Sharon congregants take comfort in their small-town ‘family’
Shocked by charges vs. rabbi, they point to all the positives in town
SHARON — It’s the kind of place where coffee shop servers pose for photos with customers, and the guy who sells glasses offers an unsolicited free eye exam to a stranger who walks in off the street. The kind of place where people like to say that everyone knows everyone else’s business, in a good way.
Lots of small towns advertise that they are neighborly, accepting, and communal, but in Sharon, they back it up with appearances on national best-places-to-live lists.
That feeling of community is especially strong among Sharon’s Jews, who make up a sizable segment of the population of 18,000 in this onetime summer resort 22 miles south of Boston. The word that keeps coming up when people talk about what it’s like to be Jewish here is “family.”
And for congregants of Temple Israel of Sharon, Rabbi Barry Starr was a trusted, beloved leader of that family. This has magnified the shock over allegations that Starr used contributions from congregants to buy the silence of a Milton man who threatened to expose a sexual relationship the rabbi allegedly started with a 16-year-old boy two years ago, according to court documents released last Monday. Starr, head rabbi at the synagogue for 28 years, resigned earlier this month.
“There are a lot of people who don’t want to believe that a rabbi could do this,” said Paul Maltzman, 83, a retired structural engineer, a veteran, and a member of Temple Israel since 1958. Starr, Maltzman said, officiated the bar mitzvah of his son and the bat mitzvah of his daughter. “I consider him my friend. I knew him 28 years. This is why I’m so upset.”
Starr, who developed a national reputation as a leader in Conservative Judaism, allegedly transferred money from his discretionary fund to the alleged extortionist.
The fund is a material expression of the trust congregants place in a rabbi — it can be used for any cause, big or small, as the rabbi sees fit. The money is not subject to the same kind of careful oversight that monitors spending of all other contributions to the synagogue, a common arrangement that is meant to protect the people it benefits, said Arnie Freedman, who holds the elected lay leadership position of president of Temple Israel.
“If you were in need, you would go to your rabbi, and people wouldn’t know you are hurting,” Freedman said. He cited typical examples of Starr’s use of this money as helping someone who has fallen on hard times meet mortgage payments or replace a refrigerator that had died. “It’s totally at the rabbi’s discretion and it’s very private.”
Maltzman and Freedman, like other members of Temple Israel interviewed for this article, emphasized that the allegations, which have surfaced amid an investigation by the Norfolk district attorney’s office, have not been proven. Starr is also facing legal action initiated by an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor, who said his spiritual adviser failed to repay him a $50,000 loan. Starr sought and was denied a loan of $50,000 from Freedman, according to court records.
“People are both mystified and sad. Some people are grieving. People don’t know what to make of it,” said Seth Ruskin, 43, a Sharon business owner. “I’ve always trusted the rabbi and I had no reason not to trust this one.”
Many people interviewed in and around Sharon last week were reluctant to discuss the specific allegations against Starr. They preferred to talk about what made their close-knit community special, and in these troubled times, supportive.
Ruskin spoke at a Starbucks in the large shopping center in Canton, just across the town line. Sharon’s voters, he said, want to keep their small town small and personal. Part of that means often stubbornly resisting development and cellphone towers, but also means spending lavishly on schools and conservation land.
“It all comes down to attitude,” Ruskin said. “People have this attitude that Sharon is great. People are happy to keep it that way.”
The small-town pride was evident on a blustery spring day in Post Office Square, the quaint intersection of shops surrounded by church steeples, greenery, and American flags. Next to the Indian restaurant that opened last year, which some residents point to as a small hint of the town’s increasing diversity, a realtor’s office displayed the cover of a Money Magazine issue that named Sharon the best place to live among American small towns for 2013. The town’s welcome sign reads “A nice place to live because it’s naturally beautiful.”
The town jewel, as residents call it, is Lake Massapoag, which drew summer vacationers to Sharon from the 1800s until the 1940s, and is still an epicenter of town life, with concerts, fireworks, fishing, and swimming.
“After returning from vacation, I often come home and realize that I already live in a vacation village,” said Elana Margolis, 38, who works in Boston but lives in Sharon and is a member of Temple Israel.
The thought cheers her up after the double dose of bad news she received last week. Kehillah Schechter Academy, the Jewish day school her fourth-grader and first-grader attend in nearby Norwood and where her husband teaches, announced Thursday night that it would close at the end of the academic year next month. Now, she said, several families in Sharon and surrounding communities that send their children to the academy are trying to start a new school.
“It was a rough week for Sharon,” she said. Margolis said she has been getting support from people outside her congregation. “Everybody knows everybody’s business, which can drive you crazy,” she said. “But in a crisis, you realize the beauty of it.”
Jews began migrating in force to Sharon out of Boston in the middle of the last century, and at one point, by some estimates, constituted as much as 60 percent of the town population.
Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but a 2005 survey released in 2006 by Combined Jewish Philanthropies found 21,500 Jewish adults and children in “Greater Sharon,” which the report defined as Canton, Sharon, and Stoughton.
Those three towns, according to the 2010 census, had a combined population of about 64,500, suggesting that the Jewish population of the area constitutes a third, compared with about 4 percent of the statewide population and 7.2 percent of the overall Boston area.
“Anybody would say raising kids here is fantastic,” Nancy Kriegel, an assistant director of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, who moved to Sharon with her husband before having children because her siblings had already settled here. “It feels like a safe haven in a chaotic 21st century.”
Demographics have been shifting in the past five to seven years, Freedman said.
“We have become a place that attracts all kinds of ethnic groups,” he said. “Anyone who walks the streets in the summertime can see a range — Hasidic Jews, Asian families, people of color. You can walk through town and be openly accepted and not feel you that you are an outcast and that people are staring at you.”
Freedman also cited interfaith cooperation among the town’s churches, synagogues, and Islamic center, and what he called unusually friendly relations among Jewish denominations.
Sharon also has a feature that for Orthodox Jews has an added effect of home — a symbolic enclosure known as an eruv, defined in Judaic religious law as an area where observant Jews are freed from the Sabbath prohibition on carrying items — food, house keys, babies.
The Sharon eruv, founded in 1990, is a set of poles and string surrounding a section of town. Once an eruv is in place, everything inside the eruv is considered an extension of the home, where carrying items on the Sabbath is permissible. In a sense, the eruv is a big backyard.
The eruv is not as much of a factor for Jews who do not observe the restriction against carrying items. But, Margolis said, “it strengthens the sense of proximity or feeling of community.”
“Our community is bigger and stronger than any one person,” she said.
Temple Israel, Freedman said, has already organized a task force to start the process of selecting part-time rabbinic coverage. In the meantime, he said, people have stepped up to fill the void left by Starr’s resignation, including members of the congregation who are rabbis.
“In the short term, life goes on,” he said. In coming weeks, there are three baby namings, two conversions, some bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs.
“Life events go on, and life cycles, those go on,” he said Friday. “We were all shellshocked. But tomorrow is to celebrate joy and celebrate life.”