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History & Architecture of Congregation B'nai Israel

B'nai Israel is the second-oldest synagogue in Albuquerque, and the first Conservative synagogue in the State of New Mexico.

2020 - The Celebration of Our First 100 Years

The early days of Congregation B’nai Israel–as well its subsequent growth and development–are a lasting tribute to the perseverance, dedication, and unflagging Jewish spirit of its founders. We owe our origins to a handful of enthusiastic men and women who, despite many obstacles, visualized a need and translated into action the desire to plant the seed of Judaism in the far-flung Southwest.  Today, we are an essential community for Conservative Jews. Our threads of commonality bind us together, much like the straps used for wrapping Tefillin.  Securing our future is an endeavor that is constantly on our minds in the present. We want to endure with joy for the generations yet to come.

When Did Jews Actually Arrive in New Mexico?

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Jews from the Iberian Peninsula fled The Holy Office of the Inquisition and arrived in the New World to survive persecution. More than 500 years later, their descendants remain here.

These descendants may have converted to Catholicism, or later to some other form of Christianity, and become known as “conversos,” which is the Spanish word for “the converted.” They may have remained true to their Jewish traditions and secretly continued to practice their ancestral Jewish faith. These people are now referred to as, “crypto-Jews.”

Albuquerque, the high desert city nestled against the Sandia Mountains in central New Mexico, was founded in 1706. As one of America’s oldest cities, it has been inhabited for centuries. It has accumulated a rich history and culture that has included Jews for a very long time. New Mexico’s Jewish-American Heritage is by no means, homogeneous. We have come from different places, speak different languages, and practice our faith in many ways, fostered by religious freedom. 

Henry N. Jaffa (1846-1901), as a young Jewish man, moved from Germany to the western United States after the Civil War. He opened a business in Las Vegas, New Mexico and expanded to Albuquerque in 1882. When the city was incorporated in 1885, Jaffa was elected as its first mayor. He established New Mexico’s first synagogue in 1897. He worked closely with citizens at the top of the economic and social strata, and he participated in civic and fraternal affairs.

The First 99 Years of B'nai Israel

In 1920, Congregation B’nai Israel was incorporated by a small Jewish community that felt the need for organizing traditional Jewish services, Jewish community activities, and a Hebrew School for their children. Among the charter members who worked indefatigably for the success of the congregation, were: D. M. Elias, Hyman Livingston, Ben Marcus, David Meyer, and Aaron Katz, all of blessed memory.

During the early years of its history, without a permanent place to hold religious services, the congregation hovered perilously on the brink of extinction. Services were held sporadically in private homes, hired halls, and when the occasion demanded, even in the rear of stores. The fervent desire to transcend all obstacles and difficulties kept the spark of life–“the shul”–from being snuffed out.

In 1934, the congregation rented quarters at 116 ½ West Central Avenue and regular services and activities were inaugurated. In 1935, Arthur Ravel assumed the presidency and held the post for seven years. During this period the Jewish community experienced steady growth along with the need for permanent quarters to accommodate the increasing number of worshipers. Plans were made for the construction of a synagogue. The Ladies Auxiliary, in 1937, purchased a lot at Coal and Cedar Avenues. Enough money was pledged to permit the start of construction on January 15, 1941. On February 9, 1941, the cornerstone–since reinstalled at the entryway of the current building–was laid. The handsome, California-mission style building with whitewashed walls and red tiled roof stood until it was sold, and later demolished, to make way for medical offices in the late 1960’s.

Jack Levick, the first president in the new structure, was elected for a two-year term in 1942. During this time, plans were formulated to purchase land for a congregational cemetery and organize a Chevra Kadisha. David Pincus became the first full-time rabbi of the congregation, and he served until 1942.

In 1944, with Ben Marcus as president, the congregation burned the first mortgage on the building.

During the 1940’s administrations of Jack Meyer, Gabe Block, and Jack Mendelsberg, many improvements to the Hebrew School were made. Additional land also was purchased for the congregation’s cemetery.

