Rabbi pleads not guilty to taking cash from Sharon synagogue
DEDHAM — Barry Starr, the Conservative rabbi who stepped down last year from Temple Israel in Sharon, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges that he borrowed and stole nearly $500,000 from his synagogue and its congregants to buy the silence of a man charged with blackmailing him.
Starr, who was hugged by former congregants when he arrived in Norfolk Superior Court in Dedham, is accused of paying off Nicholas Zemeitus of Quincy with cash, checks, and banking information as part of a shakedown that went on for years.
Starr was charged with larceny over $250 and embezzlement by a fiduciary, which means he faces a maximum of 15 years in state prison.
Zemeitus, who allegedly threatened to publicize claims that the rabbi had a sexual relationship with a teenage boy, pleaded not guilty last month to seven counts of larceny over $250, two counts of receiving stolen property over $250, one count of larceny under $250, and one count of extortion.
After Starr’s arraignment Tuesday afternoon, neither he nor his lawyer, Scott Lopez of Boston, would comment.
Judge Douglas H. Wilkins rejected a defense motion to impound the court records.
Prosecutors also declined to comment.
In their statement submitted to the court, prosecutors wrote that at least four checks from congregants at Temple Israel to the rabbi’s discretionary fund had been altered from their original sums, at least two of which were altered “a hundred times the original amounts.” All of those checks were allegedly deposited by Zemeitus or Alexa Anderson, who had lived with Zemeitus in Milton.
The discretionary fund was overseen by Starr and was meant for him to perform good deeds in the community, such as helping congregants who had fallen behind in paying their bills.
Prosecutors detailed how Zemeitus repeatedly threatened to expose Starr for allegedly having an affair with an underage boy. In one e-mail dated Dec. 28, 2011, Zemeitus allegedly wrote to Starr: “This is your one and only chance and warming [sic] to seize [sic] all contact and harming underage children and suggest you take this as a big wake up call, as you could lose Everything and be on your way to state prison.”
Starr wrote back that he “never did anything to underage boys” but acknowledged that he had made mistakes in his life, prosecutors wrote.
Many of Zemeitus’s allegations, however, proved to be false, prosecutors wrote.
“Other than Zemeitus’ self-serving statements, there has been no evidence that Starr was complicit in giving checks of congregants to Zemeitus or advising him how to pay personal bills with congregants banking information,” prosecutors wrote.
They noted that Zemeitus lied about having a younger brother in his e-mails to Starr, and also lied when he told investigators that the rabbi had provided him $200,000 — far less than the amount Starr probably paid.
Prosecutors added: “Zemeitus was seen around the temple in early morning hours in areas close to Starr’s office where the congregant’s donation checks were kept before being deposited into the bank.”
Prosecutors also wrote that after interviewing congregants and searching the hard drive of Starr’s computer, “There has never been a single incident of child pornography or allegations, other than those made by [Zemeitus], of Starr having sex with an underage minor.”
However, prosecutors wrote that they did find evidence on Starr’s computer that the rabbi “frequented Craigslist posts seeking transsexual escorts.”
In all, prosecutors wrote that they found 130 separate withdrawals from Starr’s accounts and the rabbi’s discretionary fund that corresponded to Zemeitus’s demands.
They found that Starr probably paid Zemeitus a total of $458,300 between 2012 and 2014, more than $360,000 of that from his discretionary fund.
Starr, however, replenished the fund with money he received from performing funerals and other religious services, prosecutors wrote.
When the alleged blackmail finally stopped in April of 2014, Starr still owed $67,000 to the discretionary fund.
After the arraignment, former congregants of Starr said they came to show support for their rabbi, who presided over the temple for 28 years and served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis.
“If we were in trouble, he would be here to support us,” said Henry Katz, a former selectman from Sharon and a former congregant. “So we’re here to support him.”