Charleston, W.Va. — There are two Jewish congregations in Charleston, W.Va., a city of 50,000 that 1,100 Jews call home. Both B’nai Jacob and Temple Israel are located in downtown Charleston on the Kanawha River, not far from its junction with the Elk River. They stand barely a 10-minute drive away from the chemical plant that caused a toxic spill in January, contaminating the tap water for more than 300,000 people.
An accident of geography placed the Jewish community in the crosshairs of the chemical spill crisis.
But a history of activism, community and faith spurred Jews to respond with a quickness and force that belie the community’s small numbers.
“We scooped everyone,” said Rabbi Victor Urecki of Congregation B’nai Jacob, explaining that one of his congregants, who works for the local 911 telephone service, alerted synagogue members before the spill had even been announced publicly.
The spill spread quickly because Charleston’s primary water intake and treatment center is located immediately downstream from Freedom Industries’s chemical plant, where a storage tank sprung a leak on January 9.
Once the extent of the crisis became known, both Charleston synagogues raced to deliver bottled water to the elderly and housebound, many of whom were left without any usable water.
West Virginia Jews concede that they don’t see themselves as self-consciously Jewish activists in the same way that Jews in larger communities do. But they proudly insist they know how to build bridges and how to get things done to right a wrong.
“It’s not like New York,” Rabbi Jim Cohn of Temple Israel said, alluding to a lack of stand-alone Jewish social action organizations. “But we’re very active in the community as individuals, and we cooperate and collaborate constantly with people from all backgrounds.”
Although officials pronounced the city’s water safe to use on January 13, many say they still do not trust it — and are determined to make sure such a disaster doesn’t happen again.
“This is the incident that turned me into an activist,” said Richard Katz, a B’nai Jacob member who has joined environmental groups in spearheading a push for reforms since the spill. “It’s hard not to get involved when you feel powerless to provide your wife and daughter with clean water.”