar amount on at least one check and used a temple donor’s checking account number to pay bills, Leonard said.
Zemeitus could not be reached for this article. In May at his home, Zemeitus at first told a Globe reporter he did not know Starr, and then said he had once bought a cellphone from the rabbi. He said there was a “misunderstanding” about the alleged extortion.
An attorney representing Starr, who also could not be reached, has described him as a victim.
Freedman said that the rabbi’s fund is not nearly large enough to have covered the sum allegedly paid to Zemeitus, and that all the donations temple members make to the fund over one, two, or even three years would not be enough. He said the rabbi appears to have borrowed money from individuals.
Court documents allege Starr borrowed tens of thousands of dollars from congregants, and that he sought $50,000 from Freedman before resigning from his position. Additionally, Morris Kesselman, a congregant in his 80s and a Holocaust survivor, filed a lawsuit in May accusing the rabbi of failing to repay a $50,000 loan for which he had pleaded last fall, saying he had a “severe personal problem,” according to the lawsuit.
Starr admitted an extramarital relationship in a letter e-mailed to congregants in May.
“I write this letter with a very heavy heart and a sense of shame and remorse that makes this the most difficult thing I have done in my life,” he wrote, later adding, “It is with great remorse and deep regret that I acknowledge I have engaged in marital infidelity and other serious personal conduct which require me to resign.”