Shaarey Zedek’s Rabbi Aaron Starr seeks to inspire and educate Jews of all ages.
Aaron Starr — a rabbi and educator with leadership drive, athleticism and a deep sense of tradition — is now delving into the intense role of sole rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Zedek (CSZ), Metro Detroit’s largest and oldest Conservative synagogue.
With the July 2014 departure of his friend and colleague, Rabbi Joseph H. Krakoff, Starr continues as the synagogue’s director of education and youth, a role he has filled since 2008, but has stepped up to assume greater responsibilities.
CSZ leadership is making decisions regarding how to expand the synagogue’s clergy team, so, for now, Starr is serving the 1,200 member-unit congregation as its only rabbi.
“I continue to seek to partner with each of our members as well as our synagogue leadership and clergy team to utilize Jewish tradition and Jewish wisdom to deepen life, to bring meaning, purpose and order to a chaotic world, to care for those who are in need and to inspire the young and old alike to love and to live Judaism,” said Starr, 37.
“I am excited to continue to partner with my colleagues Hazzan David Propis and Assistant Cantor Leonard Gutman,” he said. “They are top-notch professionals, unbelievably talented and true mentshes.”
Following A Path
Now a Conservative rabbi, recognized in 2011 by the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the movement’s international association, Starr grew up at the Reform-Renewal Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy.
In 2004, he was ordained as a Reform rabbi from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, taking a position at Shir Tikvah that same year as rabbi and director of lifelong learning.
“Rabbi Aaron Starr’s family has been a pillar of Congregation Shir Tikvah since its inception,” said its long-serving rabbi, Arnie Sleutelberg. “Aaron witnessed his family’s active involvement, and he became a leader of his generation, locally and statewide. His devotion to Judaism and the Jewish people was and remains vital to the deepest expression of his soul.
“After his ordination, when we had the opportunity to engage Rabbi Aaron as our rabbi/educator, we jumped at the chance,” Sleutelberg said. “He served us and our children with skill, warmth and love. The Detroit Jewish community is fortunate indeed to have Rabbi Aaron Starr in our midst. It has been my pleasure to be his rabbi, mentor and colleague.”
Starr said, “Even during Reform rabbinical school, my path was toward Conservative Judaism.”
His thesis, Tradition vs. Modernity: The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) and Conservative Halachah, was published in the Journal of Conservative Judaism.
While in rabbinical school, he and his wife, Rebecca, who grew up in a Conservative home, joined the Conservative Northern Hills Synagogue-Congregation B’nei Avraham in Cincinnati where Rebecca was director of education and programming. Starr said she pushed him to look deeper at Jewish tradition.
While a student at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he majored in political science and Hebrew and Jewish Cultural Studies, Starr had begun to keep kosher and continued to become more immersed in Conservative Judaism.
A Conservative Jew
“Even though I grew up in the Reform movement and was ordained a Reform rabbi, I always felt there was something missing,” Starr said. “Then two things changed in my life in 2007 that led me to seek a deeper commitment to Jewish tradition, spirituality and greater meaning in my life, all of which ultimately led me to CSZ — the death of my mother-in-law in April and the birth of my first child exactly one month after that.
“Rebecca and I decided then and there that we needed to find a community that shared our love for Jewish tradition, our desire to seek meaning and purpose, and a place in which we could grow and learn as a family.”
He said he was “committed to egalitarianism and the desire to live fully in the modern world,” making his next professional step an ideal fit.
“Beshert (meant to be), I was hired in 2008 as CSZ’s director of education and youth, with the occasional pulpit responsibility when the synagogue needed it,” Starr said of the synagogue where his grandfather Wolf Gruca of Southfield is a longtime member and Rebecca’s late uncle, Dr. Samuel Krohn, was a past-president.
“Since Rebecca and I came to CSZ, my parents, Margie and Jim Starr, who live in Troy, have also become members,” Starr said. “That now makes my children fourth-generation Shaarey Zedek members.”
His primary roles were to oversee all aspects of youth engagement, prayer and learning, including running the religious school as well as coordinating adult education.
“But the synagogue recognized from early on my ability as a rabbi to help families in their Jewish journeys and my desire to work collaboratively with our lay leadership in setting a vision for 21st-century Jewry,” he said.
In 2008, Starr made his initial contact with the RA, and, in 2010, began the nearly yearlong application process to become a Conservative rabbi. The requirements are quite involved. He was formally accepted in the spring of 2011.
“In 2011, the title ‘rabbi’ was added to my job description [at CSZ],” Starr said. “My role expanded to include the full range of traditional rabbinic responsibilities, including lifecycle events, hospital visits and the breadth of pulpit leadership, while continuing to oversee all aspects of education and youth at the synagogue.
“I believe that a rabbi’s ‘job’ is not only to teach and to learn, but to inspire and touch lives,” he said.
“I approach each lifecycle event I perform with the recognition that every family is special and unique in its own way and that such events must honor each family’s uniqueness. My approach is similar in the realm of Jewish education: Each learner is unique and the learning must be tailored to that individual’s needs.”
CSZ board member Milton Feldberg values that personalized attention.
“My wife, Lisa, and I both grew up as Reform Jews,” said Feldberg of Birmingham. “Rabbi Starr has continuously but gently — and sometimes without us realizing it — nudged us to increase our involvement and engagement. In fact, he often speaks of being Jewish as a journey; one in which you grow and do a little bit more each year, but at a pace that is comfortable for you and your family.
“We have found that his sermons speak both to the head and the heart,” said Feldberg.
