Eric Douglas Published

Rabbi Speaks On Passover, Current Events

Young man in a white shirt reads from a book at a meal.
A Jewish family celebrates Passover Seder reading the Haggadah.
Adobe Stock/Inna

The Jewish holiday of Passover is coming to an end. It is a time for celebration and reflection. This year, it has been a bit more difficult according to Charleston Rabbi Victor Urecki. He spoke with News Director Eric Douglas to discuss the holiday and the struggle with the war in Gaza. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

An older man, 60s, stands at a podium in the West Virginia Senate chamber. He reaches for the microphone to adjust the height. He has salt and pepper hair and wears a navy blue suit with white button shirt and tie.
In this file photo, Charleston Rabbi Victor Urecki speaks before the West Virginia Senate on Jan. 31, 2022.

Photo Credit: Will Price/WV Legislative Photography

Douglas: We are in the last couple of days of Passover. Tell me what Passover is. Let’s start from the basic ground up. 

Urecki: Passover is perhaps one of the most, if not the most, significant holidays in the Jewish calendar year. It celebrates the birth of the nation of Israel, the people of Israel, how we became a nation. We left Egypt, the story of the exodus, the journey that began in Egypt that ended up in the promised land. So it’s significant on many levels, there’s a religious component, there is a cultural importance, historical importance. In many ways, it explains and defines who we are as a people, we are a people with a destiny, with a journey. And it begins with the story of Passover.

Douglas: It’s seven days, eight days, I think? 

Urecki: It’s a week-long holiday. It’s extended for reasons that I probably don’t want to get into just because of the complications of the Jewish calendar. But in Israel, and among many of the modern expressions of Judaism, it is a week-long holiday. There’s an extended day, an extra day that occurs among the more traditional Jews, the conservative movement, and the Orthodox movement of Judaism. And so, as a result, Passover will end for many on Monday. For others, it will end on Tuesday.

Douglas: So what is the celebration?

Urecki: I guess the key celebration takes place in the home, or in some communities, at a synagogue or a temple. There’s a celebration called the Seder that usually takes place on the first and the second day of the holiday, where we gather together. And we have a ceremony that is conducted in order to remember the Exodus, to remember what happened to the Jewish people back then, and to celebrate our identity as a people. And that becomes the Passover meal that many are familiar with. 

There are some parts of it that are based on the Bible, on the Hebrew Bible, from the book of Exodus. Others have developed in different traditions that have evolved down through the centuries. Jews have experienced the holiday both in Israel and also in exile for the last 2,000 years. 

Douglas: This is literally though, a celebration of God passing over the Jewish people when they put lamb’s blood around the mantles of their doors?

Urecki: Correct, it’s in the book of Exodus. This is right before the last plague hits. The Jewish people are commanded by God to slaughter lamb, to take that lamb blood and place it on their doorposts so the Angel of Death would pass over. There is the idea of having bitter herbs on the table, and unleavened bread, to remind us of the bread of affliction, and also to remind us of the bitterness of the land of the slavery. They also become symbols of our freedom later on because the sacrifice represents what the Jewish people were willing to do on behalf of their freedom. The leavened bread represents the haste the Jewish people exercised when they left Egypt. They left Egypt in a hurry, and they began the journey to the promised land. 

Douglas: I want to mention something that you wrote recently, that while you’re celebrating the Jewish Exodus, there’s also a bit of a sadness to it. It’s not a pure celebration, because as the Jewish people got their freedom, the Egyptian people suffered and died in that process as well. Talk about that for a second.

Urecki: I’ve always been touched and fascinated by some of the rabbinical traditions, how they looked and approached the holiday, that it’s a moment of celebration, obviously, for the people. But they always looked in the rear view mirror at those who suffered, maybe necessarily because the only way to get freedom was through the plagues. Whether one believes in those literally happening, or whether that is a story told, the narrative does indicate that Egyptians suffered. And while some of them, Pharaoh included, would be considered guilty, there were many that were not.

And I’m fascinated that rabbis going back as far as 2,000 years ago, we’re already questioning that. Those are still human beings and some of the stories, some of the legends, some of the traditions that we have reflect that. And I like religion that does that. I like people that do that, that recognize that there’s a complexity to situations around the world, that things are not always black and white. And that ultimately we share a common humanity.

Douglas: Which obviously leads to modern day times, the present situation. Put that in context for me with the war in Gaza right now. And those sorts of things. 

Urecki: Thank you for raising that question. This Passover has been a very difficult time. There is still the sadness, the trauma of Oct. 7, the hostages that still remain in Gaza, the tens upon tens of thousands of Israelis, both in the south, as well as the north that are displaced because of the rockets that are still coming from Gaza. And now from Lebanon. The looming danger of a war between Iran and Israel. There’s that tension, that uneasiness. There’s a sadness that we see. And we’ve seen this for the last few years, the rise of antisemitism among the right. But now we’re seeing that also spilling over into the left, which is traumatizing a lot of Jews. 

And also the helplessness and the sadness of what we’re seeing in Gaza, the suffering that’s occurring there. I don’t think anyone can look at the situation as black and white. It is human beings that are dying. Whether it is due to the fact that Hamas is hiding behind buildings, it doesn’t make a difference. Those are human beings. And we want the hostages back, we want there to be a secession of violence. And it’s almost like holding two views at the same time which seem contradictory, because we want Israel to be able to defend itself. But we also see the humanity on the other side and the tragedy that’s occurring there. It’s what’s making this holiday bittersweet, because it’s supposed to be a time of joy. It’s also a time to recognize our own identity. But we cannot just see our own identity without seeing and looking at those that are suffering as well.

