West Virginia: Truth, Justice and the Appalachian Way-Transcript

This is the episode transcript. You can listen to the episode here.

(Justin Regan): Welcome to American Rabbi Project. The podcast about American Judaism from the perspective of rabbis across the country. I’m Justin Regan and this is season 2!

(Regan) Last year I left my job to take a road trip with the goal of interviewing at least one rabbi in every state. Season one started in Arizona and ended in Washington D.C. After that I went to Philadelphia where I spent some time with family before beginning what I consider to be the hardest part of the road trip. Because for three weeks after Philly, I was not staying with people I knew. I was alone. 

(Regan) Not to mention the first stop on this leg was Charlottesville, Virginia, ground zero of 2017’s deadly white supremacist rally. What made things even more difficult were all the tragedies occurring during this time around the country and in my backyard. Not only was there the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh which killed 11 worshippers, shortly after that was the Borderline Bar shooting in Thousand Oaks, California where 13 people died, including the shooter. It happened in my hometown, at a bar many of my friends, myself included, had been to in the past. That violation was only compounded by the Woolsey fire which affected the same area and broke out less than 24 hours after the shooting. In the morning I was calling friends and family to make sure they weren’t shot. That evening I was calling to make sure they had evacuated in time. That includes my parents. They got out fine, but the biggest scare involved my good friend who has a family farm in the Santa Monica Mountains. It was hard to get a hold of him, but eventually he told me he was fine, but had been separated from his dad who was most likely going to make a stand at their house. Several hours passed and I started to think some very scary and horrible thoughts. Later that night I was in a grocery store checkout line and I got a text from my friend that simply said ‘he made it out’. And I nearly lost it in that store. Later on, my friend’s dad would be profiled in an LA Times article and to this day I haven’t felt like reading it. I just can’t. 

(Regan) Needless to say, it was a rough weekend. The one day I did try to get away from it all I went to Shenandoah National Park, and rolled my ankle. That same night I went to downtown Charlottesville and hobbled to the statue of Robert E. Lee, the focal point of the white supremacist rally. It was still standing but covered up in shrubbery, caution tape and fencing. Oddly enough, after a hectic weekend of fire, shootings and injury one of the more calm places I found was this dark unassuming square where the only company I had was a Confederate general. Because the energy seemed to have shifted. As I looked around the square, I saw chalk writing on the ground that said “we stand with Pittsburgh”. For what it’s worth, I’m glad I spent some time in Virginia. Even though I didn’t snag any rabbinical interviews there. I did have better luck in the next state over. 

West Virginia: Truth, Justice and the Appalachian Way 

(Regan) At this point I was traveling through what I like to call the “Char-char belt”. A region filled with places named Charlottesville, Charleston, Charlotte and Charleston.

(Rabbi Victor Urecki) Hello my name is Victor Urecki. I’m the rabbi here at B’nai Jacob Synagogue in Charleston, West Virginia. I came here in 1986 and been here ever since.

(Regan) Charleston is the state capitol, but a big city it is not. Current population estimates put it under 50,000. The percentage of religious people in the state is high but the number of Jews are low. Simply put, it’s not a place Urecki, expected to live back in 86 when he received ordination at Yeshiva University. 

(Urecki) It was actually a good year to be a rabbi because it was a rabbi’s market as opposed to a synagogues market. And there was a lot of places to go for interviews.

(Regan) The University sent him to West Virginia, mostly to get his feet wet to the placement process and out of respect for B’nai Jacob’s then rabbi. They did not expect it to be a match because he was Orthodox, the congregation was closer to Conservative, and officially became so in 2018, there was no Jewish day school and the closest kosher meat was 2 1/2 hours away in Ohio. It ended up being the only interview Urecki went to.

(Urecki) We were overwhelmed by the warmth, the friendliness, not just of the Jewish community but the community at large. As we were walking down the boulevard here with my yarmulke, my wife very traditionally dressed, non-Jews were coming up to us and saying ‘Shalom we love the jewish people. We love you, thank you for being here.’ And we were so taken back by the charm and warmth of this area when they offered us a position here on Saturday night when we were still here for the interview, we thought about it on the way back and said ‘Yeah, we’ll take it’. And it’s been a love affair ever since.

