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After resignation, rabbi finds new home

A rabbi who resigned from a prominent congregation in St. Petersburg after revealing he was gay and had been unfaithful to his wife has found a new spiritual home and a measure of peace at a small congregation in Tarpon Springs.

On July 6, Rabbi Stephen Moch presided over his first Friday evening Shabbat service as rabbi of Congregation B'nai Emmunah, a Reform congregation. It was his third appearance before an estimated 45 families who belong to the temple, which meets in a converted house at 3374 Keystone Road. Two of the services he conducted where unofficial "test services."

"I remember when Rabbi Moch applied for the job," said B'nai Emmunah cantor Coleman Reaboi. "Nobody knew him except he was the rabbi who came out of the closet."

Moch was the spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El, one of the largest Reform congregations in Tampa Bay, for nine years. He had a wife and three children, and his career seemed on track. Then, in October, he shocked the 600-member congregation by telling them he is gay, and that he had cheated on his wife.

At the time, Moch, 50, said he resigned not because he is homosexual, but because he broke a commandment and had a history of infidelity to his wife. He said Friday that he is separated from his wife, Jacqueline, and that they are divorcing.

Reaboi said although homosexuality is strictly forbidden in the Torah, "There are a lot of things that are forbidden.

"You're not supposed to be with a woman during her monthly cycle," he said. "And Jews are strictly forbidden to marry a non-Jew."

Reaboi said the Reform members believe the Torah was divinely inspired by God, and written by the hand of mankind.

"We believe it was not meant to be taken word for word," Reaboi said, adding it was meant as a blueprint for civilization. "Half the congregation is intermarried (to spouses outside the Jewish religion)."

Reaboi said he did not believe Moch would have been hired at a more conservative temple.

Moch agreed.

"Obviously, they are an open-minded congregation," said Moch, who is also completing a resident chaplain program at Tampa General Hospital.

All but two families who attended a special meeting to consider hiring Moch voted in favor.

Board member and head of the religious school Fran Greenhaus said Moch is "a fabulous rabbi who brings a great deal of spirituality, warmth and intelligence" to the temple.

"(Moch's homosexuality) didn't play a role at all in our decision as far as I know," she said.

But some members of his congregation said they can't accept Moch's lifestyle.

"I don't want to dwell on this particular part (homosexuality)," said Mark Wasserman, a member of the temple's seven-member board and its past president. "But I do have an issue with the adultery aspect of it. The man has broken a commandment. I consider a rabbi to be on a higher moral plane than myself. It's sort of like, do as I say, not as I do."

Wasserman, a temple member for four years, abstained when the congregation voted to accept or reject Rabbi Moch.

He said a few members of the congregation have left since Moch's hiring.

"I will continue to work with the rabbi until I feel it's beyond my acceptance," he said. "My wife is not Jewish. She has a problem with this also."

Without a doubt, the congregation needed a rabbi, after struggling without one for almost a year.

"I think they were hungry for Rabbinic leadership," Moch said, adding that the last year has been rough and he's eager to move forward in his life. He has signed a one-year contract with the temple, with an option to renew.

"They were overjoyed at the possibility (of) securing a rabbi they had security in," he said.

Reaboi put it this way: "I think God is not as concerned with who you sleep with or eat with, it's how we treat other people."