a latino man in a kippah sits in his car, covered in snow
Erik Uriarte during a snowy Sukkot in 2018 in Billings, Montana. (Photo/Courtesy Uriarte)

Ex-Marine student rabbi turns heads in Montana

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,” the former Bay Area resident joked in a recent phone interview.

Since 2017, Uriarte has served as a student rabbi at Congregation Beth Aaron, the only synagogue in Montana’s largest city, population 110,000. It has about 55 member families.

He said he was drawn to the community because of its commitment to practicing Judaism far from the traditional 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.”

The road to the rabbinate has been winding and bumpy at times for the 41-year-old, who spent part of his childhood in Sonoma County, is a graduate of Sonoma State University and served on the board of Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa.

Born in Los Angeles, Uriarte celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas growing up. (His father, a chiropractor who fled Nicaragua in the 1950s, 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 said. “I’m darker complected, so I read as Sephardi or Mizrachi, but I’m Ashkenazi, so I occupied this really interesting mixed space.”

The family relocated to Northern California when Uriarte was 10 to be closer to his mother’s family. Though they never joined a synagogue, they did gather on Friday nights at his cousin’s house in Santa Rosa for Shabbat dinners.

“We had gotten further and further away from being any more religious than we already were,” said Karen Uriarte, Erik’s mom, who is now divorced from his father and lives in the town of Bodega, in Sonoma County. “The fact that my mother was a Holocaust survivor was enough for us,“ she said. (Karen’s mother escaped Germany with her twin brother and their father, making it to the United States via France and Portugal in 1941. A documentary about the family — “Give Up? Never!” — was released in Germany in 2012.)

Asked if she ever imagined her son would become a rabbi, Karen replied, “It was never a thought in my mind. But now that it’s coming true, it makes me proud, and I think that my grandfather would be very proud.”

Uriarte attended a Catholic high school in Santa Rosa for one uncomfortable year, recalling how he sat silently while his classmates recited Hail Marys before class. “I knew that wasn’t who I was,” he said.

a young latino man in a marines dress uniform poses with an elderly man
A uniformed Erik Uriarte with his grandfather, a veteran who served in World War II.

It wasn’t until he enlisted in the military in 1998 that he began to explore his Jewish heritage. During Marine Corps boot camp, which he described as “the most absurd experience I’ve ever freely chosen to do,” Uriarte had to petition his drill instructor to give him Friday nights off instead of Sunday mornings, when the other recruits were free to attend church, so he could celebrate Shabbat at a small chapel on the base. And as an intelligence analyst stationed in Okinawa, Japan, he regularly attended Shabbat services on base 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 treyf,” he said. “I gave up pork. I gave up shellfish. It was important to me to do that.”

Rabbi Irving Elson, a Navy chaplain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, mentored Uriarte at Camp Pendleton in northern San Diego County. Now retired from the military, Elson — who, like Uriarte, is Hispanic American — said in an interview that he was impressed by the young recruit’s enthusiasm for Judaism. He recounted how Uriarte stepped up to lead services at Camp Pendleton despite having no previous lay leadership experience.

“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.”

As for 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 from Sonoma State at age 33. He started rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in 2013 and spent a year in Jerusalem, but had to take time off for personal reasons. He has a family history of mental illness, he said, and he had pushed his own struggles aside for years because of his “military mindset.”

He takes medication now to deal with 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 was celebrating Sukkot in the snow in 2018. “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 last month were put on hold due to a spike in cases.)

Uriarte said he ultimately hopes to serve a non-metropolitan Jewish community, whether in Billings or elsewhere.

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

A version of this story originally was published on Jewish&, a blog by Be’chol Lashon, a Bay Area nonprofit that gives voice to the racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of Jewish identity and experience.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.