(Regan) For the original Jewish inhabitants of West Virginia, it was not charm that brought them to Appalachia, but coal. Many people flooded into the state starting in the late 1800’s for the booming industry around the so-called ‘black diamonds’. Plenty of small-town congregations and Jewish owned businesses opened up. The early 1960’s, was the high water mark for B’nai Jacob which was filled to capacity with more than 400 families. Temple Israel, Charleston’s Reform Congregation, had about 250. 

(Urecki) But as their children became educated and became doctors merchants and lawyers etc. They didn’t come back. The jobs weren’t there necessarily. A lot of the people didn’t want to go back into the family businesses because they realized these were not families owning businesses but family businesses owning them. So it’s a small Jewish population. And continues to get smaller and older.

(Regan) Now many small town congregations are either gone or don’t have a full time rabbi. Charleston has the biggest community. But the number of families have been cut by more than half since the 60’s. It mirrors the general prognosis of West Virginia. Coal played a pivotal role in building the state. But it’s been on the decline for some time. Especially due to the Recession and more coal plants across the country shutting down or changing fuel sources. It’s left a hole that newer industries have not yet been able to fill. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, West Virginia currently has one of the highest poverty rates in the country at about 19% and the lowest workforce participation rate. Currently it’s the only state in the union to have both a decrease in population and more deaths than births. 

(Urecki) The truth of the matter is we can’t really change the numbers. The numbers are the numbers. All we can do is create the product for those people that are here and those people that might be coming here to make it the best congregation the best Jewish community and best experience. We just had a couple that was interviewing here for Charleston Area Medical Center and they were overwhelmed, I think, for a vibrant community. We had close to 80-85 people at our Saturday morning services for a small community that is huge.

(Regan) Vibrancy aside, there is a lack of Jewish infrastructure in Charleston. Urecki dreamed of building it up when he first arrived and ultimately had to accept the limitations of the situation. 

(Urecki)It’s numbers. If you don’t have enough numbers you can’t create a day school. If you don’t have enough numbers you’re not going to have a kosher butcher. Charleston is going to be very difficult for an Orthodox family to ever come and want to be here. You need to make certain changes. We needed to make certain changes. Reluctantly at first and now with a certain amount of embrace because we want to be here.

(Regan) For Urecki it helps that while he was ordained through an Orthodox institution, he personally leans more Conservative. And he does enjoy being here. Urecki says there are advantages to being a small town rabbi. He gets to be an ambassador of sorts for the Jewish people. He’s talked to state and national lawmakers, spoken at events at the state capitol and worked with the ACLU. Urecki is a member of multiple interfaith organizations that work on issues like bridge building and helping refugees.  

(Urecki) People talk about Charleston for their interfaith activities. My relationship and closeness with the Islamic community. My closeness to the Catholic community. It’s not just good for the community in general, but it’s also made me a more spiritual person because you learn from encounters with other religions.

(Regan) Urecki says there are a lot of warm people in Charleston. And that really showed in the wake of the Pittsburgh tragedy. I spoke to Urecki a few weeks after it happened.  

(Urecki) Charleston is a very unique place to live. It’s a very safe community, it’s a very welcoming community. There’s been times where somebody forgets to lock up the synagogue. And I come here the next morning and it’s open. And there was no fear. And that’s the way synagogues, churches, mosques are supposed to be. What Pittsburgh has done is that loss of innocence because already, and we have been doing this since 9/11, but even now more critically approaching ‘where are our vulnerabilities? How can we make sure this place is both open but secure?’ But that Sunday morning, starting to see flowers being left at our door step, anonymously, with words like ‘we love you, we stand with you’ was very heartening. And it shows you that’s America. That shooter doesn’t represent everything about America. And that outpouring of support has been nothing short of inspiring. However, I think that did more than just shatter our innocence. It also reminded us that perhaps America is no different then any other country. 

(Regan) This ‘loss of innocence’ and ‘shooter doesn’t represent America’ Urecki speaks of references an ideological debate in the Jewish community that usually follows generational lines. Generally speaking, the younger feel safer while some of the elders are quick to bring up the terrors of the past. It’s a conflict that played out verbatim in Urecki’s family. 

