Forty Jewish congregations, large and small, are spread across the Valley, in what is called America’s 13th largest Jewish metro area, with more than 82,000 Jews by one count.
In the shadows of Phoenix’s Burton Barr Central Library stands the Valley’s first synagogue.
The small complex of buildings is unidentified. It is overlooked by the constant stream of library patrons who come and go next door, or those who use Margaret T. Hance Park, the park built over the top of the Interstate 10 deck tunnel, and just across Culver Street.
The Arizona Jewish Historical Society is in a campaign to raise as much as $4 million to restore the abandoned synagogue and adjacent structures and add buildings for what will be known as the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center. With a museum, meeting spaces, galleries and social hall, it will become what society executive director Lawrence Bell calls “a piece of Arizona history — not just a piece of Jewish history.” Included in the drive are funds for an endowment for long-term operations.
Last May, the society received a $150,000 grant from the Arizona State Heritage Fund. On Dec. 10, the Arizona Jewish Historical Society will hold a major fundraiser, a concert called “To Life — A Celebration of Jewish Music From the Movies,” at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 7380 E. Second St. About $2 million has been raised by the society founded in 1981.
Built in 1921-22, the temple began with a congregation led by Rabbi David L. Liknaitz, with Charles Steinberg as its first president. The temple was home for Congregation Beth Israel until 1949, when members developed a new campus about 1 1/2 miles away near 10th Avenue and Flower Street. Twenty years ago, Beth Israel moved again to a campus at Shea Boulevard and 56th Street. It was from the Culver Street temple also that members left to found Beth El Congregation, the Valleys’ first Conservative Jewish congregation.
The 86-year-old building was sold in 1949 to the Southern Baptist Convention for a mission to start the First Chinese Baptist Church, Bell said. By 1957, the congregation had incorporated and remained there until about 1983. The building was then used by a Spanish-speaking congregation, Iglesia Bautista Central, for almost 20 years.
“Here were two religions and three ethnic groups,” Bell said. “It is really a kind of interesting testimony to the diversity of the Valley.”
“People always say that Phoenix is not a very diverse city,” he said. “I would actually argue to the contrary, that it is a very diverse city. We just choose not to see the diversity sometimes. It is undeniable that you had Jews, Chinese-Americans and Mexican-Americans, and they all shared this space and made use of it.”
In 2001, Iglesia Bautista members wanted to sell. The site seemed prime land for development. At that point, the historical society board stepped in to buy the property for $540,000. They closed the sale in 2002 and “rescued this sacred space from destruction as a testament to the value of our community and its history,” the society says in material for its fundraising campaign titled “Imagine.” The major donor was Lawrence Cutler, whose late parents, Betty and James Cutler, owned citrus groves along Camelback Mountain.
The other part of the center’s name is for Rabbi Albert Plotkin, dean of the Valley’s rabbis, who served Congregation Beth Israel as senior rabbi and is credited with tireless work for Jewish and interfaith understanding.
“At the time they built this in the 1920s, there were about 120 people of Jewish ancestry in Phoenix,” Bell said. The new temple “was sort of the only center they had to go to, so it was more than a synagogue. It was actually the gathering place and meeting place.” In prominent display today is a photo from 1926 inside the synagogue of a Passover Seder. It shows how much the interior of the synagogue has not changed in 80 years.
“There were so few Jews in the city that the building served all purposes for them,” Bell said.
“During the 1920s, they had a very hard time finding rabbis here,” he said. “The rabbi would come and stay for a year or two and then move.” Bell said one rabbi “was like a charlatan who was posing as a rabbi.” The rabbi college where he claimed he attended had no record of him.
In 1930, he said, the congregation “wound up having an argument over whether they wanted a shochet (ritual kosher butcher) in town,” Bell said. “The less traditional people felt this was unnecessary in Phoenix. The more traditional people thought that it was probably more necessary in Phoenix because where else were they going to get kosher meat?” The more traditional opted to leave to found Beth El Congregation, affiliated with the Conservative branch of Judaism, and moved to Third Street and McDowell Road (what is today a pawn shop). In 1935, Beth Israel Congregation identified with the Reform tradition.
The congregation flourished under Rabbi Abraham Lincoln Krohn (1938 to 1955), during whose tenure, Beth Israel moved to 10th Avenue. He was active in interfaith work, lending his leadership. The later 1930s and throughout the 1940s “was a robust era for the congregation,” Bell said. By the 1950s, the Valley had as many as 3,000 Jews, he said.
Until the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, Bell said, “there was discrimination against Jews in Arizona and in Phoenix. There were a number of restricted hotels, restaurants and hospitality places.” Commonly, “they didn’t say so in so many words, but if a Jewish person filled out (a room card), they somehow didn’t have a room available at that point.” While places like Phoenix Country Club were restricted in earlier times, Bell said Arizona and the West “generally was more open to Jews than other parts of the country.”
Jews played a major role in building Phoenix and other parts of Arizona, especially as merchants of major stores and professionals, he said. Recently, the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix gave the society its photographic archives of as many as 15,000 photographs going back to the 1940s. Plans are to tell the Jewish story in the Arizona Memory Project related to state’s centennial in 2012.
“Our mission is to preserve the rich heritage of Arizona’s Jewish communities and to educate the public about the Jewish contribution to Arizona and American life,” he said.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “To Life: A Celebration of Jewish Music From the Movies,” produced by Warren Cohen of Musica Nova with music from such films as “Exodus,” “The Jazz Singer,” “Yentl” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
WHEN: 7 p.m. Dec. 10
WHERE: Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 7820 E. Second St.
COST: $18, $36 and $54, plus underwriting of $180 to $1,000
INFORMATION: Concert beneficiary, Arizona Jewish Historical Society, 4710 N. 16th St., Suite 201, Phoenix AZ 85016, or (602) 241-7870 or www.azjhs.org