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Seattle Shul Struggles with News That Revered Rabbi Embezzled Funds

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The largest Jewish congregation in the Pacific Northwest is struggling with the revelation that Seattle’s senior rabbi embezzled funds for at least two decades.

Rabbi Earl Starr, who served Temple De Hirsh Sinai for 31 years, has agreed to give up the title of rabbi emeritus and pay back money he admits to taking.

While Starr makes plans to retire in Arizona, his Reform congregation is trying to understand what this pillar of the community could have been thinking when he asked a foundation to write checks out to him instead of to the synagogue.

The synagogue’s president, Jon Rosen, said the issue first came to light in January after Starr moved into an office outside the synagogue, and a new type of checks arrived.

“Naturally, our staff made an inquiry at the bank,” and found out that such checks had been arriving for at least 20 years, Rosen said.

Starr had made arrangements to have two of each year’s payments made out to both the temple and the rabbi jointly — supposedly “so bookkeeping would be eased,” bank officials told the temple.

Seattle media estimate Starr embezzled $100,000 to $400,000 over the years. No one among the synagogue’s staff or leadership has confirmed the figures, saying only that the amount was “substantial.”

Starr has not been charged with a crime and has agreed to repay the funds, according to Rosen.

Friends and supporters have come forward to say that Starr used the funds to help people in the community. Starr has denied interview requests.

“We were hoping that there would be a satisfactory explanation,” Rosen said, adding that only Starr could provide an answer.

Starr has been a leader in the community on issues of homelessness, interfaith relations and human rights. As a young rabbi in Philadelphia, he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington.

Starr is known throughout the region as an outstanding speaker and teacher. Congregants sought him out to officiate at life-cycle events even after the temple hired three popular new rabbis last year.

The synagogue’s board of directors decided to share the story with its 1,400-family membership in a letter a few days before the congregation’s annual meeting last week.

“The first inclination when you get this information is to want to hide it,” Rosen admits, but the board didn’t even consider the possibility.

“In today’s world, there’s little doubt that the information is going to get out — whether it gets out in little leaks or innuendoes or gets out in one big gush, but we felt it would happen,” Rosen said.

Rosen, an attorney specializing in employment issues, said the board also knew it had a fiduciary responsibility to its membership.

“We felt it was imperative that people have confidence with the accounting systems of the synagogue and of all synagogues,” he said. He added, however, that some board members teased him that he would do anything to encourage synagogue attendance.

Response at and since the annual meeting has been mixed, Rosen said, with some members of the congregation wishing the board had kept the information under wraps.

“It was very sad; it was not an easy decision. For some people it was just crushing,” Rosen said. “We’ve all been going through a grieving process, but the board is at a different stage than people who were hearing about it for the first time.”

“The board has nothing to be ashamed of,” Rosen added. “We didn’t do anything. All we’re doing is reporting finances.”

Rabbi Jonathan Singer of another Seattle Reform congregation, Temple Beth Am, said he agreed with the way Temple De Hirsch Sinai handled the issue.

“I’ve heard other people say they should have kept this behind closed doors. I’m not sure how synagogues and institutions can act as ethical examples if they don’t discuss the mistakes along with the successes,” Singer said. “If the sense is that the synagogue is always solving things in a back room then it’s not a place that people will trust and see as a spiritual home that they can go to, because the foundation doesn’t rest on the teachings in the ark.”

Rosen said he was surprised at how quickly the story made the local media, but was not upset that they ran with it.

“It’s not Jewish to be hiding,” he said.

Ironically, the temple board spent some time this year studying Jewish texts on ethics.

“It is clear that the Talmud says you don’t do more than is necessary — you don’t forgive or ignore the act, but you don’t do anything to make it worse,” Rosen said.

Rosen, who has been on the synagogue board for nearly a dozen years and has been president since last July, said the panel has dealt with significant issues before.

“But they all pale in comparison to the shock and the pain and sadness that everyone is feeling here,” he said.

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