(Urecki) Because my dad who fled Poland in 1938 as a young kid always said ‘it could happen anywhere’. My father not only left as a stateless person fleeing for his life, and again not everyone in his family could leave, and seeing the doors close in America because of America first back in the 30’s. The only place that took some of his family in was Argentina. And to be raised in a country where there was Catholics and there was Jews and there was separation. And also, to witness a world before the state of Israel was also critical to him. Realizing if we don’t have a homeland we don’t have safety. Fast forward to my generation, I grew up in the 60’s. I grew up in a world where America is accepting. In fact, it’s so accepting we inter-marry. It’s so accepting that my children can attend Charleston Catholic. That I can do the commencement address there three times. That my wife teaches there, my daughter teaches there. That I am invited routinely to different churches, church members come here. America’s different. We also don’t see what it’s not like to have a homeland. In fact, we see a very powerful state of Israel.

(Regan) He says in the wake of Pittsburgh it’s more important than ever to speak out, speak up and do good.

(Urecki) So one of the things that I’ve been doing here in our area, and I’ve been talking about that quite a bit, is weaponizing goodness. We need to amplify the good things that are happening in our world and our country and locally. So I’m at Charleston Catholic, I’m taking pictures of those moments and make sure the people on Facebook and twitter know that that’s what’s going on in our country, that’s what’s going on in our city. And yeah, there’s a lot of hatred going on and people use social media to promote hate. We can weaponize goodness. And that’s the only tool we have in our toolbox in this moment right now.

(Regan) As Urecki previously mentioned there is at least a perception that America is different. Whether or not that’s true, is constantly being debated in this podcast. But there are challenges to a welcoming society as well. Increased chances of assimilation and inter-religious marriage. It’s a dilemma that gives Urecki mixed emotions. 

(Urecki) The challenge is unfortunately because the non-Jewish spouse does not have the spiritual memory, the history of the Jewish people, being part of a Jewish community, the chances are very good unfortunately that they will not raise their children in the Jewish faith. But the opportunity is we bring in a freshness to our community which is one of the things I’ve noticed here in Charleston where we have people who are not of the Jewish faith that, sometimes they convert, but often times they become our ambassadors to the Jewish spouse who doesn’t realize how important the gift of Judaism is. Because if they are going to start coming to our synagogue, the non-Jewish spouse wants the Jewish spouse to take this thing seriously. 

(Regan) Urecki says many rabbis have a chip on their shoulder that it’s up to them to “save Judaism”. But the older Urecki gets the less he worries and the more he focuses on the beauty of Judaism. 

(Urecki) When I look at the texts and the history of our people, I kind of then take a deep breath and say ‘relax’. Our people have been wanderers. We have a story, we have an adventure. And this is part of the unfolding adventure of the Jewish people. This is actually a pretty good adventure right now. I mean if our biggest challenge is the community around us loves us so much that they’re marrying us that’s not a bad challenge. I’ll take that over a pogrom. When you see things like Pittsburgh it gives me pause but it also reminds me what I saw the days after of the envelopment of the Jewish community here by so many not of the Jewish faith. It reminds me that there’s a lot of goodness in this world. And we have a homeland. And the bigger challenge is the disconnect between the state of Israel and because of some of their policies and the American Jewish experience. But we have a homeland we have a place of safety if need be.

(Regan) There are other sacred texts Urecki turns to for inspiration and learning. Comic books. He’s an avid collector and has more than 50,000 of them. Urecki was born in Argentina and first came to America as a toddler. Comics were his way of connecting to his new home and his religion. 

