When Rabbi Earl Starr sat down to reminisce recently about his 30 years at Temple De Hirsch Sinai, one of the first things he did after taking a sip of tea was to make a joke about gathering information for his obituary.
For a man who for more than 40 years has given almost all his time and energy to his job and who is a lot less enthusiastic about retiring than when plans began more than a year ago, retirement may look a little like death.
But probably only a little. Starr is not the 70-year-old rabbi of yore, whose hearing would be fading along with physical strength and intellectual prowess. Some would say Starr, who made an almost miraculous recovery from serious illness just last year and is now back on the tennis court, is actually at the prime of his life. So why does he now carry the weighty title of rabbi emeritus on his shoulders? As Rabbi Starr himself has quoted from Ecclesiastes many times in his life, “Everything has its season, and there is a time for everything under heaven.”
Starr explains, “The congregation wants to continue to progress and they want new leadership and I accept that. I want this congregation to prosper and to grow in every way, just as if I was here.” He promises to do whatever he can to help the congregation’s two new rabbis along the way and won’t be leaving the city or the building entirely, although his office will be in a building on lower Queen Anne.
“Thank God I still feel good and young. We don’t see our own flaws or decline…but I don’t think I have slipped,” he says.
He will continue to officiate at lifecycle events, when asked, and will be doing some individual and family counseling and some teaching. Seattle University, where he has taught history in the past, has asked him to teach a class next spring. Rabbi Starr was the first rabbi in the country to teach secular courses in a Catholic College; he taught everything from history to political geography at King’s College from 1963 to 1970 and was appointed assistant professor of history in 1967. Although his last official service was Friday, June 29, he has officiated at two Bar Mitzvah celebrations since then.
And since he is officially “retired,” Rabbi Starr also plans to spend more time playing tennis and traveling with his family and may even go down to Scottsdale, Ariz., when “the weather is awful.”
Even though he once toyed with the idea of being a professional baseball player after being a three-letter man in high school in Philadelphia, Starr says, “I always wanted to be a rabbi. I never wanted to be anything else.”
He met Phyllis, his wife of 48 years, in Sunday school. They went together for five years before getting married. “I told her I couldn’t marry her because I had too many years of education ahead of me,” but she just smiled and the rest is family history. Rabbi Starr was president of his confirmation class and he started his preparatory studies for rabbinical school under the wings of his rabbi, Bertrum Korn. Korn connected Starr with a local Orthodox rabbi. Rabbi Pitlick taught him Hebrew and then they explored Jewish texts for many years together during high school and college. Rabbi Pitlick once said to Rabbi Starr that he wished his own sons had the direction to become rabbis. (One of Pitlick’s boys, Noam, went on to become a producer, director and writer, and produced the TV show, “Barney Miller.”)
After rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, and an internship in Ohio, Starr returned to the Philadelphia area for his first few pulpits. He tells a funny story about how he had promised Phyllis’ parents that they would interview for a job in Philadelphia after he was ordained, although he knew there was no possible way a “baby rabbi” could get a job at one of the prestigious congregations in his hometown.
But when the local rabbis came to Cincinnati to interview the soon-to-be-ordained rabbis, Starr was asked to sit down with Rabbi David Wice, leader of a huge congregation of more than 2,000 families in Philadelphia. It was he absolute worst interview of Starr’s life. Rabbi Wice asked very few questions and Starr felt they didn’t really connect. He got home and told his wife there was no possible way he would be hired, and then the phone rang that evening and Rabbi Wice offered him a job. Starr was shocked, but composed enough to ask how Wice had decided to hire him, since it didn’t seem like they had had much of an interview. Rabbi Wice said he hadn’t wanted to waste either of their time with interviewing, since he had already done a complete scouting report and had done all the necessary research before the interview. He said he had planned to hire the young rabbi as long as he didn’t have a tail or horns.
