Erik Uriarte has served as a student rabbi at Congregation Beth Aaron in Billings, MT since 2017. (Courtesy)

From the Marines to Montana, Rabbi-To-Be Embraces Challenges

“Being a Jew of color in a rural environment in an incredibly white state is really difficult at times, and yet it’s exactly where I want to be.”

Erik Uriarte is used to the quizzical looks he receives while walking down the street in Billings, Montana. The mixed race son of an Ashkenazi Jewish mother and Roman Catholic father from Central America, Uriarte has been mistaken for a Muslim because he wears a kippah and a Native American because of his dark complexion.

“By the time they figure out who I am, what I could be, I’ve already passed by,” he joked in a recent phone interview.

Since 2017, Uriarte (pronounced oo-ree-AR-tay or yu-ree-AR-tee) has served as a student rabbi at Congregation Beth Aaron, the only synagogue in Montana’s largest city, which has about 55 member families. (The next closest synagogue is about 120 miles away in Bozeman.) He said he was drawn to the community because of their commitment to practicing Judaism so far from the epicenters of American Jewish life. Also, as a former Marine, he likes a good challenge.

“Being a Jew of color in a rural environment in an incredibly white state is really difficult at times, and yet it’s exactly where I want to be,” he said. “It helps to remind me who I am.”

For the 41-year-old Uriarte, who expects to graduate from the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College (HUC) next year, the road to the rabbinate has been winding and bumpy at times.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Uriarte celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas. His father, a chiropractor who fled Nicaragua in the 1950s and who is very supportive of Uriarte’s decision to become a rabbi, adorned the family’s Christmas tree with a Star of David. He attended Jewish day school at the behest of his maternal grandfather but felt out of place. “At the time there were not a lot of Jews from multiethnic backgrounds,” he recounted. “I’m darker complected, so I read as Sephardi or Mizrachi, but I’m Ashkenazi so I occupied this really interesting mixed space.”

When he was 10, his family moved to Northern California for a change of scenery, and he attended a Catholic high school in Santa Rosa for one uncomfortable year. He recalled sitting silently while his classmates recited Hail Marys before class. “I knew that wasn’t who I was,” he said.

Uriarte, in uniform, with his grandfather, a veteran who served in World War II. (Courtesy)

He only began to actively explore his Jewish heritage after enlisting in the military in 1998. During Marine Corps boot camp at Camp Pendleton, which he described as “the most absurd experience I’ve ever freely chosen to do,” he had to petition his drill instructor to give him Friday nights off instead of Sunday mornings, when the other recruits were given an opportunity to attend church, so he could celebrate Shabbat at a small chapel on his base. As an intelligence analyst stationed in Okinawa, Japan, he regularly attended Shabbat services and made a concerted effort to keep kosher. “It was the first time that I started to live my Jewish identity by way of not eating treif,” he said. “I gave up pork. I gave up shellfish. It was important to me to do that.”

Rabbi Irving Elson, who served as a Navy chaplain for 35 years, mentored Uriarte while both were at Camp Pendleton. Now retired from the military, Elson—who, like Uriarte, is Hispanic American—said he was impressed by Uriarte’s enthusiasm for Judaism as a young recruit. He recounted how Uriarte stepped up to lead services at Camp Pendleton, despite having no previous lay leadership experience, while Elson was deployed at sea.

“He got it, what Judaism was all about,” Elson said, adding: “I know it’s not very manly to say this, but he’s just a very sweet person. He’s got some great world experiences as a Marine, and I think he brings that to the pulpit.”

About Uriarte’s multicultural background, Elson said he thinks it “creates awareness for the wonderful diversity of the Jewish people and of the American people, and I think that’s going to serve him well.”

After four years of active duty and several years as a civilian, Uriarte went back to school in 2009, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and Jewish studies “at the ripe age of 33.” He started rabbinical school in 2013 and spent a year in Jerusalem but had to take time off for personal reasons. He has a family history of mental health issues, he said, and he had pushed his own struggles aside for years because of his “military mindset.”

He takes medication now to deal with his anxiety and plans to continue to serve the community in Billings while finishing his courses and thesis. “HUC has been incredibly supportive, even when they didn’t have to be,” he said. “I’m really happy that I still have the opportunity to complete this journey, and it’s all up to me at this point.”

One of his most memorable experiences in Billings so far has been celebrating Sukkot in the snow in 2018. “As a Californian who’d never really experienced snowfall, except in Jerusalem in the winter of 2013, having it snow on a day usually associated with rain was interesting and new,” he said. (Services at Beth Aaron have been held on Zoom since March due to the coronavirus pandemic, and plans to reopen this month were put on hold due to a spike in cases.)

Ultimately, Uriarte said he hopes to serve a community outside of the major metropolitan areas, whether that is Billings or elsewhere.

“No matter where I go, I actively have to fight for my Jewish identity, and I’m okay with that,” he said. “If that helps other people maintain their Jewish identity by seeing that example, then I’ve done my job.”

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