For 22 years, Rabbi David Wucher has been much more than the spiritual leader of the 100-family B’nai Sholom Congregation in Huntington, W.Va.
He also has been the only rabbi within about a 50-mile radius, serving communities reaching from eastern Kentucky to southern Ohio, as well.
Wucher will be retiring from his pulpit at the end of this month, but will remain in Huntington as rabbi emeritus. He will also continue to teach classes on the Holocaust and Judaic studies at Marshall University.
Serving as rabbi at B’nai Sholom, a congregation affiliated with both the Reform and the Conservative movements, presented unique hurdles, said Wucher, who was ordained in 1972 at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.
“It’s been a challenge, but I have very much enjoyed it,” Wucher said.
Noting his own “traditional” Jewish background, Wucher believes that he was successful in incorporating various denominational observances into his congregation’s services.
“Our Friday night service is more Reform, and our Saturday morning service is more Conservative,” he said. “And at our Sunday morning minyan, many men, including myself, wear tefillin. I enjoy covering all these aspects. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve always enjoyed it.”
Replacing Wucher will be Rabbi Jean Eglinton, a recently ordained rabbi from HUC-JIR. She will be the congregation’s first woman rabbi. Wucher finds an “interesting symmetry” with his successor.
“I was ordained in 1972, and one of my classmates, Sally Priesand, was the first woman [Reform] rabbi to be ordained in the United States,” he said. “It was quite a media event. There was lots of coverage of my ordination from a lot of news organizations.”
“Of course, after she broke through the barrier, many others have followed,” he continued. “It’s a new century. Now, more than half the class [at HUC-JIR] is female.”
Eglinton, Wucher pointed out, graduated first in her class, as did he almost 40 years ago.
“I said to her, ‘As first in your class, where else would you want to be other than Huntington?’” Wucher said.
The retiring rabbi feels a strong attachment to Huntington, and B’nai Sholom. He and his wife, Tori, a Huntington native, were married at the synagogue, and both his daughters celebrated their bat mitzvas there.
Although several smaller congregations in neighboring communities eventually merged into B’nai Sholom, Wucher did his best to keep those communities viable for as long as possible, said Gail Feinberg, immediate past president of the Huntington congregation.
“He continued to travel to the smaller congregations at holidays to keep them functioning as long as they could,” Feinberg said. “He would travel to do Chanuka services at retirement communities. If they couldn’t come to us, he would go the them.”
Wucher also excelled throughout his career in keeping the youth of the congregation interested in Judaism, Feinberg said.
“He made the study of Judaism for the kids more cohesive, and more of something the kids wanted to do,” Feinberg said. “He is really good at keeping the younger generation involved.”
“And, if you ever want to know anything about the Civil War, or Yankee baseball, there you go,” she added.
With extra time on his hands, Wucher plans to explore his passion for the Civil War by getting involved with reenactments, portraying a Jewish chaplain who served with the Union army. He says his own real experience as a chaplain in Vietnam will help prepare him for the role.
He intends to remain rooted to the Huntington community.
“It’s been a pleasure serving this community,” Wucher said. “It’s been a pleasure helping people grow spiritually over the years, and to be involved in their lives over the years.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)