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A West Virginia rabbi’s ‘obsession with Lego’ connects him with his changing community

(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.

B’nai Jacob, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement: 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 overall.

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.”


The post A West Virginia rabbi’s ‘obsession with Lego’ connects him with his changing community appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Jordan Reaffirms Commitment to Peace With Israel After Iran Attack, Says Ending Treaty Would Hurt Palestinians

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Al Safadi attends a press conference after a meeting on the Gaza situation in the government’s representation facility in Oslo, Norway, Dec. 15, 2023. Photo: NTB/Stian Lysberg Solum via REUTERS

Senior Jordanian officials recently reaffirmed the country’s commitment to maintaining peace with Israel, despite protests erupting across Jordan against their treaty amid the ongoing war in Gaza.

Pro-Hamas protesters have been actively campaigning to end the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, which the two countries signed in 1994 to end the state of war that had existed between them for decades and establish diplomatic relations. The treaty followed the signing of the Oslo Accords, a historic agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

However, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi said on Sunday that the peace deal was best for not only his country but also the Palestinians.

“The treaty actualized all our rights and served our interests. Revoking it would not be in Jordan’s or the Palestinians’ interest,” Al-Safadi told Jordan’s official news channel Al-Mamlaka in remarks flagged by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). “If we thought even for a moment that revoking it would be in the interest of Jordan or of the Palestinians, we would have done so without hesitation.”

Revoking the peace treaty, he continued, would “harm both Jordan and Palestine and greatly limit our ability to continue fulfilling our main and primary role in providing aid to the Palestinian people … The peace treaty is a source of strength for us and allows us to continue our role of aiding the Palestinian people while protecting our interests.”

Al-Safadi’s comments came one day after Jordan — along with the US, Britain, and France — helped Israel repel an unprecedented direct attack by Iran against the Israeli homeland. Iran fired over 300 drones and missiles at the Jewish state, nearly all of which were shot out of the air. Only one injury was reported in Israel.

The chief diplomat’s defense of the peace treaty also came amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, which has fueled anti-Israel animus across Jordan. Thousands of protesters have been routinely gathering for weeks to lambast Israel, express solidarity with Hamas, and call for an end to the peace treaty. Al-Safadi addressed such opposition in his comments.

“We respect Jordanian public opinion,” he said. “Back in 1994, when [the treaty] was signed, it protected our interests. We regained all our occupied lands, and the treaty enshrined Jordan’s special role in administrating the places holy to Islam and to Christianity in Jerusalem. Were it not for this role, there would have been a vacuum, and Israel would have exploited this to impose its own sovereignty and administration on the holy places rather than granting them to the Palestinians.”

Al-Safadi wasn’t the only official to recently articulate Jordan’s commitment to the peace treaty amid calls to revoke it and mass anti-Israel protests over the Gaza war.

Jordan’s government spokesman, Muhannad Mubaidin, told Sky News Arabia late last month that Hamas was inciting the Jordanian people against their leadership. The Palestinian terrorist group and its supporters in Jordan, he said, were trying “to force Jordan to choose different options,” but “peace is our strategic choice and the peace treaty [with Israel] is what allows us to fulfill our role of easing the pressures on the people in the West Bank.”

MEMRI was first to report Mubaidin’s comments in English.

The post Jordan Reaffirms Commitment to Peace With Israel After Iran Attack, Says Ending Treaty Would Hurt Palestinians first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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US Stops UN From Recognizing a Palestinian State Through Membership

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks to members of the Security Council during a meeting to address the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question, at UN headquarters in New York City, New York, US, April 18, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

The United States on Thursday effectively stopped the United Nations from recognizing a Palestinian state by casting a veto in the Security Council to deny the Palestinian Authority full membership of the world body.

The United States says an independent Palestinian state should be established through direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and not through UN action.

It vetoed a draft resolution that recommended to the 193-member UN General Assembly that “the State of Palestine be admitted to membership of the United Nations.” Britain and Switzerland abstained, while the remaining 12 council members voted yes.

The Palestinians are currently a non-member observer state, a recognition that was granted by the UN General Assembly in 2012. But an application to become a full UN member needs to be approved by the Security Council and then at least two-thirds of the General Assembly.

The Palestinian push for full UN membership comes six months into a war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and as Israel is expanding settlements in the West Bank.

“Recent escalations make it even more important to support good-faith efforts to find lasting peace between Israel and a fully independent, viable, and sovereign Palestinian state,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the council earlier on Thursday.

“Failure to make progress towards a two-state solution will only increase volatility and risk for hundreds of millions of people across the region, who will continue to live under the constant threat of violence,” he said.

Israel‘s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan said Palestinians failed to meet the criteria to become a full UN member, which he outlined as: a permanent population, defined territory, government, and capacity to enter relations with other states.

“Who is the council voting to ‘recognize’ and give full membership status to? Hamas in Gaza? The Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Nablus? Who?” Erdan asked the Security Council earlier on Thursday.

He said granting full UN membership to Palestinians “will have zero positive impact for any party, that will cause only destruction for years to come, and harm any chance for future dialogue.”

The Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank. Hamas ousted the Palestinian Authority from power in Gaza in 2007.

Ziad Abu Amr, special envoy of Abbas, earlier asked the US: “How could this damage the prospects of peace between Palestinians and Israelis? How could this recognition and this membership harm international peace and security?”

“Those who are trying to disrupt and hinder the adoption of such a resolution … are not helping the prospects of peace between Palestinians and Israelis and the prospects for peace in the Middle East in general,” he told the Security Council.

Abu Amr said full Palestinian UN membership was not an alternative for serious political negotiations to implement a two-state solution and resolve pending issues, adding: “However, this resolution will grant hope to the Palestinian people hope for a decent life within an independent state.”

The post US Stops UN From Recognizing a Palestinian State Through Membership first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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The value of Jews to Canada today: What would the cost be if the community packed up and left?

Jonathan L. Milevsky is an author and educator. Raphi Zaionz is the founder of mygoals Inc. Both live in Toronto, for the moment. (The latter’s children either have left or are planning to leave Canada.) Towards the end of the film Schindler’s List, there’s a scene in which the famous non-Jewish philanthropist, who saved over […]

The post The value of Jews to Canada today: What would the cost be if the community packed up and left? appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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