“This was clearly on display during [the High Holidays]. His sermons were divided between ones that challenged you and made you think, and ones that evoked various emotions. Most of his sermons are delivered without notes. This allows him to use the entire bimah and really engage the audience, sometimes by leaving the bimah and walking up and down the aisles.”
Synagogue member Beth Margolin of Orchard Lake said, “Each Shabbat, I leave shul feeling elevated and enriched by his sermons. Rabbi Starr is very spiritual, scholarly and wise beyond his years. As he has had greater opportunity to offer sermons and teach the congregation, the synagogue membership is getting to know this outstanding rabbi. In a very short time, he is moving the congregation forward.”
Originally from the U.P., Rebecca Starr is a Jewish educator and social worker. She teaches for the local Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning and also a variety of adult education classes at CSZ and throughout the community. She is a consultant and trainer for teachers through Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education, and she directs the Ramah Fellows program in Metro Detroit.
She feels a strong connection with the CSZ congregation, saying she is honored and grateful to be part of the community.
“It is a wonderful place to raise our two sons — Caleb, 7, and Ayal, 4, — and it means a lot to both Aaron and me to raise them in a community that honors and respects Jewish tradition so completely. The congregants of Shaarey Zedek act as our extended family.”
In his sparse spare time, Starr authored the book, Taste of Hebrew (URJ Press), an introduction to Hebrew language study book for adults, created as a learning tool for parents whose children are beginning to learn Hebrew.
Starr also plays tennis, basketball and guitar and, in the past few years, has become a runner, completing three half-marathons, three mud runs, along with 5Ks and 10Ks and a triathlon.
The grandchild of Holocaust survivors, he has spoken at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills on several occasions.
New Era In Education
“Almost immediately upon his arrival at CSZ, Rabbi Starr transformed the religious school,” said Feldberg, whose children, Ari, 13, and Emma, almost 11, have been students there. “At the opening day of his first year, students and parents were greeted with a red carpet, Jewish music, food and a festive atmosphere. It was clear it was a new era at CSZ.
“The religious school now had a sense of joy, fun, spirit and energy to go along with an increased depth of learning. Rabbi Starr has an innate ability to engage both students and parents. He quickly brought contemporary teaching techniques, technology and experiential learning to the religious school.”
Starr has formed a connection with youth outside of the classroom as well.
Margolin was able to experience this impact first hand when she served as Federation’s Teen Mission coordinator in 2010, when he was part of the trip’s community rabbinic leadership team.
“I had the opportunity to watch his interaction with the teens, staff and his colleagues every day for two-and-a-half weeks,” she said. “He had a special ability to be silly, crazy and fun with the teens, while maintaining the dignity of being a rabbi and teaching the teens Jewish history and the beauty and importance of Israel.”
Being A Leader
“I believe Rabbi Starr deserves praise and attention for his dedication to the CSZ congregation and for stepping into a role requiring significant leadership responsibilities,” said Dr. Ira Zaltz of Huntington Woods, a CSZ member along with his wife, Barbara, and 12-year-old daughters Isabel and Zoe.
Feldberg praised Starr for “the grace and leadership he exhibited during the rabbinic leadership transition” at the shul. “This past summer was a difficult time in the shul’s history,” he said. “There was some strife and disagreement regarding the decision we made to part ways with Rabbi Krakoff.”
Krakoff served the congregation for 16 years and will remain in Detroit, teaching and consulting.
“Rabbi Starr has been a voice of calm, reason and healing, while also being straightforward about addressing the concerns of some of the congregants,” Feldberg said. “He handled the pressure and increased responsibilities without ever seeming to break a sweat.”
Margolin added, “He did not shy away from the controversy, but used his wisdom, compassion and teachings from Jewish texts to guide the congregation through the difficult situation.”
Zaltz, a member of the CSZ board, said, “His devotion to Judaism, his personal style on the bimah, his approachable manner, his intelligence, his warmth, his empathy and his effective communication skills enable him to personally connect with individuals whether interacting one-on-one, with small groups or with the entire membership. He has a clear vision for the future of the CSZ community and is able to effectively articulate his concepts.
“He has done an outstanding job demonstrating that he is mature beyond his years and a highly regarded member and leader of the greater Detroit Jewish community. He has managed to keep many balls in the air at the synagogue, fulfilling multiple roles and helping to maintain business-as-usual.”
Looking ahead, Starr said, “I believe that the essence of Judaism is gratitude, obligation and joy, and my vision for our great shul is to ensure we have meaningful, spiritual opportunities to express our gratitude for life’s blessings; significant, impactful ways to fulfill our obligations toward God and toward our fellow human; and that joy is a part of nearly everything we do.”
By Shelli Liebman Dorfman, Contributing Writer; Photos by Jerry Zolynsky
A Look Ahead For CSZ
“We are in the process of determining how we will aggregate diverse voices from across the congregation to chart our future, including taking a look at how to expand our clergy team,” said CSZ President Mary Knoll. “We want to make sure we are as inclusive as possible and do this absolutely right. So, it is taking some necessary time to assemble a representative group and leadership to determine the next steps.”
Knoll said it has not yet been determined how or if this will affect Rabbi Aaron Starr’s position at the synagogue. “But, for now, we appreciate how he has embraced a larger role,” she said.
“Rabbi Starr’s title hasn’t changed, but his role has been expanded. He has conducted more services, delivered all sermons and been available for every lifecycle event over the past few months, in addition to his other responsibilities.
“Rabbi Starr continues to serve the congregation with intelligence, respect and care. He has earned respect from a wider range of members; from our youngest to our oldest. We are all very proud of how he serves families every day.”