In the 1940’s Albuquerque community witnessed the arrival of several Holocaust-survivor families. They found a welcoming home within the congregation. Fred Veston, whose memory is still cherished by long-time members, set up a painting studio in the rear of his jewelry shop, at First and Central, where he lovingly re-created cherished scenes of the “Old Country.” Many of his works are on display in the congregation social hall, and are part of Congregation B’nai’s Arts & Judaica Collection.

The growth of the congregation mirrored the 1950’s-era expansion of the City of Albuquerque. Jewish scientists, engineers, and enlisted men who were associated with Kirtland Air Force Base and Sandia Laboratories found their spiritual home within the synagogue. They diversified the congregation’s merchant-based membership.

Bernard Leach led the congregation from 1952–1953; David Specter in 1954; Sol Taylor in 1955; Phil Levy from 1956–1957, and Simon Goldman assumed the Presidency in 1958. Old-time members recall synagogue dues being very affordable for all. Periodically, they said, the “balebattim”–the shul’s leaders–would gather to collectively pay off synagogue bills.

During these years a building site was selected for a new, larger synagogue at the location of Indian School Road and Washington Avenue, NE. In 1959, the presidential gavel was passed to Kurt Kubie, who raised $35,000 to purchase this corner, five-acre property. It was also during this period that Philip Pfeffer was engaged to serve as the congregation’s first Cantor.

Lawrence Wayne served as the presiding officer in 1961. In 1962 he was followed by Herman Bloch, under whose leadership the congregation continued to grow and prosper. In 1963, Edward Seliady held office for a year.

Sam Green assumed the Presidency in 1964 for a two-year term. Under his leadership, the remaining indebtedness on the second mortgage was paid, and two additional classrooms were added on the Coal/Cedar site to meet the needs of an ever-growing Hebrew School enrollment.

Phil Levy was re-elected in 1966. In 1967, the Board of Trustees launched a fundraising campaign, chaired by Julius Wollen, to build a new facility on the recently acquired land. Construction seemed assured until the shul, responsive to Israel’s plight in the Six Day War, contributed most of its substantial building fund to aid in Israel’s defense.

When Sidney Gasser assumed the Presidency in 1968, the building fund-drive was resumed. With the cooperation of many faithful and devoted workers, it was successfully concluded. Bids were let, and the ground-breaking ceremonies for the present synagogue, school, and social hall took place in December, 1969. 

The old building held its last service in November, 1970. Shortly thereafter, a traditional Torah procession was made from the old building to the new one with a distinctively designed sanctuary that resembled a golden-yellow “tent,” reminiscent of Biblical gatherings.

The new sanctuary made many recall the traditional Friday evening prayer, Ma Tovu: “How goodly are your dwellings, O Jacob,Your sanctuaries, O’ Israel.”

During Sheldon Bromberg’s administration in 1970, arrangements were made for the sale of the shul’s former home at Coal and Cedar.

In the congregation’s fiftieth year, Irving Friedman was elected President. The congregation obtained the services of Rabbi Isaac H. Celnik in 1971, and with his leadership, attendance at services grew. The congregation was propelled over the next twenty-eight years by his charismatic presence as both ritual leader and teacher.

Robert Katz was president in 1973–1974, which coincided with the Yom Kippur War. The congregation, feeling again that Israel was at risk of annihilation, held rallies and raised funds to help support it in every way.

In 1975–1977, during the presidency of Alan Greenfeld, the synagogue was remodeled and a handicapped-accessible ramp was installed.

Marilyn Reinman became president following the untimely passing of Larry Schwartz, holding office from 1978 – 1980. Marilyn, daughter of long-time President Arthur Ravel, was one of the first women chosen to lead a Conservative congregation in the United States.

