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"The Little Synagogue That Could": Tucson, Arizona's Stone Ave. Temple

by Rebecca Anderson

The award this fall of a $118,000 challenge grant from the Arizona State Heritage Fund presented the Stone Avenue Temple Project with the Temple's most dramatic recent success. Established in 1996 to purchase an abandoned 1910 synagogue for $122,000, the nonprofit entity is nearing its objective - "to acquire, rehabilitate and find adaptive uses for the building which offers a unique opportunity to establish a downtown cultural/educational center while preserving and important architectural and religious site." Once the only synagogue between Texas and San Francisco, the temple predates Arizona statehood by two years. Although a state landmark since 1982, the structure that housed Temple Emanu-El had stood vacant since the congregation's move to larger quarters in 1949. The mortgage now stands at $55,000 and has just been refinanced at a very favorable rate. "Instead of it being to an individual with a balloon payment on it, it is now to a bank here in town," the board's acting treasurer, Joyce Becker, told JHR. "We have also already received $10,000 towards the match." A third annual dinner and silent auction on November 15, 1998 just raised $10,000, a 43 percent increase over last year's event.

Stone Avenue draws support from a broad constituency - Jews and non-Jews, long-time Tucsonans and new arrivals. Becker's family, which moved to Tucson when she was a child, belonged to Temple Emanu El. But neither she nor her brother, Tucson businessman Howard Goldwyn, knew the original synagogue. Becker first entered it at a project open house two years ago. "" I saw the condition of the place I knew that something could be done."

Timing has also been an asset. As downtown Tucson emerges from decades of disfavor and neglect, Stone Avenue's progress has gained strength from and, in turn, helped to enhance the revival of its home, the Barrio Libre Historic District, and the adjacent Armory Park Historic Neighborhood. A good number of project supporters are also downtown residents and preservation advocates.

The challenge grant will fund 60 percent of the $198,197 needed to rehabilitate and restore the building. A combination of cash and volunteer services will cover the Project's 40-percent share. Repair and maintenance are well under way. A wrought-iron fence erected in 1996 with funding from the Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission has eliminated litter and vandalism. Inside the two-story-high sanctuary space, the original raised, half-oval bimah was recovered. A ceremony held on March 1, 1998 dedicated the sanctuary to Rabbi Albert T. Bilgray, who led Temple Emanu-El beginning in 1947 Bilgray, who died later that month, saw a videotape of the dedication in his hospital room. "The rabbi's son, David, told me that seeing the video was one of the most significant events in his dad's last days," said Toby Sydney, president of the Stone Avenue Temple Project. "He was very happy that he had been given this honor."

"Once restoration is finished, the building will be able to sustain itself through the revenue generated by community functions and religious events," said Sydney. The synagogue will remain without a congregation. Already a half dozen Bar and Bat Mitzvahs have taken place. On November 30, 1997, two rabbis from the Tucson Hebrew Academy presided over the first, the Bar Mitzvah of Noah Zion Evers, who grew up downtown and whose mother, Barbara Grygutis, had followed the Stone Avenue's progress over the years. "It was a very unique experience," said Grygutis, a nationally renowned designer of public art and preservation advocate who, until recently, chaired the El Presidio Historic District's design review committee. Grygutis prepared a special prayerbook for a Sunday service corresponding to her son's birthday on the Jewish calendar. "The bar mitzvah was not part of a service… There were about 125 people. Even though it's not fancy, the space itself, the way the light comes into the space and everything about the building, is very special. The architectural design lends itself to that kind of occasion, which should be intimate to make it special."

For information, please contact the Stone Avenue Temple Project, 564 South Stone Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85701, tel. (520) 628-3668 fax: (520) 327-1585; e-mail: tasydney@flash.net

(Rebecca Anderson is director of publications at the World Monuments Fund)



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last update: 1/25/00