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Venerable Tucson institutions merge into Jewish Heritage Center
Phyllis Braun
AJP Executive Editor

Once the first home of Temple Emanu-El, most recently known as the Historic Stone Avenue Temple, the building at 564 S. Stone Ave. now has a new moniker and a new purpose, having merged with the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Arizona to become the Jewish Heritage Center of the Southwest.

The new, non-profit entity will have small permanent and revolving exhibits, but one of its prime functions will be as a virtual museum, says Eileen Warshaw, former executive director of HSAT, who continues in that position with the Jewish Heritage Center. The building celebrated its 95th anniversary on Oct. 3 (which this year, as in 1910, was Erev Rosh Hashanah), and during the next five years, leading up to its centennial, the goal is to collect and digitize early Southwest Jewish history, so that it can be accessed online from anywhere in the world, says Warshaw.

Al Lipsey, president of the erstwhile JHSSA and a member of the new Jewish Heritage Center board, explains that when the historical society was formed in 1982, "a major goal was to acquire the Stone Avenue Temple building," but the group did not have the means to do so. Meanwhile, an independent group was formed to purchase and renovate the property. "The one dynamo persistent throughout the project [which was recognized with a National Preservation Honor Award in 2003] was their president, Toby Anne Sydney," says Lipsey, who notes that Warshaw "is another dynamo."

Once it became apparent that the goals of HSAT and JHSSA were similar - to preserve and disseminate the Jewish history of the Southwest - the groups decided they should merge rather than compete, Lipsey explains.

The new name eliminates confusion by those who thought Historic Stone Avenue Temple might be a Mormon or Baptist institution, says Warshaw. It denotes that "we're Jewish, and right up front, we're about history," she says.

The center will work toward digitizing the Bloom Southwest Jewish Archives at the University of Arizona, private collections, as well as JHSSA archives, says Warshaw. The group will apply for grants, she says, noting that the UA Eller College of Management has adopted the center as a marketing project and has provided three interns. The center also will work with volunteers from the UA library, says Warshaw, and is forming relationships with the Council of American Jewish Museums and the Arizona Jewish Historical Society.

To collect materials and oral histories, the center also will reach out to the UA's Arizona Center for Judaic Studies, Handmaker, and the community at large. "Our whole thing this year is, ÔWhat's your story?" says Warshaw, noting that the center also will collaborate with Pima Community College's genealogy department.

But the center won't collect artifacts, says Warshaw. If someone brings in a photograph, for example, the center will scan it but suggest that the owner either keep it in the family or donate it to a synagogue or other institution. The center's website will link to local synagogues, adds Warshaw, who encourages them to record important events, which are history in the making.
The center also is working with Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau, says Warshaw, who notes that "cultural tourism" is one of the fastest growing niches in tourism.  In addition to tours of the building, available Wednesdays and Thursday afternoons, the third Saturday night of each month and by appointment, says Warshaw, the center is developing both guided and self-guided (with a cassette and a booklet) tours of Jewish historical sites in downtown Tucson.

The building will continue as a meeting space for events both religious and secular, such as B'nai Mitzvah ceremonies, weddings of all religious denominations, lectures and concerts, all of which help pay the rent, says Warshaw.

The building also will continue to house the Cantors' Conservatory, a non-profit group dedicated to educating cantors and preserving Jewish liturgical music, directed by Cantor David Montefiore.
The renovation of the building will continue with the installation of new stained glass windows. A national search for photographs or other information on the original windows was almost fruitless, says Warshaw. She explains that a 1914 painting of the building commissioned by the Kress Company, which sold postcards in its five and dime stores, showed enough of an outline for the National Trust for Historic Preservation to approve a new window design incorporating elements typical of synagogue stained glass windows in 1910. Local stained glass artist Greg Schoon is currently creating the windows, which Warshaw hopes to have installed by March 2006.
Tucson has an incredibly rich Jewish history, says Warshaw, and "history is being made every day" - even in the creation of the Jewish Heritage Center.

Lipsey concurs. As he wrote in a recent JHSSA newsletter, the union of JHSSA and HSAT "is an exciting development in helping both groups to realize their shared goals of keeping Arizona's Jewish history active. And we trust that the merger will prove to be a significant chapter in that history."

A brunch benefit for the Jewish Heritage Center, honoring Al Lipsey, will be held Sunday, Nov. 20 at the Westward Look Resort. For information, call 670-9073.