(JTA) — A West Virginia rabbi landed on the front page of his city’s newspaper earlier this month — not because of anything that happened at his synagogue, but because of his local fame as the builder of ever-more-ambitious Lego projects.
A 4-foot-tall Superman figure — all made of the tiny plastic blocks — stands alongside the books and Judaica in Rabbi Victor Urecki’s office at Charleston’s B’nai Jacob Synagogue. Where other rabbis might keep candy for children who visit his office, Urecki stores small Lego sets from the Disney Princess series and Moana’s dolphin cove in his desk drawers.
Urecki told the newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail, that he was drawn to Lego building because he and his wife Marilyn can work together and feel a shared sense of accomplishment.
But to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi said that wasn’t the whole story. While he initially wrote in an email that he feels there isn’t “really a ‘Judaism’ angle to this story,” he added that part of what he loves about his small community is that they are “giving and understanding,” especially when it comes to his hobbies.
“They have put up with this comic book collecting, Peloton/fitness crazy, and now Lego building rabbi,” Urecki added. “If you want to know why my wife and I have never once thought of leaving this state that continues to decline in population and why we plan to stay around when we retire in a couple of years, look no further than this amazingly supportive shul we have been blessed with. They are the real story.”
Urecki’s extracurricular pursuits are a major part of his identity. He was born in Argentina, and his early interest with comic-book collecting began as a way to learn English. Now, he has a whole room dedicated to comics — and, increasingly, Lego — in his house in Charleston, where he has also hosted an adult continuing education class on Lego construction through a local university.
“One of the gifts that this congregation has given me is they have allowed me to be me,” Urecki told JTA. “They didn’t shudder when they heard I collect comics. Instead, for my birthday and for different things, they get a kiddush lunch and they put comic books on the things for the luncheon.”
The support goes a long way back. Urecki once told a local news TV host that when he appeared — as himself — on the cover of a short-lived comic book called “Big Bad Blood of Dracula,” in 1991, a congregant bought 100 copies to share with others in the community.
West Virginia's changing Jewish community
B’nai Jacob is affiliated with the Conservative movement, although many of its 160 families are dual members of the nearby Reform synagogue, Temple Israel. Fewer than 1,200 Jews are estimated to live in West Virginia.
It also was not always a Conservative synagogue. When Urecki and his then-fiancée arrived in 1986, he was fresh out of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, the flagship modern Orthodox educational institution.
At the time, B’nai Jacob identified as a Traditional synagogue, one of a small group of such congregations, mostly located in the Midwest, in which women did not count in the minyan, or prayer quorum, as per the Orthodox tradition, and did not lead services — though men and women did sit together.
But as the times changed, so did the needs of the Jewish community in Charleston. West Virginia, a state in deep economic decline since the mid-1960s due to the a decreasing reliance on coal, has also seen a significant drop in population. There is no Jewish day school in Charleston, and while there used to be a few kosher butchers in town in the 1950s and 1960s, those, too, have shuttered. Urecki and his wife recently drove two and a half hours up to Columbus, Ohio, to buy kosher meat. The couple sent their three daughters to Catholic high school — an uncommon choice for an Orthodox rabbi’s children.
Those shifts also led to changes at his synagogue. In 2017, B’nai Jacob held its first High Holiday services where women counted in the prayer quorum. In 2018, the synagogue officially joined the Conservative movement. Urecki welcomes the flexibility.
“The congregation has allowed me to grow not just as me, but also as a rabbi,” Urecki said. “I’ve got to explore avenues that I don’t think I would have done in other places. I’m not the same rabbi that came in back in ’86. I want to perform intermarriages. I want to be there for same-sex marriages — things that I didn’t think I would ever be comfortable or want to do, now I embrace. And I think part of it is because I’ve been in such a diverse community that I have to be there for everyone.”
Those transitions have not always been easy. Urecki remembers the exact date he got the phone call from the Rabbinical Council of America, an association for Orthodox rabbis, asking him to resign: May 29, 2018.
“I thought that was one of the hardest and blackest days of my life,” Urecki said. “And my wife said, ‘It’s going to be one of the best because you will be able to do more things that you’ve always wanted to do and your congregation has always encouraged you to find yourself, but you couldn’t because you were kind of shackled to an organization.’ And sure enough, that’s happened to me.”
Urecki has since taken the time to find himself, from Peloton to Legos.
“That obsession with Lego and comics and exercise kind of reminds me that I’m a human being,” he said.
And sharing those interests with his congregants has helped him connect to them. Letting the wider community and his congregation in, letting them see his comic book collection and his giant Superman build, Urecki says, “does create a certain amount of humanity. People put rabbis, ministers, priests on this pedestal and they’re afraid to talk to them.”
For the synagogue’s kids especially, he says, “instead of looking at the office as this really scary thing when you’re being called the rabbi’s office, they see comic book stuff, they see Lego. And there’s an instant connection that’s made.
“Every Sunday when kids run into the synagogue, the first thing they do is they run into the office to see if I have a new build,” he added. “We might like kids to be running in and their first thing is like, ‘I want to put on tefillin,’ but, you know, they’re running into the synagogue. And that’s a nice thing.”