CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the mid-2000s, Rabbi Victor Urecki accepted an award from the state Human Rights Commission on behalf of Rabbi Samuel Cooper for work during the civil rights movement. Urecki will get to accept the same award for himself Thursday, as he is one of 26 honorees for the 11th annual Civil Rights Day.
"I'm not sure why I'm being honored, other than if there is something hopefully I've contributed, it's working a lot with the interfaith communities," Urecki said.
It is his commitment to fostering understanding and appreciation among religions that has gotten this particular recognition. Urecki will be given the award Thursday at the Beni Kedem Shrine Temple.
Though Urecki comes from a more traditional background, he said West Virginia provided a sea change in which he began to understand the importance of having an interfaith dialogue. Urecki said this understanding has made him more spiritually enriched.
"For the last 28 years now, I've had that blessing in being able to do that, and that it's not so much just finding out what others are doing just to compare and contrast, but to learn and become a better spiritual person by that encounter."
When Urecki became B'nai Jacob's rabbi in 1986, the temptation was to recede into his own faith instead of experiencing the diversity of religions in Charleston.
"The more I've learned from other religions, the closer, ironically, I've come to my own faith," Urecki said. "Because it becomes a way of sharing the best parts of each other and seeing how they connect with God."
Urecki said the traditional negative Jewish narrative changed over time for him as he became more comfortable in talking about his faith with other religious leaders in Charleston.
"The Jew has always been the stranger wherever they went," Urecki said. "The Jew was always the wandering exile. We were always on the receiving end of hatred because we were different. We had a different narrative."
Seeing how someone else draws connects with God makes others better spiritually, Urecki said. One of Urecki's greatest memories of this kind of sharing was with Hazel Crowley -- a woman who attended services at B'nai Jacob because of her interest in Judaism.