(Urecki) And at that time I couldn’t read any English. But I saw these flying guys. One was Superman the other was Batman. And I ached to read it. For me it represents being an American. When I started reading about these adventures and then discovering that they were also created by Jews. I learned how to read, I learned about America, I learned about the contributions of the Jewish people to America through comic books. There’s a lot of these themes and motifs that these creators brought that shows you not just the Jewish experience but the Jewish messages that were there. Like Spiderman ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ like Superman, the idea of an immigrant, an alien, coming to this country who  disguised as Clark Kent no one realizes the contributions he’s making. The idea of pursuing Justice, the story of Batman. Those narratives you see, and all the creators were Jewish, every creation was Jewish. From Superman, Batman, Spiderman, The Avengers, Justice league all these, there were very few characters not created by Jews. And part of it is because many of them couldn’t get into the publishing industry.

(Regan) By coincidence, I happened to interview Urecki shortly after the passing of Stan Lee.

(Urecki) Stan Lee taught me to dream, Stan lee taught me to be creative. Stan Lee taught that you can be different and you can be special. Stan Lee taught you that it’s okay to be a nerd. He’s amazing. His writing was bombastic and wonderful and really influenced my life in a very non-Jewish way, but also in some ways a very Jewish way. You know Stan Lee was Jewish. Original name was Stanley Martin Lieber. But his characters reflected that idea of the person who is different is also very special and can contribute to the world, which is a very Jewish motif. 

(Regan) Urecki is a dreamer. Despite the challenges of being Jewish in Appalachia he says he wouldn’t trade his pulpit for any where else. And he’s in the process of preparing for the inevitable. There’s plans someday of sharing a building with Charleston’s Reform Congregation.  

(Urecki) We’re going to eventually have to be together. It won’t be any fun to survive as a congregation of 30 families here, 20 families there. Why not put them together now when we have the opportunity to do it. Both congregations are financially secure for many many years. Both buildings are good. There’s nothing falling apart. And we get along. But we couldn’t get across the problem that no one wanted to leave each other’s building. But the other alternative is, maybe we can’t do it now, but we can do the things to make the future possible. So Rabbi Blair and myself and my predecessor and the predecessor of Rabbi Blair, Rabbi Cohn, we’re doing a lot of programs together. We exchange pulpits. He comes Saturday morning here, I’ll be there Friday night. It’s very different. They have music and a piano. We don’t. 

(Regan) When I think of Rabbi Victor Urecki in Charleston, West Virginia, I’m reminded of several of the rabbis I interviewed out West in earlier episodes. Rabbi Dovi Shapiro of Flagstaff, Arizona also leads a small mountain town congregation. But they recently moved to a bigger synagogue instead of downsizing. Rabbi Sam Spector in Salt Lake City, Utah holds the pulpit at a merged congregation. But Utah has the highest population growth in the country while West Virginia declines. For every Jewish community that gains a family, there’s a loss somewhere else. More often then not, Charleston is that somewhere else. Still, Urecki is hopeful, and a bit humorous, about the future. 

(Urecki) I have an article in my office, from I think the New York Times in 1973 that talk about the demise of the Charleston Jewish community in 25 years. So do the math, 1973 that’s 1998. And I kept it. In 1998 I did a sermon on it and said ‘you see we’re still around’. But now it’s 2018 we’re still around. Rumors of our demise our greatly exaggerated. We’ll be around.

(Regan) As I previously mentioned this leg of the trip was the hardest for me. I was alone and tired of traveling. I was injured and the weather was starting to sour. This was the moment where the project pushed me to keep going. If I was just traveling for fun, West Virginia would have been the beginning of the end. But by now this project started to mean a lot to me and I knew since I was already on that side of the country I might as well take the opportunity to scoop up more interviews. So instead of continuing west, I turned around, tightened my ankle brace, took a deep breath, and left Charleston. And headed for Charleston. 

(Regan) American Rabbi Project: West Virginia Truth: Justice and the Appalachian Way was written and produced by me Justin Regan. If you like what you’re hearing please consider donating to this project. You can find out how at my website rabbiproject.com. I would also like to thank Derek Povah for handling the web stuff and taking photos of me and my car that is worthy of an album cover. Also thanks to Jeremy Krones, Sarit Rathbone, Dylan Abrams, Beth Vander Stoep and my parents for the assistance. Please feel free to reach out to me by emailing justin@rabbiproject.com. You can also follow the project on twitter with the handle @rabbiproject and facebook.com/rabbiproject.

And until next time Shalom and safe driving.  


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