- Associated Press - Sunday, June 3, 2018

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - When Robin Peck got married and joined her husband’s synagogue, B’nai Jacob in Charleston, she gave up participating in the religious services central to her faith as a Jewish person.

As a member of a Reform congregation in Lynchburg, Virginia, Peck led prayer services. Fifteen years ago, she joined B’nai Jacob, where she and other women could not do so.

That changed recently, though, when the B’nai Jacob congregation voted to change its bylaws, giving women the chance to participate in all services as only men had done in the past.

“I’m absolutely thrilled. Absolutely thrilled,” Peck, a 63-year-old teacher at South Charleston High School, said of the change. “Women should have all the rights and privileges of men. Period. And why not? It’s not forbidden, so why not?”

B’nai Jacob was chartered as an Orthodox Judaism congregation in the 1890s. As an Orthodox congregation, it adhered strictly to Jewish law and its roles for men and women.

“Our congregation has always been an Orthodox-chartered congregation,” Rabbi Victor Urecki said. “What that means is, we operated under Halacha, Jewish law, with very little modifications or deviations. If there was any deviations, it was because of the location factor of our congregation, where we were located.”

Because of that, men have always had the honors of leading prayer services, reading from scripture, opening the ark and participating in other ways. Women also weren’t counted in the quorum of 10 needed during daily services in order to say certain prayers.

Late last year, the synagogue voted to join the Conservative Judaism movement. Joining the Conservative movement didn’t require that the synagogue change to include women, but it did give the congregation some flexibility to adapt its practices to what works best for its members, Urecki said.

Women of the congregation first participated in the services during the high holy days last year. Urecki said it was a way for the congregation to see if being Conservative “felt right” for its members. In the past couple of months, the synagogue has offered Conservative services, which include full participation by women and men.

On the Shavuot holiday last week, the synagogue’s transition to being inclusive and Conservative was completed. Since then, all the services have been inclusive of women. The synagogue also got new prayer books, to reflect the changes.

Urecki said the congregation has long talked about how best to be welcoming and inclusive.

“To a certain degree, we’ve been able to answer those challenges on almost every level,” Urecki said. “We are very open to the LGBT community, the interfaith community, the intrafaith community, people with special needs. Even within Orthodoxy and practicing as a traditional congregation, we could find a way to be as inclusive as we can.”

One area where it lacked inclusivity, Urecki said, was the expanding role of women in society.

Peck said she didn’t let that stop her from coming to services. She said she’s been part of various types of synagogues throughout her life. She didn’t feel like it was her place to try to change things at B’nai Jacob.

“When you go to somebody’s house, you don’t tell them how to cook or arrange the furniture,” Peck said. “I didn’t see it as my business to tell Rabbi Urecki or the board how to run the show.”

Peck said that, even before women were counted in the quorum, she would go to services with her husband. She likes being around the synagogue, she said.

“The fact that we now count gives me impetus to be there, because I might be the one to get us to the finish line, and I’m happy to do that,” she said.

Urecki and Peck said the changes have been well received by the congregation. Peck said she hasn’t heard from anyone who is offended by it. Those who might have been reluctant are gradually becoming more accepting of it, she said.

“I think the vast majority of our congregation are absolutely thrilled,” Peck said.

Urecki credits the changes at the synagogue to the conversations the synagogue has had with Temple Israel about the possibility of merging the two congregations. At Temple Israel, a Reform congregation, the congregation has a voice separate from the rabbi. Within the Orthodox tradition, congregations rely solely on the rabbi’s interpretation of Jewish law, he said.

“When I started looking at that and I think others started looking at that, we realized that B’nai Jacob never really had that deep conversation,” Urecki said. “It was whatever the rabbi wants because it’s an Orthodox congregation that goes by whatever the rabbi says, and what the rabbi says is Jewish law.

“There wasn’t this whole thoughtful process of trying to find out who we were as a congregation,” Urecki said. “I thought that was a blessing that the Temple has.”

The conversations about merging the two congregations are on pause now, Urecki said, but the two still have joint services occasionally.

Urecki said he doesn’t know if the change will lead to growth in the population of the synagogue, but he thinks it is the right decision for the community.

“I don’t know if more people will be willing to come or start coming to service, but I want them, when they start coming to service, to feel like they’re part of this synagogue if they want to be,” Urecki said.


Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.

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