Congregation Beth Israel (Hebrew: בית ישראל) is a Jewish congregation located at 10460 North 56th Street in Scottsdale, Arizona. Formally incorporated in 1920, it affiliated with the Reform Judaism in 1935.
Abraham Lincoln Krohn was rabbi of Beth Israel from 1938 to 1953, and during his tenure the congregation grew from under 100 to almost 600 member families. He was succeeded by Albert Plotkin, who served for almost 40 years.
Beth Israel’s original building in Downtown Phoenix, constructed in 1921–1922, is listed on both the city’s historic property register and the National Register of Historic Places. After being sold in 1949, it housed churches until 2002, when the Jewish community repurchased it. In 2007 the Arizona Jewish Historical Society started a $4 million campaign to restore it and convert it into a museum.
Jewish settlers in Phoenix began gathering for High Holiday services as early as 1906. A formal congregation was established by Barnett E. Marks, a lawyer from Chicago, who held services in a room over Melczer’s saloon, and also organized a Sunday School to provide a Jewish education for his two sons. By 1918 the congregation was calling itself “Emanuel”, and holding services in English and Hebrew on the Jewish Festivals. In 1920, the congregation incorporated as “Congregation Beth Israel”. Its first rabbi was David L. Liknaitz, and its first president was Charles Steinberg. Liknaitz would serve until 1924.
Services were held in a number of temporary locations. In 1915 and 1917 respectively, the local chapters of the B’nai B’rith and the National Council of Jewish Women were formed. Together they purchased a church in 1921, and converted it for use as Phoenix’s first synagogue by the Phoenix Hebrew Center Association. The Association soon became defunct, and the Congregation Beth Israel took over the building.
That year the congregation raised $14,000 (today $213,000) and hired the architectural firm Lescher, Kibbey and Mahoney to design and construct a synagogue building near Central Avenue and Culver Street, in Downtown Phoenix. The building, a simple, stuccoed, gable-end-to-the-street Mission Revival Style structure, was constructed in 1921–1922, and an annex added in 1930.
The Phoenix area had only 120 Jewish residents when the building was constructed. The synagogue served as a cultural center for the Jewish community, including hosting communal Passover Seders, at a time when Jews faced discrimination at hotels and other places of public gathering.
That year Samuel Dodkin Hurwitz was hired as Beth Israel’s rabbi. Born in Krychaw, Belarus, in 1901, his family emigrated to the United States in 1903. He graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 1926, and was ordained at Hebrew Union College in 1929. His first pulpit, from 1929 to 1930, was Temple Emanuel in Davenport, Iowa. In 1934 he was appointed to the board of the Phoenix Public Library. In 1935 he left Beth Israel to become a rabbi at Temple Beth El in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
Philip W. Jaffa, ordained at Hebrew Union College in 1928, joined as rabbi in 1935. He adopted Reform Judaism’s Union Prayer Book and its religious school curriculum and added choir music to the services. That year much of the synagogue building was destroyed by a fire, and Jaffa’s whole library was lost. The congregation rebuilt the structure, extensively remodeled the sanctuary, and added a religious school building/classroom annex. Jaffa would serve until 1938.
During his tenure at Beth Israel, Plotkin was heavily involved in Phoenix’s Jewish and non-Jewish communities. He was a strong Zionist at Hebrew Union College, when the movement was unpopular there, and was later a staunch supporter of Israel. He was an advocate for civil rights, and a supporter of the arts. He founded the Jewish Studies program at Arizona State University and taught there, and volunteered for 25 years as a chaplain at Phoenix Veterans Hospital. In 1972, the National Conference of Christians and Jews awarded him the National Award for Brotherhood.
Beth Israel added a “cultural and educational wing” to its Flower Street building in 1967, and in it Sylvia Plotkin founded a Jewish museum. The museum had three galleries: one “house[d] artifacts from a Tunisian synagogue, a second [held] a Judaica collection that chronicle[d] the history of Arizona Jewry and a third [was] used for exhibitions.” Sylvia Plotkin would direct the museum until her death in 1996, acquiring and mounting many exhibitions there. Renamed the “Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum” the day before her death, it was “one of the largest and most respected synagogue museums in the United States.” After Plotkin’s death, Pamela Levin became the museum’s director; she began working with Plotkin as a volunteer in 1985, and eventually earned a degree in museum studies.
Albert Plotkin went on to serve as the congregation’s rabbi for almost 40 years, retiring in 1992, and becoming rabbi emeritus. He loved opera music, and two years after retiring, he sang professionally with the Arizona Opera. The Plotkins’ daughter Debra would become the founding artistic director of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, and their daughter Janis was, for 21 years, one of the main forces behind the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and its executive director from 1994 to 2002.
Kenneth Segel succeeded Plotkin in 1992, and Howard Tabaknek joined as cantor the following year. In 1997, the congregation moved to its current location at 10460 North 56th Street and Shea Boulevard. The 45,000-square-foot (4,200 m2) building had a main sanctuary that seated 500, and a chapel that seated 300. The Torah ark was decorated with “fused glass surrounded by colored glass”.
Stephen Kahn became Beth Israel’s rabbi in July 2003. By then, membership was approximately 1,000 families, the largest Jewish congregation in Arizona. The congregational library, open to the public, had grown to over 20,000 volumes, making it one of the largest Judaica libraries in the Southwestern United States.
For financial reasons, Levin’s job as museum director was reduced from 25 to 12 hours per week in 2004, and the position made volunteer in 2005. By then, the museum had 8,000 visitors a year, regular traveling exhibits, and the number of artifacts in it had grown to over 1,000.
In 2005, the congregation purchased a 1.25-acre (0.51 ha) lot across the street from its building and the house on it to accommodate future growth. At that time, the synagogue had over 900 member families.
That year the congregation also reverted to its original name of “Congregation Beth Israel.” In Kahn’s view, “To me, a ‘congregation’ represents people and community while the word “temple” represents a place or building. I would like us to be about the people.”
In 2007, Beth Israel opened the Phoenix metropolitan area’s first mikvah (ritual bath). According to local Modern Orthodox rabbi Darren Kleinberg, “the first time in Jewish history that a mikvah has been built and approved under the auspices of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis.”
As of 2014, Beth Israel was the oldest congregation in the Phoenix metropolitan area. The senior rabbi was Stephen Kahn, the associate rabbi was Rony Keller, and the cantor was Jaime Shpall. The congregation also owned and operated Camp Daisy and Harry Stein, a Jewish overnight camp in Prescott National Forest near Prescott, Arizona, the only Jewish camp in the area.
As of 2018, Beth Israel was the oldest synagogue in the Phoenix metropolitan area. The senior rabbi was Stephen Kahn, the associate rabbi was Sara Mason-Barkin, and the cantor was Seth Ettinger.