The 1980’s were years of tremendous growth for Congregation B’nai Israel. It was during this period, under the presidency of Brian Ivener, that a pre-school was opened. Enrollment at the Religious School skyrocketed and classes averaged as many as twenty students.

During the next presidencies of Charles Glass (1981–1983) and William DeBois, the congregation continued to enjoy steady growth and balanced budgets.

Under the administration of Wayne Bobrick many still-memorable events were initiated, including beloved Shabbat Dinners that were held four times a year.

When Howard Friedman, followed as president, the Endowment Fund was inaugurated. Under his presidency a major renovation to the building was undertaken: the social hall was enlarged, two new kitchens (one for meat, one for dairy) were installed, and the education wing was expanded. Construction was completed during Burrell Ross’s time in office (1989–1990), which is also when Josh Perlman was hired as Cantor.  During the next eight years, Cantor Perlman served as hazzan and he instructed the Confirmation Class students.

The congregation continued to grow while under the leadership of Al Berlin (1991–1993) and Judy Gardenswartz (1993–1995). They focused their efforts on attracting young families to the shul. The Board fully supported the founding of a Solomon Schechter Day School, which called the shul its home until it moved to the new Jewish Community Center facility.

During the second half of the decade of the 90’s, when Madeline Dunn, Bonnie Ivener, David Berlin, and Martin Sherman were congregational presidents, plans were drawn up and funds were raised to remodel the sanctuary. Congregants from those years remember the remodeling-fund drives, the closing-down of the sanctuary when new carpeting, seating, lighting, and sound systems were installed.

When Lawrence Golden became president, the new bimah was installed with the impressive Yehi Or (“Let there be Light”) sculpted letters on the cherrywood doors, which became the place of honor for the congregation’s six Torah scrolls. These sculpted letters were created lovingly by the talent of our longtime member, Harvey Buchalter.  

Rabbi Arthur Flicker became the congregation’s new Rabbi, replacing Rabbi Isaac Celnik.

Harvey Buchalter became President in 2003, at which time a gala celebration was held to commemorate the first 85 years of the shul. Caitlin Bromberg, one of the first female Hazzans to graduate from the Jewish Theological Seminary, became Cantor.

Under the presidencies of Alan Chodorow and Keith Harvie, the Men’s Club and Sisterhood grew their memberships, and their innovative programs became national models for other synagogues.

Wayne Bobrick assumed the shul presidency for his second time in 2009. He lead the congregation with approximately 280 members who joined him in looking forward to the shul’s next 90 years. In April, 2011, Harvey Buchalter assumed the Presidency of the Congregation, for his “second time around.”

In 2013, William Hochheiser and Robert Lewis became the congregation’s first co-presidents. Following the team leadership, Richard Hammer was elected as president in 2015. Shortly after that, our congregation began a search for a new spiritual leader with the impending retirement of Rabbi Flicker.

In October of 2016, Rabbi Evelyn Baz, our first female rabbi, was installed as mara d’atara.  Although her tenure was short-lived, she was a catalyst for our members to undergo a period of rediscovery of who we were as a congregation. Co-presidents, Wayne Bobrick (for his hat-trick) and Elynn Finston, led us through a member-wide survey that helped us to redefine our needs and desires as a Kehilla. Not surprisingly, our members revealed that remaining a Conservative house of worship was the utmost priority, and we gathered strength in learning how important our building, and our members, are to each other.

In April, 2018 Elynn assumed the role as sole president, and oversaw a thorough, well-organized, national search for an Interim Rabbi. Meanwhile, a group of architecture students at the University of New Mexico were conducting research on our congregation’s history, and learning about the unusual design of our magnificent sanctuary. Their efforts culminated in a nomination to the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee in Santa Fe, which unanimously accepted nomination of Congregation B’nai Israel for a listing in the National Register of Historic Places. 

In 2019, our synagogue’s sanctuary was recognized by the State of New Mexico as being an icon of diversity, and noteworthy architectural design worth historical preservation: our building was placed on the NM Historic Register. See the section below for more details.

