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Guiding a diverse congregation


A congregation with varied needs sets out to search for an acceptable rabbi.

Young families want a rabbi who is good with children. Empty-nesters want a rabbi who can lead intellectually stimulating discussions. People of diverse beliefs, from observant Jews to secular Jews, want a rabbi who will accept them as they are.

Whom do members find? Rabbi Sonya Starr, rabbi educator at Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden, Conn.

Starr, who officially joined the Columbia Jewish Congregation (CJC) on Aug. 1, appears remarkably compatible with the group she is leading - and with the spirit of her new hometown.

"Columbia Jewish Congregation is an exciting congregation," Starr says. "It was the first Jewish congregation in Columbia and has been in existence almost as long as Columbia. It's committed to the same ideals as Columbia, such as a commitment to the celebration of diversity, a commitment to interfaith centers, a strong social action element - and a commitment to putting thoughts into action."

"I'm very excited about her being here," says Shelley Estersohn, president of CJC's Jewish Community School. "She's a born teacher and an extremely bright woman. She conveys a sense of warmth that is very heartwarming."

"I was very impressed with her," agrees Ilene Toller, a member of the search committee. "She is warm, dynamic, has a lot of energy and is very knowledgeable."

Toller reels off a daunting list of criteria used by the search committee. The new rabbi had to be flexible, welcoming of diversity and able to work with two distinct populations: young families with children asking for strong youth programs, and older members who desire intellectual discussion and debate.

The ideal candidate was also expected to be experienced in pastoral counseling and care, community outreach and leading religious services in a manner comfortable to the congregation.

"We thought this would be impossible," Toller says. "But Rabbi Starr was able to meet those needs."

Intellectual curiosity and a love of teaching link Starr to all generations at the congregation. "I love learning and I love teaching," Starr says. "There is something magical in opening up worlds to people, young and old. I always learn more than my students."

Starr's life has run on a parallel track with the growth of the Columbia Jewish Congregation. Starr and the congregation she now leads are intellectual and questioning about their faiths. Both exhibit warmth and energy. For both, Reconstructionism became a natural place to be. After receiving a bachelor of arts degree from Brandeis University, Starr remained there to pursue graduate work in Near East and Judaic studies. A desire for "more of an opportunity to meet people" led her to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia and a career as a rabbi. Although raised as a Conservative Jew, Starr was attracted to Reconstructionism's balancing of present-day knowledge with past traditions, its openness to questions and its commitment to egalitarianism.

Reconstructed Judaism's strong egalitarian principle meant that - unlike in some other branches of Judaism - female rabbis taught at the seminary.

"Role-modeling was important to me," Starr says.

Starr embraces the diversity of CJC. "We have important religious beliefs, but we don't say everyone who walks through the door has to believe everything. We try to keep bottom lines - but we offer choices."

The flexibility, intellectual questioning and egalitarian elements of Reconstructionism that attracted Starr also have been important to the Columbia Jewish Congregation, which became a Reconstructionist synagogue about four years ago.

"We paralleled the Reconstructionist movement," explains Neil Fagan, president of the synagogue and adviser to the search committee. "We called ourselves innovative, and we experimented with different ways to be Jewish.

"Later, we both became more traditional while keeping an openness, a certain creativity," Fagan adds. "We were in the same place as the Reconstructionist movement - we didn't have to change anything. Rabbi Starr fits in very well."

As rabbi, Starr does not wish to impose her vision on the congregation. "I think it would be a little hubristic to come in with goals," she says. "My desire is the get to know CJC. After that, we can decide together what our objectives are for the community."

Toller agrees that Starr fits in.

"She felt right," says Toller. "She has the knowledge, the skill with people, the things people can connect with. She embraces diversity in the synagogue. We can be who we are, and she will be comfortable with that, and we will be comfortable with her. She's great."

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