The Cutler✡Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center has a long and diverse history that stretches back into the early days of our city.
The center occupies the building that housed the first permanent Jewish congregation in the Phoenix area, Congregation Beth Israel. On April 8, 1920, a group of 38 Jewish residents came together to form the congregation, and on October 30, 1921, local residents gathered with Phoenix Mayor Willis Plunkett to lay the cornerstone for the site.
To design the synagogue, the nascent community hired the noted local architectural firm of Lescher, Kibbey, and Mahoney who built such other landmarks as the Federal Post Office on Central Ave, the Orpheum Theatre, and Kenilworth School. In keeping with the Southwestern culture, they designed a mission style building that looked a great deal like an old Spanish church to be one of three connecting units. The total cost for the project was $14,000. For unknown reasons, likely due to space of the available lot, the building was laid out on a north-south axis, rather than facing east-west as is customary in a Jewish house of worship.
Many of the temple’s founding fathers were important Phoenix leaders and entrepreneurs. Their names include: Solomon Ballsun, Dr. Harold Brayer, Isaac Diamond, David Goldberg, David Granow, Charles Korrick, Herman Lewkowitz, I. J. Lipsohn, Barnett Marks, Archie Miller, Isaac Rosenzweig, Sam Spitalny, Herbert Stein, Charles Steinberg, and Samuel Wilson. The first president of the new congregation was Charles Steinberg. Rabbi David L. Liknaitz served as its spiritual leader from 1920-1924.
Early services in the new temple were difficult, especially with no air conditioning available. As a result, regular services were often cancelled in the summer months due to excessive heat. Moreover, the congregation struggled to find and retain suitable spiritual leaders given Phoenix’s small size and far flung location. One of the early rabbis, Rabbi Adolph Rosenberg of Texarkana, hired in 1926, claimed to be a rabbi but was never actually ordained. His successor, the Reverend Y. Dow, was initially engaged to serve as a shochet, or ritual slaughterer, and was eventually retained to lead the congregation due to his popularity with the religiously diverse group.
In addition to religious services, Temple Beth Israel served as an informal community center, hosting meetings of B’nai B’rith, the National Council of Jewish Women, community Passover Seders and special dances. A connecting classroom building was first added in 1924. It was destroyed in a fire in 1935 and rebuilt in 1936 in its present form.
Owing to difference over whether to retain Reverend Dow as a shochet, the congregation split in 1930, leading to the formation of Phoenix’s second Jewish congregation, Beth El, in that year. A Conservative rabbi, David Hurwitz, led Congregation Beth Israel from 1930-1935. Following his departure in 1935, however, the board hired Rabbi Philip Jaffa, who affiliated the congregation with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the national umbrella organization of Reform Judaism. It remained a Reform Jewish congregation thereafter.
Rabbi Jaffa resigned in 1938 due to illness, and was replaced by Rabbi A. L. Krohn. Among other things, Rabbi Krohn was noteworthy for his involvement in Phoenix’s civic life and especially in interfaith relations.
During the Second World War, the sanctuary at Beth Israel was also used to host religious services and holiday celebrations for Jewish servicemen and women stationed at Luke Field. In 1949, Congregation Beth Israel sold the property on Culver Street to the Southern Baptist Convention. They subsequently relocated to a new facility on 10th Avenue and Flower, which is now owned by Phoenix College. Today, Congregation Beth Israel is located at 10406 N. 56th Street.
The history of this unique building did not end with its sale, however. Instead it began new life as the home of Phoenix’s first Chinese-speaking Christian church. Originally a mission of the Central Baptist Church, the congregation was incorporated as the First Chinese Baptist Church in 1957 with 83 charter members.
The foundation of this congregation stemmed from the missionary work of a local grocery manager, W. C. Henderson, who was not of Chinese ancestry. Owing to his business dealings, Henderson had numerous contacts with Phoenix’s Chinese-American community, which he used to spread the message of Southern Baptist Christianity. Following his illness and death in 1937, 14 members of the Chinese-American community who knew Mr. Henderson began holding services to preach the gospel. The group initially held services in an old dwelling at 1109 N. 11th street before moving to the former Temple Beth Israel building in 1951.
In 1948, the group contacted Pastor G. Lawrence Stanley to serve as its spiritual leader. Since Stanley did not speak any Chinese, services were conducted in English and translated for Chinese-speaking members. The son of a Baptist preacher, he came to Phoenix from San Antonio, Texas. He remained the head of the church until 1979.
Among the notable improvements introduced by the Chinese were the addition of large wooden pews in the sanctuary as well as a translation booth in the choir loft. (These pews have subsequently been removed as part of the build’s renovation) They also constructed a large block building to the rear of the Church that served as additional office space and classrooms. From 1951-1981, the building served as a religious and social hub for Phoenix’s Chinese-American community.
In 1981, the property was deeded to a Spanish-speaking Baptist church, Iglesia Bautistia Central, under whose care it remained until purchased by the Arizona Jewish Historical Society in 2001-2002.
Since 2002, the AZJHS has sponsored a Jewish heritage fair, dozens of lectures and meetings, holiday celebrations, several Bar and Bat-Mitzvahs, and weddings in the old sanctuary. Among the more touching moments came in 2004, when the late Rabbi Albert Plotkin (Emeritus Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel who served as its spiritual leader from 1955-1991) led the first reading from the Torah in the sanctuary over 50 years as part of a Bat Mitzvah celebration. The child being Bat Mitzvahed was the granddaughter of a former congregation member and parishioner at 122 E. Culver.
In May 2006, the History Channel TV network sponsored a special reception at the site to commemorate its rich and diverse history. The event celebrated the completion of the Cornerstone Project in which eighth grade students from neighboring Kenilworth School produced a video documentary on the history of the site.
In 2008, the society began its physical restoration of the site. The project consisted of the rehabilitation of the historic temple and annex, as well as the addition of modern plumbing, electrical, and mechanical systems. The society also restored small historic bungalow on the property as the Leverant-Firestone Learning Center. A new parking lot was added as well as a beautiful Garden Terrace. The total cost for the project was $2.5 million. Work was completed by G&G Specialty Contractors under the direction of architect Robert Graham. In April 2010, the new facility officially opened to the public as a museum, educational center, and event venue.
At the time that this synagogue was originally built, there were approximately 120 Jews living in the Phoenix area. Today, there are over 82,000 Jewish residents and over 30 Jewish congregations in Greater Phoenix. The formation of Congregation Beth Israel provided the Jewish community of Phoenix with its first permanent home and was clearly one of the milestones in the development of an ethnically and religiously diverse population in our city and our state. In recognition of its rich and diverse history, the Cutler✡Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center was voted by the public as a Phoenix Point of Pride in 2008.