David Starr’s story is, in many ways, a tale of continuity and change in American Jewry. His father worked for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, a union that in Emil Starr’s day was infused with the socialist values that were widespread among secular, leftish American Jews up through the mid-20th century. The son became a rabbi.
The father was national education director for the union, and spent his life in various other adult-education endeavors. The son also has devoted his career to adult education, first as founding dean of the Me’ah program in Jewish literacy at Hebrew College, and now as originator of Tzion, a program he designed to educate American Jews about Zionism and Israel.
The new program has grown from a single class in Sharon last year — the program’s first — to five sites. Four more sites will open in the fall. Starr, 56, has ambitions for it to reach or exceed the size of Me’ah, which from similarly modest beginnings in 1994 has educated thousands of adults.
Just as Me’ah strives to create a level of Jewish literacy that is transformative for individuals and communities, Tzion strives for literacy about Zionism and Israel. The idea in both programs, Starr explained, is to encourage deep knowledge of primary and secondary sources, and to cultivate both critical thinking and creativity.
“We don’t try to teach students to think any particular way about Israel,” he said. “But objectivity is not the same thing as neutrality. We have profound respect for the materials and for the learners. There is student autonomy all along.” Starr was born in Bayside, Queens, to parents who’d relocated from Massachusetts to New York when his father accepted the union job. They moved to a socialist/egalitarian planned community in New Jersey for ideological reasons.
The family moved back to Massachusetts in 1966 when Emil Starr became a founding professor at the then-newly-organizing UMass-Boston. After five happy years, they moved again, to the University of Minnesota — and two years later tragedy struck. Emil Starr died suddenly. David’s mother, who hadn’t wanted to move to the Midwest, was overwhelmed at the prospect of raising four young children on her own there, and became ill. It was a turning point.
Before, the Starrs’ Judaism was built on familial ties, Yiddish culture networks and interest in Labor Zionism and the kibbutz movement. Then, “the nuclear family was sort of shattered,” Starr said, and at the same time, in high school, “I started meeting different kinds of Jewish guys — people who had vibrant synagogue lives, strong Talmud Torah educations, who went to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.”
He celebrated his first “serious” Shabbat at age 16 and began attending synagogue regularly. As a University of Minnesota student, he began keeping kosher and grew more Shabbat observant. But he was not yet thinking about Jewish education.
He left school for a year to work in Vice President Walter Mondale’s Washington office, and left again for a Peace Corps posting in French West Africa, returning to graduate in history only when the Peace Corps appointment was deferred for medical reasons. A friend encouraged him to apply to the graduate program in American history at Brandeis, “where people started telling me ‘You’d make a great rabbi.’ I started to hear it, then decided to pursue it,” he said, enrolling in the Jewish Theological Seminary. As part of the seminary program, he spent a year in Israel, and served as New York director of the Florence Melton Mini-School, which “was my introduction to what we were doing for [the education of] adult Jews.” He found it was much like what his father had done, helping people participate in democratic society and be good citizens, and he “found I had a real penchant and taste for community education and community building.”
Then came the chance to start Me’ah. A friend of Starr’s at Combined Jewish Philanthropies, which was working on the idea of an adult Jewish literacy program in partnership with Hebrew College, recommended him for the deanship.
Me’ah was an instant hit that did not happen in isolation; the mid-‘90s were a time of surging growth “to reclaim a kind of Jewishness that many people had not known.”
But “products mature, funders have ADHD and want new things,” he said.
Starr went on to become vice president for community education at Hebrew College, then got laid off as the school struggled financially. He had the idea for a program in Zionism and Israel literacy well before leaving the college in 2010, “but 2008 was a terrible time to talk about being entrepreneurial in Jewish life.” He took a job teaching European and Jewish history and Jewish thought at Gann Academy.
Starr realized that his calling was as an educator and community builder. Although the Zionism movement and creation of Israel were the biggest developments in Jewish life in hundreds of years, he felt the community was not educated about either.
Starr pitched the idea of Tzion to leaders at CJP, who decided to support it. He launched the program in 2012, and it is now running in Sharon, Brookline, Wellesley, Wayland and Baltimore. Four more sites will open in the Boston area next fall, and Starr is thinking about developing versions for high schoolers, collegians, non-Jews and online learners.