Downtown building is now the Jewish Heritage Center
A long, long time ago, the Steinfeld, Levy and Drachman families – all legendary names in Tucson history – worshiped at Arizona’s first synagogue, at 564 S. Stone Ave.
The synagogue’s congregation moved out of downtown in 1949, leaving behind a home that had been the focal point for Tucson’s Jewish population since 1910.
The twin-domed building, occupied by a succession of 11 churches, a theater and a Spanish radio station, started to show its age as the 20th century progressed.
“It fell into disrepair in the 1970s,” said Eileen Warshaw, executive director of the Jewish Heritage Center. “It was really blighted in the 1990s.”
That’s when Toby Sydney, City Court Judge Michael Lex and Dr. Beth Nakai saw a future for the complex, which had become a trespass haven for the homeless. Sydney in 1993 established the Stone Avenue Temple Project, which merged with the Jewish Historical Society in 2004 to become the Jewish Heritage Center.
About $600,000 of work has restored the full look of the synagogue, complete with the original pews, stained glass windows that tell the Jewish story and the ark that contains a 19th-century Torah. Now a home for the Heritage Center, it’s not an active synagogue because it does not have a congregation.
“It’s kind of like home to me. I go in there and feel at home there,” said Sonny Solot, 80, chief real estate appraiser at Alliance Bank.
“It’s part of my life. I grew up with services at the synagogue, that temple. My parents were members since 1924. I went to Sunday school there. I was confirmed there in 1941.”
The restoration work was mostly completed in 2001. On Oct. 21, the center celebrates “The Completion of the Dream” – that is, paying off the final $212,000 debt for all the work and to buy the building.
A mortgage-burning ceremony will take place at 2 p.m., and there will be dedications of the stained glass windows that were installed last year and the ark door that was installed in the past week to properly store the Torah.
The ceremony also launches the next fundraiser: for $250,000 to buy and stabilize the 1880s house next door and convert it to a resource center and library for the Heritage Center. Warshaw will announce the formation of an endowment to maintain the building launched with an anonymous $50,000 donation.
“This is Arizona history,” Warshaw said.
Indeed, outside the temple is the only trilingual historical marker in the country in English, Spanish and Hebrew.
Warshaw said Jewish men started coming to Tucson in the 1850s, establishing the Steinfeld’s department store as early as 1854. Jewish women did not follow until the 1880s, and the Jewish community worshiped in homes and rented quarters until the temple on Stone Avenue opened in 1910, when it was the only synagogue between El Paso and San Diego.
The Levy family entered the downtown retail fray in the 1930s and became a major department store presence in the 1950s. Emanuel Drachman owned downtown theaters in the early 1900s and his son, Roy Drachman, became a midcentury real estate magnate and the man who persuaded Howard Hughes to open a missile factory in Tucson (now Raytheon Missile Systems).
Membership dues for the temple in 1910 were $50. Membership dues are still $50 for the center.
The stained glass windows at the rear tell the Jewish story in five vertical strips. One depicts the three stars of David and the others a ram horn, the Torah, a menorah and the 10 commandments in Hebrew on a tablet.
Catherene Morton funded the central tableau, which is a bit larger then the other windows. Living two houses down from the synagogue inspired her to give an undisclosed sum for the window.
“Because I’m passionate about historic preservation,” said Morton, who is not Jewish. Neither are 20 percent of the center’s members. “And I’m a strong advocate of downtown revitalization. It’s a beautiful building that speaks to the history of Tucson and the history of the Jewish community.”
No known pictures exist of the original windows. The only evidence is a 1914 postcard with a watercolor image.
“The original windows disappeared,” said Sara Wisdom, a longtime board member for the heritage center. “We did some research of synagogues of the period on the East Coast.”
Artist Greg Schoon pieced together old, colored glass from three states to create the windows.
The windows, installed in 2006, were the finishing touch for the restoration, which serves to tell the story of the temple.
“It’s the story we are building,” Morton said. “How did it get here? What is its place in the community? It’s the history of the Jewish pioneers in Tucson.”
IF YOU GO
The Completion of a Dream
What is it? The Jewish Heritage Center celebrates the restoration of the first synagogue in Arizona
The real celebration? Burning the mortgage for the synagogue building
Where: 564 S. Stone Ave.
When: 2 p.m. Oct. 21
Jewish Timeline in Tucson
1850s – Jewish men started arriving in Tucson
1854 – The first Steinfeld’s department store opened in Tucson.
1884 – The Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society was formed and 20 years later started raising money for the first permanent synagogue in Tucson
1906 – Steinfeld’s moved to Stone and Pennington and remained there until closing in 1973.
1910 – The Temple Emanu-El opened Oct. 3 on the Jewish new year or Rosh Hashanah. It was the first synagogue in Arizona and the only synagogue between El Paso and San Diego.
1931 – Brothers Jacob and Ben Levy took over the Myers and Bloom men’s store at Congress and Scott. In 1950, the Levy clan upscaled to a full-scale Levy’s department store at Scott and Pennington that ultimately closed in 1968 – the beginning of the end of downtown retail. The Levy name lived on at the El Con Mall until 1982 when it was changed to Sanger Harris and two years later to Foley’s.
1949 – The congregation left the Stone Avenue synagogue and established a temple on Country Club Road, north of Broadway. The congregation sold the Stone Avenue property. The last rabbi at Stone Avenue was Albert T. Belgray, for whom the sanctuary at today’s Jewish Heritage Center is named.
1982 – The Jewish community made its first stab at reclaiming the original synagogue. The trilingual historical marker in English, Spanish and Hebrew was placed outside the Stone Avenue property and plans were made to restore the temple, but they were not carried out.
1993 – Toby Sydney, City Court Judge Michael Lex and Dr. Beth Nakai saw a future for the rundown former synagogue, and Sydney established the Stone Avenue Temple Project.
1996 – Enough money was raised for a $30,000 down payment to buy the synagogue building.
2001 – Building restoration was completed and the project moved into the building.
2004 – The Stone Avenue Temple Project merged with the Jewish Historical Society to become the Jewish Heritage Center.
2006 – The stained glass windows were installed.