This May, renowned Jewish songstress Debbie Friedman will come to Seattle to give a special performance at the Jewish Education Council’s “Celebrate Teachers” event. The concert will honor Jewish community teachers in general and Carol Oseran Starin, JEC executive director and vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, in particular.
Both Friedman and Starin have devoted their lives to working in, and impacting, the Jewish community.
Friedman has been rejuvenating Jewish music for the past 25 years. Her music is fully integrated into synagogue liturgy, and in many cases, serves as “living Judaism.” Starin, who retires on June 1, has led the JEC for the past 14 years.
When Starin stands on the bima at Temple De Hirsch Sinai on Sunday night at her retirement, she will be standing on the same bima on which she was confirmed and had her wedding. Starin grew up in the Seattle area and still lives a few blocks from the house her father bought in 1947. Her great-grandparents are buried in the local cemeteries. She was one of the founders of the Jewish Day School and served as president of the board at Congregation Beth Shalom. She was also chair of the Coalition for Adult Jewish Education and chaired two of its national conferences.
Starin started her career as a public and Sunday School teacher. When she came to work at the JEC, she found a way to marry her love of general and Jewish education in one position.
When Starin started out at the JEC, the 1990 National Jewish Population Study had recently been completed and according to Starin, “there was a lot of hand-wringing going on in the national community about whether our children were going to be Jewish.”
Over her years at the JEC, she says many programs and initiatives have been implemented. She also notes a major influx of funds from major national philanthropists.
“Jewish education is now on the front burner,” she said. “It was never on the front burner before.”
The growth is ubiquitous. When Starin began working for the JEC, they had one full-time and two part-time staffers. Today the council has three full-time and six part-time staffers and a tremendous number of programs being offered with the aim of growing, strengthening, supporting and enabling teachers in local Jewish schools. There are other areas of growth as well, such as scholarships for kids to attend Jewish summer camps and for young adults to attend educational Israeli programs.
Another area of significant growth is in adult education. In 1995, the JEC began offering the national Melton program, which started with 60 students and quickly grew to serve over 300. From there they were able to develop their own adult educational program called Limmud Northwest.
When Friedman was first asked to play the event in Seattle, her initial reaction was to refuse the engagement since it fell on Memorial Day Weekend. When she found out it was in honor of Starin, however, she accepted immediately.
“I’ve known Carol for years and years, I love her so much. I think there’s nothing I wouldn’t do if she asked me,” Friedman said. “She is someone who can take whatever comes along in her life and make the best of any situation, she can turn something painful and difficult into inspiration.”
Friedman’s own vision is about the world working together. She works for people to have a sense of their power within, and to effect change and have an impact on the world. These aims are the thrust of her music, her concerts and her services. She performs all over the world, writes and records music and lives in New York City with her dog, Farfel. The singer, songwriter, guitarist and cantorial soloist has recorded 19 albums.
Friedman has participated in many workshops and retreats with Starin. She has also worked with her on CAJE events.
Starin is pleased Friedman’ will be playing at her retirement celebration.
“Debbie Friedman has impacted Jewish life in this country for decades,” Starin said. “She writes Jewish music that touches people’s hearts, and her music has touched so many people over such a long period of time, we are into another generation. She broke ground in terms of taking Jewish liturgy and making it exciting.”
Starin remembers her first exposure to Friedman’s music: she owns a record cut by Friedman in 1974 called Not by Might Alone, which she received while teaching at Temple De Hirsch Sinai. Starin says she taught Friedman’s songs to her students before the two even met at a CAJE conference.
Along with being enjoyable, Starin says “her music heals people’s spirits.” Before Starin’s husband died in 1989, she says he took great comfort in Friedman’s music while he was ill.
Starin will be turning 60 this August (although she looks at least a decade younger). Once she retires, she plans on increasing her pace significantly. She will be teaching at teachers’ conferences around the country and working on her writing. She has written a column for Jewish teachers which has already been published in a book called Let me Count the Ways, Practical Innovations for Jewish Teachers. A second book will be coming out in June.
Starin is also an amateur genealogist and plans on learning more about that art. Her passion has always been her career, she says, and even retirement won’t be keeping her out of the educational world.
“Jewish education has always been my love, I’ve seen it transform people’s lives. It transformed mine. It changed the way I think, the way I live and the way I raised my kids.”