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Rabbi to be honored for interfaith work

Chip Ellis
Rabbi Victor Urecki is one of 26 honorees of the 11th annual Civil Rights Day, hosted by the state Human Rights Commission. Urecki will be given his award Thursday at the Beni Kedem Shrine Temple for his work in fostering Charleston's interfaith community.

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.

The two began a religious dialogue and expanded it to the larger community with a program called Root and Branch, where people could discuss their faith in a safe space.

"It wasn't competition, and it wasn't, 'Let's see which religion is the best,'" Urecki said. "It was, 'What does each religion have to offer to the world?'"

Thirty years ago, Urecki said he would have never seen a non-Jew at a Torah class. It would have been a question of, "Why is this person here?"

"Now, it's 'Why not?'" Urecki said. "They're trying to enrich their heritage."

As Jewish communities nationwide have seen their numbers dwindle, Urecki said Charleston's has started to stagnate. The makeup of B'nai Jacob congregates is no longer the "classic Jewish family" -- both parents Jewish, both grandparents Jewish -- but is more eclectic.

"Our synagogue has become, I think, a place where anyone knows that they can come to our congregation, be a part of our studies, be a part of our prayer services and hopefully get something out of it," Urecki said.

Urecki also has been vocal about Israel and Palestine and led community discussions about those issues. A self-described Zionist, Urecki said he is "passionate about Israel" and believes Jewish people have a right to their "ancestral home."

But, Urecki said, both Israelis and Palestinians have compelling narratives. The spiritual discussions he encounters have changed the way he approaches conversations about the two, he said.

"The conversations are not 'Israel is right, the Palestinians are wrong,'" Urecki said. "It's having discussions, learning about the issues in an intelligent fashion [and] communicating that with others. Conveying in a respectful manner that there are two narratives. And if I can contribute to that in a positive way, then that's good."

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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