A history of Jewish life in Arizona: Struggles and triumph in the desert

Rivera-Ashford looks at old newspapers which features articles written about her father. Photo taken by Zachary Pleeter/The Tombstone Epitaph.
Rivera-Ashford looks at old newspapers which features articles written about her father. Photo taken by Zachary Pleeter/Arizona Sonora News

Robin Capin Rivera-Ashford knows how hard it was to grow up Jewish in the Grand Canyon State.

“In my generation, I may have been the only one who had a bat mitzvah,” says Rivera-Ashford.

She grew up in Nogales, a town originally named Isaacson after a Jewish immigrant who discovered the settlement in 1880. She said in order to have her bat mitzvah she traveled to the nearest synagogue in the area, Temple Emanu-el in Tucson. This remains a landmark of early Jewish settlement in Arizona.

With an estimated 2,000 Jews living in the territory in 1899, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, the Jews were a small number. People like Evelyn Varady believe Jewish presence was anything but tiny.

She serves as a docent at the Jewish History Museum in downtown Tucson. Varady says that although the numbers are few, Jewish contributions to this state have been substantial, including still today.

Rivera-Ashford is familiar with some of these contributions. Out of about the 20 Jewish families living in Nogales in the middle of the 1950s, hers was a descendent of one of the two largest Jewish families in the town.

“My dad came from a family of businessmen…. The Jews were the leaders in the town,” says Rivera-Ashford. Because of the positions they were in, she said Jews overall had good relationships with the Mexican people of the area.

Her father, now 85, has held various leadership positions, including serving as President of the Chamber of Commerce in Santa Cruz County.

“When I look back on everything my dad has done, I’m really proud.”

However, Rivera-Ashford knows her father was simply following a path of Jewish leadership that started decades before then in the state.

Jewish presence in the Arizona territory began with reform-minded young men from Germany who left their families to embark west during the California Gold Rush (1848-1855), says Varady.

After the Gold Rush, many of these men brought wives with them to Tucson as they saw the town as a place for business opportunities. “These men also had an advantage when it came to literacy and retail skills due to their elementary schooling,” added Varady.

As the access of trains and railroads evolved after the Civil War, more Jews from the East Coast such as Eva Mansfeld traveled west, and found themselves in the dusty and underdeveloped town of Tucson.

With her arrival, the Jews of Arizona got a real leader, emphasizes Varady. Finding no rabbi, synagogue, or Jewish butcher, Mansfeld’s goal became to establish a Jewish community in the territory says Varady.

“Community has always been something that is very important to Jewish people… Coming from New York and knowing what the synagogues were like there, she knew what they were capable of doing here,” said Varady. However, it would take hard work.

Manfeld took it upon herself to gather Jewish women together and launched the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society of Tucson in 1884. This association provided important tools, such as education, along with treatment for the ill, according to Varady.

After buying a piece of land for one dollar, the organization raised enough money to eventually help the Jewish men build a synagogue and Hebrew school.

This synagogue, Temple Emanu-el, completed in 1910, became the first Jewish place of worship built in the Arizona territory, according to Varady and the Jewish History Museum.

An old postcard of Tucson featuring Temple Emanu-el. The postcard is on display at the Jewish History Museum in downtown Tucson, located at 564 S Stone Avenue. (Photo by: Zachary Pleeter/The Tombstone Epitaph).
An old postcard of Tucson featuring Temple Emanu-el. The postcard is on display at the Jewish History Museum in downtown Tucson, located at 564 S Stone Avenue. (Photo by: Zachary Pleeter/Arizona Sonora News).

In 1949, the synagogue and Hebrew school moved to Country Club Road.

“We have about 700 families and serve about 2,000 members…We are the largest congregation in Southern Arizona,” says Chief Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon.

Members of the congregation have included politicians and leaders within the region. Current Tucson mayor Jonathan Rothschild served as former President of the Temple, according to Cohon. He said that Charles Moses Strauss, mayor of Tucson in 1883, was a Jewish immigrant. Strauss also played a role in Tucson landing the university, said Varady. “He was a major advocate of having it (university) here.”

The initial building that housed the synagogue still stands today as the Jewish History Museum, located at 564 S Stone Avenue.

Despite the success of early and mid Jewish leaders in the territory and state, Jews living in Arizona have still been faced with challenges in observing Judaism and facing anti-Semitism, says Varady.

While Jews in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world fell victim to Hitler’s Nazi movement in the mid 1930s, Jews in Arizona, leading up to the 1960s, experienced their own form of anti-Semitism. This mainly included being restricted from specific resorts.

“The hotels weren’t just hotels. There weren’t that many restaurants so they were places you went to dinner and places where you had your events,” says Cohon.

The Jews fought this type of racism by responding with the establishment of their own country clubs.

Today, there are established communities throughout the state that consist of every sect of Judaism, ranging from reform, conservative, religious, and orthodox. The Arizona State University Jewish Studies Department lists over 30 local synagogues in the Metropolitan Phoenix Region alone. Small towns such as Yuma, also have their own synagogues. Cohon says Tucson consists of about 11 synagogues, including Temple Emanu-el.

Although Jewish population has grown in the state since the earliest settlers, last year’s Jewish population estimated about 106,300, making up less than 2 percent of the state’s population, according to data from the Jewish Virtual Library.

Just like many Jewish organizations and establishments around the world, Jewish groups within these communities and their leaders remain committed to giving back to all members of community, regardless of their religion or any other elements, says Cohon. In Judaism, this is referred to as Tikkun Olam.

In an effort to spread diversity and peace, leaders like Cohon reach out on multiple platforms.

Cohon himself has conducted sermons at Christian churches based on biblical texts the congregation is reading that week. The minister of that specific church will also come to the synagogue to speak.

“The message is essentially that were all cut from the same cloth and human beings trying to make this place a better world.”

Zachary Pleeter is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at zpleeter@email.arizona.edu.

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One comment Add yours
  1. Informative and well-written article. I would offer one correction. “Today, there are established communities throughout the state that consist of every sect of Judaism…” Judaism doesn’t have sects. Jews typically call their differences “streams.”

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