With shul scandal and school closing, Conservative Jews reeling in Sharon, Mass.


(JTA) — It’s been a rough few weeks for Conservative Jews in the Boston suburbs known as the South Area.

First, Rabbi Barry Starr, the longtime spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Sharon, resigned amid allegations that he used synagogue discretionary funds to pay about $480,000 in hush money to an extortionist to hide a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old male.

Then came the news that the area’s only Conservative Jewish day school, the Kehillah Schechter Academy of nearby Norwood, will be shutting down at the end of the school year. With the next-closest non-Orthodox day school more than 45 minutes away, it doesn’t leave a whole lot of options for South Area Conservative Jews — notably in Sharon, the single largest source of KSA’s students.

“It’s a double whammy for me personally because I’m a member of the shul,” said Gregg Rubenstein, KSA’s board president. “But the temple will survive. It’s not an institution-threatening incident. The school, on the other hand, is disappearing.”

Like Rubenstein, many KSA parents are also members of the scandal-plagued Temple Israel.

Now some community members are trying to salvage some good news with a campaign to create a new local pluralistic day school to replace KSA.

Dubbed Ner Tamid — Hebrew for eternal flame — the school is still in its embryonic stages. It doesn’t have a site, nor is it clear if there’s a viable business model. Plus, current KSA students — who represent the target population of the new school — already are in the process of enrolling at other schools for next year.

But Elana Margolis, a school parent whose husband also works at KSA, says she’s determined to give it a try.

“Just because the school has decided to close doesn’t mean there won’t be Jewish educational options in this area,” said Margolis, who is also the associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. “We feel it’s important for our community to have something local. We think crisis breeds opportunity. This is time for a rebirth, a reboot.”

At Temple Israel, community members are still absorbing the shock of learning that Starr, the synagogue’s rabbi for 28 years, was having an extramarital affair with a teenage boy — and apparently had used money from the rabbi’s discretionary fund to keep his secret from getting out.

The man who allegedly was blackmailing Starr has been identified as Nicholas Zemeitus, 29. The allegations emerged from court papers amid an investigation by the Norfolk district attorney, but the facts remain unclear.

Congregants learned of the affair from an email the rabbi sent to community members several weeks ago explaining what he had done, expressing his deep regrets and announcing his resignation. Since then, the synagogue has held two congregation-wide meetings to discuss the situation: one led by the president in the immediate aftermath of the revelations and one a grief-counseling session led by a professional.

Sheldon Kriegel, a retired dentist who has been a Temple Israel member for about 15 years, said the feeling in the community is more shock and grief than anger.

“People don’t seem to be angry at all, they’re just upset. He was very loved,” Kriegel said. “There are people who said to me that if he wanted to come back, even after all this, they’d welcome him. People aren’t really blaming him for it, even though he takes responsibility for his actions.”

Starr had been a well-respected Conservative leader — a past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and a one-time member of the chancellor’s rabbinic cabinet at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Since Starr’s departure, the shul has been led by the cantor, a rabbi who previously had led overflow services on the High Holidays for the synagogue and Rabbi Ed Gelb, a Temple Israel congregant who also is director of Camp Ramah in New England. Starr had announced his intention to retire and move to Florida some time ago, so the synagogue already had started thinking about its next move. But the abrupt resignation caught practically everyone by surprise.

In contrast to the rabbi scandal, KSA’s demise was not a surprise. For the last few years, the K-8 school — part of the Solomon Schechter network of Conservative Jewish day schools — was struggling financially. After the 2008 recession dealt a severe blow to many school families, KSA responded by holding down tuition costs and increasing financial assistance — moves that helped preserve the student body but at a high cost to the school’s bottom line.

When it became clear over the last three years that the model was not sustainable, tuition rose, financial assistance dried up and staff was laid off. As a consequence, students began leaving in droves. The student body fell to 110 this year from 240 three years ago, with most of the departing students transferring to local public and non-Jewish private schools.

“It led to this downward cycle they couldn’t get out of,” said Gil Preuss, the executive vice president of Boston’s Jewish federation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, which supported KSA. “They actually were able to maintain a very high-quality education throughout this time, but they couldn’t get on top of the finances — fundraising and tuition — to support it.”

KSA’s board made clear several weeks ago that 82 students needed to enroll by mid-May if the school were to stay open for next year; only 73 signed up.

The closure announcement came May 15. Now the school, which was founded in 1989 as the South Area Solomon Schechter Day School, is making a final fundraising push just to make its payroll through the summer. Combined Jewish Philanthropies is kicking in $50,000 to help the transition, including funding for the transportation of students to other Boston-area day schools.

KSA’s closure comes at a particularly high cost for Ariel Margolis, Elana Margolis’ husband. As a science teacher and parent of two KSA students, he’s losing both his job and his kids’ school.

Since the closure announcement, Margolis has been working double time trying to launch Ner Tamid. He hopes that between ex-KSA students, unaffiliated Jews and online students who would Skype in for select classes, the new school could have the critical mass it needs to survive. He also wants to keep tuition at $12,000 per year — about half the annual fee at KSA.

“I want every kid who wants a day school education to receive it,” Ariel Margolis said. “We fully believe that this is going to happen, that this is going to emerge.”

The odds are not in Ner Tamid’s favor, Preuss suggested.

“It’s a tough model. A lot of schools that are smaller than 125 or 100 students struggle financially,” he said. “Small schools need to be very lean in terms of overhead and facilities. They’re in a very tough situation in competing for families and providing a high-quality education.”

With barely 100 days left before the start of the new school term, Ariel Margolis figures he has two to eight weeks to figure out whether the plan is viable. The school is already scouting out possible sites at area synagogues — Temple Israel is one location being considered. Twelve families showed up to New Tamid’s first parlor meeting on Sunday, and another meeting is planned for Thursday.

“We’re very hopeful, but we’re being very honest when we talk to perspective families, telling them not to put all your eggs in one basket,” Ariel Margolis said. “We have our work cut out for us.”

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