April 10, 2011

Merced Rescue Mission executive director Herb Opalek dies at 66

The Rev. Herbert Opalek, an ordained Orthodox rabbi and renowned scholar who converted to Christianity late in life and was executive director of the Merced County Rescue Mission, died Saturday night in Fresno after returning from a speaking engagement in Seattle.

Opalek, 66, came to Merced seven years ago in June, said his wife, Kathy. They met when he was working at the Bridgeport Rescue Mission in Connecticut.

He was very active in the Merced community. A steady stream of friends dropped by the family home Sunday after the morning church services during which his death was announced.

Opalek was born in Washington, D.C., but his family moved to Brooklyn when he was very young. He was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi at 18.

In addition to Merced's rescue mission, Opalek was also president of the Pacific District of the Association of Rescue Missions.

The family said he collapsed at the airport in Fresno as he was getting off the plane. Paramedics took him to Fresno Community Medical Center where he was pronounced dead.

Opalek's conversion to Christianity was described in Debbie Macomber's 2010 book, "God's Guest List:"

"He had flown into Boston ... but his luggage never made it... Opening a drawer in the nightstand, he found a Gideon Bible. He opened it to a chapter in John." (That was John Chapter 3, said his wife.) "He had studied the Bible -- Genesis through Revelation -- in the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. But something was different, Dr. Opalek says, 'On that night and in that room, for the very first time in my life, I encountered the Holy Spirit and allowed God to permeate my being.' "

His parents were both dead at the time of his conversion, but he was shunned by his family and the community, the same neighborhood Chaim Potok described in his book, "The Chosen."

The Rev. Larry Arce, president and CEO of the Fresno County Rescue Mission, described what happens when a Orthodox rabbi becomes a Messianic Jew: "Women would come up to him in the street and slap him in the face. Men would spit on him."

Kathy Opalek said, "He learned to sing 'Jesus Loves Me' when he was 4 or 5 years old at a summer day camp. His mother wasn't happy about that."

Although he was a Christian, his wife said, he still avoided pork. The Rev. Jim VarnHagen, CEO of the New York City Rescue Mission, said Opalek showed up at his mission and was sent to Albany, N.Y., as an intern, then to Bridgeport before he was assigned to Merced.

"If anyone in the world can be called a scholar, Herb Opalek can," VarnHagen said. "He had a great background and the Lord spoke to his heart and he became a child of God."

The Rev. Jim Lewis, who was vice president of the district and CEO of the Long Beach Rescue Mission, said, "Herb was a good choice for the community. This is a big loss for the mission and the community. I pray the shelter will continue to develop."

Arce said Opalek was also one of the founders of the Rescue Mission in Tel Aviv, Israel. "Messianic Jews from Russia are sent to Israel where they become homeless," he said. The mission there feeds about 750 people a day.

Flip Hassett, president of United Way, said Opalek was a good friend. "He was a practical joker. When it said 'blocked' on the cell phone, I knew it was Herb calling."

The Rev. Prapai Wanlarbkam, the mission's director of Christian services, said, "He was not just my boss. He was my teacher, my mentor. He was a great man of God. He always put himself last."

"He was a modern day Paul," said the Rev. Phillip Schmauss, the mission's supervisor of men's ministries.

County Supervisor Hub Walsh, who was at the Opalek home, said, "He was always engaged. He had an opinion about everything. He had a good sense of humor and was a man of passion."

Councilman John Carlisle said, "I was surprised and saddened to hear the news of 'Dr. Herb' Opalek's death. He has greatly contributed to this community and will be missed."

Former Sun-Star editor Joe Kieta said, "I can safely say that there was no one like Herb anywhere on the planet. He was as original as they get. A Baptist minister with mannerisms. He also would not take 'no' for an answer."

He is survived by his wife, Kathy, his stepchildren Lisa and Michael James, and goddaughter Jennay Osby.

A private burial will be held today. There will be a public memorial service at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Christian Life Center, 650 E. Olive Ave. The family requests that, in lieu of flowers, a donation be made to the Merced County Rescue Mission, 1921 Canal St., Merced CA 95340.

Keith A. Jones can be reached at ktjones@mercedsun-star.com or (209) 385-2479.

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