With the results of our member snapshot survey having touched all areas of our synagogue life,  lay leadership created a weathervane of priorities. This aided a well-organized, thorough national search for an Interim Rabbi.  The search came to an end when we found a compatible match to become our Interim Rabbi to heal our congregation and lead us forward to our 100 year anniversary.  It is here that we reach the current period of our congregational history: Rabbi Dov Gartenberg is leading and lifting our spirits after assuming his new role in late August, 2019.

A Uniquely Remarkable Sanctuary

On February 15th, 2019, the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee in Santa Fe unanimously accepted the nomination of Congregation B’nai Israel for a listing in the National Register of Historic Places. By doing so, Congregation B’nai Israel was placed on the State of New Mexico Historic Places, commonly referred to as the State Historic Register.

This was an important event for Congregation B’nai Israel, our community at large, and the City of Albuquerque, because the nomination acknowledged the cultural significance of our Congregation and the architectural importance of our building.

Our nomination met two criteria: ethnic heritage, and architectural significance. Congregation B’nai Israel, established by Jews of Eastern European descent, is now recognized as an important community asset that provides religious services, education, and celebrations of major life events for the congregational members in a unique facility designed by George Wynn.

The building reflects our Jewish heritage: the roof of the sanctuary symbolizes the tent of Jacob in an expression of Late Modernism architecture.

This placement on the State Historic Register is significant for us as a congregation because it is an acknowledgment of our forefathers’ hard work, time, and focused efforts in building our unique identity. They provided us with a one-of-a kind sanctuary that can’t be replaced, and a home where we may gather to celebrate and worship.

Our building is a wonderful gift that is now acknowledged by the State of New Mexico, and soon, the nation.

On May 17, 2019, Congregation B’nai Israel of Albuquerque proudly received the prestigious 2019 Architectural Heritage Preservation Award by the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. A formal ceremony and reception were held in Santa Fe as part of the celebration of the 47th annual New Mexico Heritage Preservation Month.

Elynn M. Finston, CBI President, accepted the award on behalf of the entire congregation. She was joined at the ceremony by members of the congregation who reveled in this meaningful recognition.

It was a distinct honor that our building was the sole recipient of this year’s Historic Preservation Award. The building design is a contemporary reflection of our people’s ancient history, where the members of the congregation gather like our ancestors did, under Jacob’s tent in the desert. The award communicates that our ethnically and architecturally significant building is a historic landmark worth preservation in the state of New Mexico. With the award, our one-of-a-kind structure may become more widely appreciated by architectural enthusiasts, state tourists, and residents alike.  

In mid-February, the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee in Santa Fe unanimously accepted the nomination of CBI for a listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and by doing so, placed CBI on the state’s Historic Register.

The Cultural Properties Review Committee articulated that, “Congregation B’nai Israel is a late-20th-century Expressionist-style synagogue located on the East Mesa at the corner of Washington Street and Indian School Road in Albuquerque. Architect E. George Wynn designed the synagogue in two parts: a rectangular educational wing and the circular-shaped sanctuary, which is covered with a conical-shaped roof. The roof, which is supported by laminated-wood arches and covered with tongue-and-groove strips of wood, provides an open sanctuary that requires no interior supports. The building was completed in 1971. Since its construction, the congregation has been an excellent steward of the historic synagogue even as its needs have changed.”

New Mexico’s Cultural Properties Review Committee has presented Heritage Preservation Awards for outstanding preservation achievements since the 1970s. Individuals, organizations, authors, local heroes, businesses and agencies have received awards for significant contributions to preserving architecture, archaeological sites, language, cultural landscapes, and less tangible elements of our culture. Grassroots preservationists, architects, archaeologists, and people who have made it a point to familiarize their community with the value of preservation have won preservation awards. Becoming this year’s award recipient is a testimony that our building is a landmark for diversity in Albuquerque, and our entire state.