When a chemical spill contaminated the water of the Elk River near Charleston, WV in early January the local Jewish community sprang into action helping those unable to fend for themselves.
“We scooped everyone,” Rabbi Victor Urecki, of head of one of two synagogues in the West Virginia capital, said of the day of the leak. He explained that thanks to one member of his congregation that works in emergency dispatch, they were able to notify everyone in the community even before official word got out to stop drinking the water.
The Jewish community also rallied around elderly and home bound members of the neighborhood, helping deliver water and make certain they had what they needed to survive without water for days.
Now, two months after the leak turned the Elk River into a contaminated mess, many in the 1,100-strong Charleston Jewish community have rallied together and are vowing to fight on to protect the environment in their home state.
“This is the incident that turned me into an activist,” said Richard Katz, a local synagogue member who has been spearheading efforts to hold those accountable for the spill responsible and bring about environmental change. “It’s hard not to get involved when you feel powerless to provide your wife and daughter with clean water.”
In early February, Katz testified in front of the West Virginia House of Representatives and called for long-term monitoring of local residents’ health after the spill.
“Every time [federal officials] come, they make the same recommendations. Then they leave, and nothing changes,” Katz said. “But maybe this time could be different.”
Fellow congregant and activist Michael Pushkin has even launched a campaign to run for a state House seat to help protect the environment from industrial spills at the legislative level.
“I’d like to see the chemical industry play by the same rules as everyone else,” Pushkin said, pointing out that while industries push for less regulations, chemical spills hurt the economy and the environment and are ultimately bad for the state he loves.
Rabbi Jim Cohn pointed out that efforts like Katz’s and Pushkin’s are typical of the unique West Virginia brand of Jewish activism that relies on cooperation and individual efforts rather than Jewish organizations to bring about change.
“We’re very active in the community as individuals, and we cooperate and collaborate constantly with people from all backgrounds,” Cohn stressed.