Rabbi Allen Secher takes place on Human Rights Commission

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In his Butler, Penn., high school, Allen Secher knew the golf team was the only place where he could fulfill his dreams of an athletic career.

He had the talent to make the 1951 squad. But because he was Jewish he wasn't welcome at the country club where the team played, and therefore not allowed to be on the team.

"That was indelible," he said. "It was one of the most crushing blows of my life.

"When I thought about the unfairness of it all, I just said, this can't be. I decided to do whatever I can to eradicate these things."

He went on to build a lifelong resume of social-justice advocacy. Now, at age 70, Rabbi Allen Secher's newest role is as a member of the Montana Human Rights Commission.

Shortly after the November election, Secher, who lives in Whitefish, applied for a seat on the commission but was discouraged when he learned there were more than 150 others interested in the job.

But late one night when he already had assumed he hadn't made the cut, he received a phone call from Gov. Brian Schweitzer's appointments secretary.

He had been chosen as one of the three new commissioners, along with Franke Wilmer, Montana State University political science professor; and Janine Pease, a Crow tribe member and the vice president for American Indian Affairs with Rocky Mountain College in Billings. The other two commissioners are holdovers from the last administration.

Secher recently traveled to Helena for an orientation and training session. The responsibilities of the job are daunting, he said.

"It will be one of the major challenges of my life," he said. "Along with four others, we're dealing with lives."

The Human Rights Commission was established to uphold state laws regarding discrimination because of age, sex, race, religion and disability. The commission is considered a quasi-judicial board, hearing appeals from plaintiffs and objections from defendants on rulings in discrimination cases that have been investigated by the Human Rights Bureau.

People take their cases to the government agencies rather than civil court, Secher said, because the Human Rights Bureau is supposed to rule on its findings within 180 days, while cases can be bogged down in the traditional court system for years.

Up to 6,000 cases are filed each year with the Human Rights Bureau. A large percentage of those are thrown out as frivolous or unjustified. About 50 of those filter down as appeals cases for the Human Rights Commission, which meets in Helena once every two months for one or two days.

Secher said the new commissioners are being thrown into the process. They were sent two cartons full of required reading material to prepare for their first hearings on March 14.

One of the five commissioners is required to have a legal background. Secher said he was chosen because, as an ordained rabbi, he has extensive experience in questions of ethics.

Secher is not serving as a full-time rabbi here in Montana. As a member of the local Jewish congregation, Bet Harim, he is available for ceremonial and other duties when called upon. He also serves a congregation in Bozeman, Beth Shalom, where he led High Holidays services last year and plans to again in 2005.

He has traveled around the state to fulfill the need for Jewish leadership - officiating at a funeral in Helena, a wedding in St. Ignatius, a bar mitzvah in Chico Hot Springs. He said there are no other resident rabbis practicing in the state, so his services are widely requested.

Secher and his wife, Ina Albert, moved to Whitefish from Chicago four years ago. Around 1995, he had traveled throughout Montana, fishing and golfing with his son.

"We both went nuts for the state," he said.

Albert initially was not taken with the idea of moving to Montana. When Secher told a guide on a float trip on a river near Livingston that he was a rabbi, the guide had responded "What's that?"

Secher shared the story with his wife.

"She said, 'I'll never go anywhere where they don't know what a rabbi is.'"

A display of Passover foods in the Whitefish Safeway during a later vacation helped alleviate her fears of being isolated.

Secher and Albert had been in Chicago for 20 years prior to their move to Montana. During 15 of those years, he was a television producer of children's programs and documentaries, and had received seven Emmy awards for his work.

One award-winning Public Broadcasting Service special starring Ellen Burstyn, "Choosing One's Way," was about a resistance movement in the Auschwitz concentration camp, a testament to Secher's ongoing commitment to civil rights issues.

In 1990, after a 20-year break from the rabbinate, he was asked to lead a newly formed group. It wasn't long before it was a full-fledged congregation and by 1995 Secher had left television and was devoted full time to the synagogue.

During his first stint as a rabbi in the 1960s, Secher used his position as a springboard to social activism. He entered the fray in response to a request from Martin Luther King Jr. in August 1962. The civil rights leader was asking for clergy to aid in the fight to integrate a public library in Albany, Ga.

Secher was among more than 50 clergy to answer the challenge and, though he was about to take over the leadership of a congregation in Long Island, he traveled to Georgia for the planned demonstration.

"We did an orientation with King and Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young," Secher said. "The next day we demonstrated on the steps of the courthouse in Albany. We were arrested, as we knew we would be."

Secher spent a week in jail after the demonstration. The library agreed to admit blacks, though the success of the demonstration was tempered by the fact that the library took out all the tables and chairs so its patrons would not be sitting together.

A few years later, Secher experienced real fear as part of a King-led march in St. Augustine, Fla. The night before Secher was to take part in a march from a black neighborhood to an old slave market, a black woman had been killed by a gunman shooting from a tree along the same route.

As they marched, Secher was placed at the head of the group of a couple of hundred people and asked to hold hands with a young black woman in a show of solidarity.

"The hours it took us to get to the slave market were some of the scariest I'd ever known," he said. "People were jeering and calling us all kinds of names."

He saw some individual acts of courage during those times, Secher said, that convinced him that social justice activism should be a lifelong pursuit.

Reporter Heidi Gaiser may be reached at 758-4431 or by e-mail at hgaiser@dailyinterlake.com

Sidebar box

In the Flathead Valley, Allen Secher has been a voice for a group not often heard locally - the great musicians of the 1940s and '50s.

He proposed a radio show to KOFI-AM that would offer something he felt was missing from the airwaves - "the real oldies." From 7 to 9 p.m. on Sundays, he plays the standards from singers such as Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Dean Martin during "Nice & Easy: Secher, Sinatra and Style."

Secher has a long background in broadcasting, with a 30-year run on Armed Forces radio. His show "East of Eden," broadcast wherever troops were, was produced completely at Secher's discretion. He played music, told stories and conducted interviews, drawing in memorable guests such as director John Cassavetes, poet Maya Angelou and singer Rod McKuen.

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