Jews come together during water emergency in West Virginia

Jews come together during water emergency in West Virginia

Charleston — the state capital — was at the heart of the water emergency in West Virginia. (Tim Kiser w:User:Malepheasant)
Charleston — the state capital — was at the heart of the water emergency in West Virginia. (Tim Kiser w:User:Malepheasant)

Michael Pushkin has literally carried the water for the people of Charleston, W.Va.

Since last Friday, the Charleston taxi driver and member of B’nai Jacob Synagogue has been using his van to lug cases of water (he has no idea how many) all over the nine-county area affected by a chemical leak into the Elk River. For five days, people there were still under orders not to drink, cook or bathe with the water.

Officials began to lift the ban by designated zones on Monday, though residents were cautioned to first flush their pipes.

“We’re all in this together,” Pushkin said. “We’re all getting the same water. Everyone is really stepping up to help each other.”

Pushkin’s is just one story of Charleston area Jews who helped out during the water emergency. Marilyn Urecki, wife of B’nai Jacob Rabbi Victor Urecki, drove to Roanoke, Va., this past weekend and returned with a van full of water.

Rabbi Urecki, who delivered the opening invocation at Monday’s session of the West Virginia Senate, used the opportunity to thank everyone who pitched in during the emergency.

Members from B’nai Jacob and Temple Israel were checking on their elderly and shut-ins, taking water to whomever needed it.

And Temple Israel, which has a gym and showers, opened its facility to members.

“We were the first [area] to have complete lift on all uses,” said Rabbi James Cohn of Temple Israel, “so we got the word out to all our congregants.”

There are approximately 500 Jews in the Charleston area.

According to Pushkin, water was in short supply early in the emergency as people cleaned out the stores and lined up fast at the first distribution stations.

He experienced the problem firsthand last Friday when he showed up at a water station.

“By the time I got to the front of the line they had run out,” he said, “so I was getting frustrated.”

As friends of his began bringing water from Huntington and Beckley, Pushkin, whose grandmother was from Duquesne, decided to begin distributing water himself. That night, he loaded the trunk of his Ford Crown Victoria cab with cases of water and began doling it out to his passengers.

“I was asking my customers if they had water, and if they did not and were worried about it, I’d open the trunk and give them a case of water. It helped them, and it helped me.”

The next day he began volunteering to distribute water, using his van to deliver cases to remote areas as far away as Boone County — 20-25 miles from Charleston.

He said the problem during most of the emergency was not the supply of water, but getting it to people who needed it most.

He recalled one elderly couple to which he made a delivery. The wife was sick and needed fresh water for medical reasons.

“They had no way of getting out,” Pushkin said. “They were an old couple and they could not get to the distribution centers, and there are a lot of people like this.”

In addition to the inconvenience, Urecki said many of his congregants could not work during the emergency as several businesses were forced to close.

Some 300,000 people were affected by the ban, which was imposed last Thursday after a chemical used in coal processing leaked from a Freedom Industries plant and reached the Elk River.

Pushkin, who also is a Democratic candidate for the West Virginia House of Delegates from the East End of Charleston, predicted the emergency would be a campaign issue.

The good news, he said, is the emergency showed how West Virginians come together in tough times.

“I’m a Jew and I’m a West Virginian, he said. “Unfortunately, West Virginians go through a lot like this. Whether it’s the Sago or Upper Big Branch [mine disasters], in times of crisis we always come together. It doesn’t matter whether we’re Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, we all come together, and we all drink the same water.”

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at

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