In his four years at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, with Rabbi Wice’s guidance, Starr learned nearly everything else he needed to know to become Temple De Hirsch Sinai’s rabbi a few years later. Rabbi Starr ran the synagogue’s huge religious school, and learned as he went along. “[Rabbi Wice] told my father-in-law once, ‘I threw Earl in the water, to see if he would learn to swim, and he did.’” One week after joining the temple staff and just a few weeks out of the seminary, Rabbi Wice said, “The congregation is yours,” and went on his annual summer vacation, which lasted from the end of May after Shavuot until Labor Day. “He went on vacation and said ‘I don’t want to be called for anything.’ I said, ‘What if somebody dies?’ He said, ‘You bury him.’ I said, ‘What if someone important dies?’ He said, ‘You bury them deeper.’” His first funeral was a few weeks later and it was a very important person in the community.
“I am very grateful for him for saying, ‘this is what you do’ and let me do it,” Starr says, adding that what he did not learn from Rabbi Wice was how to take nice, long vacations to recharge his batteries. “It obviously worked for him because he’s still living and he’s in his 90s.”
From the large Philadelphia congregation, he spent a few years at Temple B’nai B’rith of Wilkes Barre, Pa., a congregation that was in the process of expanding into the suburbs. Although the effort was not ultimately successful, Rabbi Starr took a lot from this experience that would help him when Temple De Hirsch in Seattle merged with Temple Sinai in Bellevue.
When he came to Seattle in 1971, it was a different time in the country and in Seattle. Seattle was economically crippled and the Central District neighborhood where Temple De Hirsch Sinai is located in Seattle was going downhill. In a way, the regional economic downturn lead to the merger with Temple Sinai, whose leaders approached Temple De Hirsch with the idea.
“Holding this congregation to the size and the prestige and the goals we wanted to achieve was not easy in those days,” he says, remembering that he took on an important job as only one of three senior rabbis at the synagogue in 100 years. “Thank God I’ve had such energy and perseverance to be able to do these things…I think I’ve been very fortunately. It’s been very fulfilling. It’s been very difficult at times, also.”
Starr says he is proud of the way Temple De Hirsch Sinai has changed and grown over the years and of the way the membership reflects the diversity of the Jewish people of today. “It’s rewarding to think how much has been accomplished — there’s room for everybody.”
Another part of his legacy is the growth of Reform Judaism in the greater Seattle area. Starr feels especially connected to Temple B’nai Torah in Belleveue, which has been led for many years by Rabbi James Mirel, who had one of his first jobs out of rabbinical school working as an assistant rabbi at Temple De Hirsch Sinai. “I’m happy how well Rabbi Mirel has done,” he says.
He also takes pride in Temple De Hirsch Sinai’s new building in Bellevue and the way the congregation has, at the same time, maintained the beauty of the Seattle sanctuary.
The social-action challenges have never taken a back seat to anything at the temple, which since 1992 has hosted a women’s shelter during the winter, had a food bank and was the temporary home of a local church when its building burned several years ago. He was also an advocate of the “sanctuary movement,” the 1980s underground railroad that provided protection for refugees from Central America. “I think that’s one of the reasons we have been so safe here. We are one of the few inter-city congregations still left,” Starr notes.
He has enjoyed good relations with every rabbi in the community and cherishes the memory of the years that all of Seattle’s rabbinic leaders were able to sit around one table to discuss the issues of the day.
He is proud of the temple’s lifecycle celebrations, which he says reflects his style as a “hands-on” rabbi, rather than the CEO of the congregation.
“I think my rabbinate has always been based on people.” He speaks with pride of the way all the rabbis and the cantor participate in the training of young people before their Bar or Bat mitzvah. “You get to know these families personally, at a critical time, but a happy time,” he says. “It’s really important. I don’t think there’s anything more important” than getting to know the congregation intimately.
Earl and Phyllis’ own three children are now grown. Jerry lives in San Diego and works in the phone business. Steven works in retail in Bellevue. Wendy works for KSBG radio selling advertising. They have two grandchildren, Ariel in Bellevue and Rayna in San Diego.
“I’m glad that our congregation has been able to answer more of the needs of most of our people,” Starr says. “If I ever failed, it’s not been because I didn’t want to help people.”