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Rabbi allegedly misused funds to keep liaison with teen quiet

Rabbi Barry Starr developed a national reputation as a leader in Conservative Judaism.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Rabbi Barry Starr developed a national reputation as a leader in Conservative Judaism.

STOUGHTON — After allegedly starting a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old male two years ago, Rabbi Barry Starr paid as much as $480,000 to buy the silence of a Milton man who professed to be the teenager’s brother and who threatened to expose the relationship, according to sworn statements released Monday in Stoughton District Court.

Starr, who developed a national reputation as a leader in Conservative Judaism in his 28 years as rabbi of Temple Israel of Sharon, allegedly transferred money from the rabbi’s discretionary fund to the alleged extortionist. That man — identified in court documents as Nicholas Zemeitus, 29, of Milton — told authorities the rabbi suggested altering checks written by elderly congregants to increase their value, according to documents that police filed in court while seeking search warrants.

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Rabbi Starr also sought and received tens of thousands of dollars from longtime congregants and used that money to assure the man’s continued silence, according to court documents. Many of those congregants revered the rabbi and thought of him as family, including an elderly Holocaust survivor who is now suing his former spiritual leader.

Among those approached by Rabbi Starr for money before he resigned was Arnie Freedman, the temple’s president. The rabbi told Freedman several weeks ago that he was in trouble and needed to borrow $50,000, according to the documents.

“Starr would not describe the trouble he was in,” Scott Leonard, a detective in the Sharon Police Department, wrote in his statement to the court.

Freedman pressed the rabbi for more details about why he needed the money. “Starr told Freedman that he [Starr] got involved in a romantic relationship with a younger man, who he [Starr] met online and that the man’s older brother was now extorting money from him,” Detective Leonard wrote. “Starr said the man was threatening to make details of the romantic relationship public.”

In an e-mailed statement Monday, an attorney representing Starr said that the rabbi had fallen victim to a “vicious extortioner.”

The detective said the allegations supported potential charges of larceny by false pretense, forgery, and forging a document. It was unclear from the documents whether Starr or Zemeitus, or both, could face those charges. Both of their homes were searched.

According to the court documents, Starr told Freedman that the alleged extortion by Zemeitus started shortly after the rabbi’s relationship began with the youth about two years ago. It was unclear how long the relationship lasted. The teenager’s name was not in the documents. The age of consent in Massachusetts is 16 — the teen’s age when the relationship allegedly started, according to the documents.

Zemeitus could not be reached by telephone Monday. A woman answered the door Monday night at the Milton residence listed in public records as Zemeitus’s home and said he would not be home until later in the evening. The woman declined further comment.

In a conversation he had with Detective Leonard and State Police Lieutenant David McSweeney, Zemeitus said he met the rabbi on Craigslist, a website known for enabling casual sexual encounters, according to the court documents. After exchanging e-mails, the two met at Starr’s home in Sharon, where he lived with his wife and two children.

Zemeitus told investigators he thought he was going to meet a 55-year-old woman and became upset when he arrived at the rabbi’s home and found a bearded man in his 60s.

“Zemeitus told us that he got angry as Starr lied about his true gender and appearance,” Leonard wrote. “Zemeitus told Starr that he was going to inform Starr’s wife about the meeting and that he would be outed.”

In response, the rabbi offered to pay Zemeitus $100 to keep the meeting quiet, Leonard wrote in his report.

It was not clear from the documents how the seemingly chance meeting supported Zemeitus’s story that he was acting on behalf of his younger brother. It remained unclear whether Zemeitus is in fact the teenager’s brother.

Zemeitus told investigators he met Starr several times over the past two years, including at Temple Israel, and that the money was exchanged to buy his silence. He told police he estimated receiving $200,000 from the rabbi; Starr told Freedman he paid Zemeitus an estimated $480,000.

Over the past month, said Zemeitus, Starr gave him eight checks belonging to the temple or the rabbi’s discretionary fund, which is often used to help congregants in need, and told Zemeitus to change the dollar amounts and deposit them into his bank account.

“Starr told him that the checks came from people from within the temple who were elderly or people who would not know that the check denominations were altered,” Leonard wrote.

Zemeitus allegedly added two zeros to the end of an $18 check — a spiritual number in Judaism that represents life or good luck — written by a congregant, according to court documents. Another $18 check left in the temple’s donation box by a woman was also altered and cashed, made to look as if it had been written for $1,800, as well, Leonard said.

Zemeitus also used one of the women’s checking account numbers to pay several bills, including $148.54 to T-Mobile, $540.63 to Progressive Direct Insurance, and $537.32 to NStar, Leonard wrote.

The utility account was in the name of Alexa Anderson, who lives at the same address as Zemeitus.

“Zemeitus told us that Starr had made those payments for him and Anderson,” Leonard wrote.

Officials at the Norfolk district attorney’s office declined to comment.

Thomas Hoopes, a Boston attorney representing Starr, described his 64-year-old client as a victim.

“The rabbi, his family, and his community have been the victims of a vicious extortioner,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The case is as simple and as awful as that.”

He added: “Law enforcement will hopefully determine the truth of any story Zemeitus has made up and assess any other allegations.”

Last week, Starr was also accused of failing to repay a $50,000 loan he received from Morris Kesselman, an 87-year-old congregant who secured a lien on the rabbi’s home.

In a lawsuit filed in Stoughton District Court, Kesselman, a Holocaust survivor, said Starr came to his house in Sharon last fall and pleaded for the money, saying he had “a severe personal problem.”

This month, hundreds of members of the Conservative temple received a letter from the rabbi, in which he acknowledged his wrongdoing. “Sometimes people who try to be good people do things that are wrong, hurtful, and shameful,” wrote Starr.

Congregants who attended a meeting last week were still struggling to comprehend the allegations and sudden resignation of someone they have looked up to for so long.

In a statement, Freedman, the temple’s president, said the congregation “has been profoundly troubled and upset by these events.”

“We are cooperating fully with law enforcement officials,” he said. “At the same time, we are endeavoring to respect the rabbi’s request for privacy. We have come together as a community, united in our faith in God and our shared sense of sadness.”

Related coverage:

Rabbi at Sharon temple faces suit

Longtime Sharon rabbi abruptly resigns

Globe correspondent Derek Anderson contributed to this report. David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com.

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