Listen to more of this interview with Rabbi Victor Urecki.

Douglas: Talk to me just a little bit more about the antisemitism and the protests on college campuses now. And how does that make you feel as a person? The Jews have had people persecuting them since almost time immemorial. But this feels kind of different.

Urecki: I’ll start with something my father told me for years, as I was growing up. My father survived the Holocaust. His family left in 1938 from Poland. He was four years old. And just his father, his mother and one sister left and fortunately was able to come to Argentina. 

America had closed its borders. And my father, despite his love for this country, and despite what he was seeing in America, always said it can happen here. 

And me, growing up pretty much American, I came to this country, I was two and a half, never, never experiencing antisemitism. I was the only [Jewish] kid in my school in Portland, Oregon, and never felt anything but love and respect, tolerance and appreciation. I always pushed back on that. I said that America is different. 

In the last political cycle, we started seeing the rise of antisemitism from the right in Charlottesville, for example. And my dad said, you see? I said that, that’s a small element. It’s on one side. And now it’s happening on the side that I kind of find myself closest aligned to, that is the more moderate or left of center. And it’s very jarring. People that we’ve worked together on many issues and again, it’s not even so much people that are pro-Palestinian. I consider myself pro-Palestinian. I want there to be two states for two peoples. I want there to be a bilateral ceasefire, one that has the immediate release of the hostages and the immediate and overwhelming amount of humanitarian aid going into Gaza.

But it’s the virulent hate of not just Israel, but the Jewish people. Zionism, which is nothing more than the belief in the Jewish people having a right to self-determination. I believe in Palestinians having the right to self-determination, but to categorize that as Nazism, to hear that Jews are nothing more or nothing different than the Nazis to equate what is, admittedly, a very difficult campaign that is going on in Gaza with thousands that are dead. 

But to equate that with genocide, which by every metric, and every definition, is false. But to use the same words that Jews, as you said, have experienced, it’s kind of heartbreaking, because we’re seeing it in a country that should be different. And I’m finding myself going back to my father, who just turned 90 just a few months ago, and saying that I still think America is different. But I am starting to understand.

Douglas: You see the cracks. I agree with you, I hope America is different. But I also know because of Kent State and the civil rights protests of the 60s, and in the early 70s, that sometimes it feels like we’re just a step away from going down a slippery slope. 

Urecki: It’s so easy for the slippery slope to occur. Because it is so easy to veer off into the far, far lanes of, of conversation. Because there’s actually quite a few people, at least I see in my conversations, of people that understand that this is complicated, and can hold both Palestinians and Israelis together in the same embrace and understand the struggles of both.

There’s a lot of people out there, but the louder voices that are screaming, “kill all Palestinians,” “all Israelis are Nazis, and they need to be removed.” Those voices have the largest amount of oxygen out there. And we just need to be able to talk with one another. That’s unfortunately become one of the casualties of what’s happened the last seven months and that is the inability of both the Jewish community, the Muslim community, to have those good conversations that we used to have for Christians, Jews and Muslims to be together and an ability to share each other’s struggles. 

Douglas: Last question for you. You said your whole family’s here. You’ve got a grandson I know you’re very proud of. Do you feel uncomfortable yourself?

Urecki: Actually, in West Virginia, I have never had any fears. Unfortunately, we hear throughout the country, people that are afraid to wear a yarmulke, a head covering, in public, which again feeds into that narrative that my dad mentioned to me growing up, “America, it could happen here.” The fact that Jews in New York [and] in some large cities ask the legitimate question whether they should wear a yarmulke on the subway. I don’t feel that at all here in West Virginia. But I do feel sadness that what we’ve built here, especially in our community, and I’m coming to the end of my career here, one of the things I’m very proud of is the interfaith curiosity, that we can come together, Jews, Muslims, Christians, people of different faiths, people of no faith, and we can come and create this oasis of understanding. 

What we see in the last six and a half months is that separation, that inability to have those good conversations. I think it will come once there is a ceasefire, once the hostages are returned, once there is some level, some cessation of violence, some ability to begin the discussions again. But that’s what saddens me right now. I’m not afraid, personally. I’m afraid because that’s what’s really been the most beautiful element of what’s happened here in West Virginia, in particular in Charleston, is the interfaith community has always been able to grow together. And right now that growth is stagnant at best. And I’m afraid if it continues, some of those roots that we’ve established are going to be pulled out.

Douglas: I guess ultimately, these were friends of yours. These are the people from these other groups are friends to you. They’re not just an imam or Christian preacher. The friendships are being severed.

Urecki: They’re just not occurring. I mean, I think what’s happening is people are not talking to each other. Because we don’t have the bridges that we had before. We’ve had these issues like the Palestinian-Israeli situation that just came up on Oct. 7. I mean, this situation has been going, and I have been involved in the U.S.-Israel relationship since I became a rabbi in my 20s, and yet we learned how to find the commonalities. And we learned how to speak around the difficulties. And that’s always happened until recently. And I think we just have to figure it out.  

Last week was a great example. We did a root and the branch where it was a member of the Catholic community, the imam, myself and a member of Latter-Day Saints who moderated the discussion. And we talked about, not the Middle East, we talked about passages in our sacred texts, and how we each look at them. And people afterwards came up and said it was just refreshing. 

It was so nice to see a rabbi and an imam together. And not that we have any tension, but just that visual, that visual back again. And I think we need to work on that again. And you know, I share some of the blame. But we need to figure out how to do it and I haven’t figured that out yet. That’s a failing on my part. But I think that’s critical. And that’s what I am worried about in the future because the longer we stay separate, the more unhealthy this community becomes.