Nov. 28, 2008 — December marks a new beginning for the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas. As of the first of the month, the historic synagogue on Crystal Gade in Charlotte Amalie, founded in 1796, will be home to a new rabbi, Stephen F. Moch.
Moch, who often goes by his Hebrew name, Shimon, was reportedly unanimously approved by the Reform congregation after a months'-long search. He is relocating from Congregation B'nai Emmunah in Tarpon Springs, Fla., where he has been serving as rabbi since July 2001.
"I think that he brings a wealth of experience, because hes been in the rabbinate for many years," said Hebrew Congregation President Penny Feuerzeig. "I think he brings intellectual depth and a sense of spirituality that I think will appeal to many in our congregation and in the community. He also has a history of interfaith outreach so I think that was quite appealing to us. That is something we want to continue."
Moch's predecessor was so highly regarded for his interfaith work that upon his retirement in August, the congregation set about establishing the Arthur F. Starr Interfaith Understanding Fund.
"From my point of view, this is his shining legacy here, and thats why we were happy to establish this fund," said Feuerzeig, of Rabbi Starr. "It will be used to promote programs that similarly will enhance understanding between people of different religions."
During his eight years at the helm of the Hebrew congregation, Starr was known for inviting various Christian and Muslim leaders to the table to promote understanding and friendship.
In addition to supporting the congregation's legacy of interfaith understanding, Moch, who has led four congregations — two in Florida, one in North Carolina and one in Illinois — is known for promoting community service. He organized his latest congregation in serving weekly meals to the homeless.
Upon his arrival here, he said he plans to take stock.
"The most important thing for me in the beginning is to listen and learn about the members of the congregation," Moch said during an interview from his Florida home. "I want to develop some opportunities to do that better, perhaps ask the congregation to organize small groups, families at a time, to hear their hopes and visions. I need to take the pulse of the congregation and learn its strength and growing edges."
A divorced father of three, Moch was born and raised in Connecticut and is new to the Virgin Islands. Though not a "beach" person, he's excited about his new home, and will enjoy regular visits from his youngest daughter, who is 17.
Moch graduated from George Washington University, spending his junior year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received a master's degree from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem and Cincinnati, and was later awarded his doctorate of divinity from the same institution after having completed 25 years of rabbinic service.
Rabbi Starr, who served during the recent high holy days as an interim rabbi, will remain in St. Thomas as part of the local congregation. While he could not be reached over the recent holiday, Katina Coulianos, former congregation president, praised Starr not just for running a good service, but for being a good ambassador.
"The rabbi is really a very gregarious person and a good talker," said Coulianos. "He makes people feel welcome and makes them feel at ease He was really very good with those qualities in welcoming guests, and we have a lot of guests who come to worship with us for part of the year."
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