History Helpers

Josh Protas
Josh Protas, 31, is the executive director of the Historic Stone Avenue Temple, located at 564 S. Stone Ave. The building has been renovated to look like it did when Temple Emanu-El called it home from 1910-1949. The temple is no longer home to a congregation; it's available for most any sort of event, celebration or ceremony, be it Jewish or not. Protas has been the nonprofit organization's executive director for about 20 months. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Protas earned his master's degree from Arizona State University in public history. A native Phoenician (something he asks we "don't hold against" him), he's called Tucson home for six years.

Give me a brief history of the Stone Avenue Temple.

It was built in 1910, and it was the first Jewish house of worship in the Arizona territory. It was really the embodiment of the sense of community that had developed in Southern Arizona. Most of the Jews were immigrants from Germany, and some of them had already been here for many years. This became the cornerstone of Southern Arizona's Jewish community for the beginning part of the 20th century. ... (Then) the demographics began to change. By the mid 1940s, the Jewish population, among other people, started moving out of the city's center and into the growing outskirts. The Jewish community was growing as well, as was the rest of the population, and this building became inadequate for the congregation's needs.

That makes sense.

There are interesting parallels across the country, and in the last 10 years, there's been a growing movement to reclaim buildings that were once houses of worship in city centers. Tucson is very lucky to have this building intact.

Temple Emanu-El left in 1949. What happened to the building then?

The building was rented by a succession of different church groups for short periods of time. The building was not kept up the way it should have been, and by the early '90s, it was in a very bad state of disrepair. In addition to the church groups, a theater group used it for rehearsals for a while, and a Spanish-language radio station was even based in the building. I've heard stories of homeless people camping out here, too (during unoccupied periods).

What happened in 1994?

The immediate past president of the Historic Stone Avenue Temple, Toby Sydney, found out about the history of the building. When she realized nothing was being done to preserve this site, she and a few other people began a nonprofit organization. The initial goal was to acquire it. That was successful, so they started to work to both restore the site and raise community awareness.

What's happened since?

The bulk of the time, they were in a process of building community awareness and raising money for the restoration. ... Since it re-opened in October 2001, the organization's been in a transition period, asking, "How do we make this a resource and an important site for the community?" The process is ongoing. ... Another thing we're trying to do is to facilitate intercultural exchange, and that's happening more actively here, from offering a place for lifecycle celebrations to people from different backgrounds to holding events and performances with a very broad appeal. The building has a spiritual quality that resonates with a lot of people.

What are the goals for the Historic Stone Avenue Temple?

We're working on all sorts of different kinds of programming here, like concerts. ... We're partnering with the Playback Theatre and doing special history-themed improvisation performances here. Longtime Tucsonans share stories, and the theater group does improv, so it's interactive. Plus, there's the ongoing process of building community awareness. There are still a lot of people out there who are not familiar with the building. Not a lot of people come down to this part of Stone Avenue. Hopefully, this will help change that.

I understand that aside from retiring some debt, the restoration's mostly completed, except for one thing.

There's one major piece of the building we'd like to complete, and that's the front windows. We know from a couple of old images, as well as from speaking to people who used to come here, that there were stained glass windows there originally. Sometime after Temple Emanu-El left, somebody removed the windows. We don't know what they look like. We'd love to find a photo that would provide clear documentation of the design, in order to restore that.