Chanukah and the Growth of the NOAZ Jewish Community

Dec 19, 2014

Tonight is the fourth night of Chanukah, a Jewish celebration commemorating Freedom from oppression. Millions of people around the world will celebrate by lighting menorahs and eating traditional foods. But, as Arizona Public Radio’s Justin Regan reports, it wasn’t until the last few decades that Jews in Northern Arizona had a place to celebrate Chanukah together.

This Menorah is made out of cans that will be donated to local food banks.
Credit Justin Regan

Rabbi Dovie Shapiro addresses a crowd of more than a hundred people at a bowling alley in Flagstaff. They’re here tonight to light the menorah and throw some strikes.

Shapiro is currently the only full-time Rabbi in Flagstaff, a city of close to 70,000 people. For the last 9 years, he and his wife Chaya have been building an organized Jewish community.  

“It’s a labor of love. It’s a lot of work but the rewards are so much more,” said Shapiro.

The Shapiros belong to an organization called Chabad, a grass-roots effort to build Jewish communities from the ground up.

“We knew we wanted to start a Chabad somewhere in America. So, we looked in various communities on the East coast, on the West coast. When we heard of Flagstaff it just sounded so appealing, living in a mountain town where there was a small Jewish population, but a Jewish population which was eager to have more Jewish opportunities for themselves, for their children,” said Shapiro.

Shapiro’s effort is the latest in a relatively short history of organized Judaism in Northern Arizona. About 40 years ago, there were no synagogues North of Phoenix.  But in the early 70’s Merrill and Rhoda Abeshaus moved from the East Coast and settled in Flagstaff, where they slowly started to build a Jewish community.  

“The first Yontov we had about 20 people for services. They came from the Grand Canyon, we had people hiked up from bottom of the canyon some years. We found Jews on The Reservation, and of course, Sedona had Jews who preferred to come to Flagstaff rather than go to Phoenix. Prescott had people who came here,” said Rhoda Abeshaus

The Abeshaus’ founded Flagstaff’s first Synagogue, Heichal Baoranim, or Temple in the Pines. They’re glad to see a new Rabbi has continued to cultivate the Jewish community.

“We realized we had as our goal throughout these 42 years that we’ve lived in Flagstaff,  is to improve and increase the footprint of  Judaism in Northern Arizona and in Flagstaff. And Dovie and Chaya and Chabad they didn’t increase the footprint from a little size 7 shoe, that footprint is gigantic now, because of them. And we’re just grateful that they’re here,” said Merrill Abeshaus

Rabbi Shapiro holds weekly Shabbat dinners, religious services and acts as a liaison to orthodox Jewish tourists by providing kosher meals and a place to observe the Sabbath. He’s also reached out to the Jewish student body at Northern Arizona University. Jenna Wright is a junior studying education.

“It’s very much a mutual respect relationship. The rabbi and his wife and their family respect that many of the students that are attending our events and dinners and holiday services and things like that that we all come from different backgrounds,” said Wright.

Wright says it’s this respect for Jews regardless of their level of observance that makes Rabbi Shapiro so popular in the community, especially during Chanukah.  

“It’s always been such a magical experience for me. Where I feel the most in touch with my Judaism and my roots. Knowing that this was a tradition that started hundreds of thousands of years ago,” said Wright.