Temple Emanu-El and its original home celebrate 100 years and reveal a colorful, gritty history of Jews in Arizona

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Temple Emanu-El and its original home celebrate 100 years and reveal a colorful, gritty history of Jews in Arizona

With a small alcove leading to large glass doors, the entrance to Hirsh's Shoes on Broadway Boulevard is reminiscent of shops of the past. Inside the store, the feeling of nostalgia continues.

The staff attends to shoppers in an old-fashioned way—addressing customers by name, measuring feet and retrieving shoe boxes from the back storeroom. The service reflects the friendly nature of the store's owner, Sid Hirsh.

Hirsh, 79, began working at the store in 1954, when it opened. Hirsh says Tucson looked a lot different in his younger days, but there is one building he visited back then that still stands today—the Stone Avenue Temple, now the Jewish History Museum (jewishhistorymuseum.org).

As a member of Temple Emanu-El—whose congregation moved from the Stone Avenue Temple to its current home on Country Club Road in 1949—Hirsh says Judaism makes sense to him. "It's a way of life. Life is sacred in Judaism. (It teaches how to) have relations with fellow human beings, and even relations with animals. The laws are really very civilizing."

The laws Hirsh refers to are in the Torah—which, in its formal version, is a sacred scroll written with a quill on parchment. To celebrate the 100th year of Temple Emanu-El (templeemanueltucson.org), the first Jewish congregation in Arizona, a new Torah project is underway.

Program coordinator Mila Anderson says it takes one year to write the Torah. While the congregation has seven Torahs, many are not completely readable. It's the second Torah to be written in the congregation's 100-year history and will be unveiled on Aug. 29.

The busy congregation has an extensive adult-education program, where participants can learn about anything Jewish through 30 course offerings a year. A series of classes called "Taste of Judaism" is now in its 10th year and teaches people of all faiths about Judaism. "The goal is to open up our homes, our ideas, and make Judaism accessible to people without cost and obligation," says Rabbi Samuel Cohon.

The congregation also conducts meetings, Hebrew school and different types of services, and hosts visiting scholars. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, will talk at the temple at 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 26.

Cohon says the congregation is as active, involved and committed as they have ever been. "I'm proud of our commitment to improving the community at large, with social-action work, writing the wrongs of society, deepening our commitment to education, (and) housing the poor and hungry," he says. " ... We're not just here to be around for a long time. We're here to make a difference."

A review of Jewish history in Arizona wouldn't be complete without mentioning the pioneers who arrived in the mid-1800s. Eileen Warshaw, executive director of the Jewish History Museum, says "what's important to note is that you can't separate the history of the (Jewish) pioneer with the history of Arizona, because they are one in the same."

A visit to the museum reveals just how much Jewish pioneers did to help build Tucson. "What visitors learn is how the West was really settled," says Warshaw.

The foundation of the 100-year-old museum building holds a key to the pioneers' lives. "On Oct. 24, we are opening a present that our forefathers left us. They left a time capsule in the cornerstone of the building," says Warsaw. A new capsule will be placed in the foundation; individual time capsules can also be purchased to be placed under the building.

The 100-year history of the building reveals a colorful story. The Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society began in 1884 and raised funds for the construction of a synagogue; the cornerstone was laid on June 20, 1910. After 1949, when the congregation moved out, the building became home to 11 churches, a theater and even a Mexican radio station. During the 1980s through 1998, the building was boarded up and almost torn down. However, in 1994, a group of volunteers started work to save the building. In 2006, the building became the current museum.

Both Warshaw and JHM board president Barry Friedman have a sense of pride and awe when reflecting on the pioneers. "There were only 139 Jews in Tucson when this building was built. ... This tiny group of Jews made this happen," says Warshaw.

"If you look at the Jewish population of the West, they came out initially for one reason—to support the gold rush," says Friedman. "As the gold rush played out, they had the chance to ... populate the West. Despite the Civil War, recession, hardships and Indian attacks, they still survived. They had to be tough as nails."

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