Past the Lutheran Church, just a short walk from the city’s centre, Governor’s quare, in Santa Fe is the Temple Beth Shalom.
I was to meet with Rabbi Marvin Schwab, but he was called to an emergency at the local hospital. Despite the fact that we had never met, I was able, with the capable assistance of Dorothea, to find out about the synagogue, see the interior and hear about the Jewish community of this southwestern city in the State of New Mexico.
Dorothea’s office in the older part of the complex, is cluttered, a good sign that this is a busy place. Some assistants outside were having serious discussions which prompted us to close the door. It’s here I learned about the history of the Jewish community of Santa Fe.
From the early 1800s when young Jewish men took the then advice to ‘go west, young man’, they did in search of a new life. As would be expected these men eventually married, had children and soon there was a religious need for the Jewish population.
In the course of time, in 1876, the very first Bar Mitzvah took place in this ‘City Different”. But there wasn’t a formal synagogue and Erev Shabbat services were lead by laymen. The venue was the Bruns General Hospital, today the grounds of the College of Santa Fe.
However, Temple Beth Shalom’s official history began in the 1940s. Finally in 1946 the first Santa Fe Jewish Temple was formed and by 1949, some land was purchased for a mere $2000 on Barcelona Road.
Money was raised by 18 Jewish families who contributed $100 each to “create a true place of worship”. The original building which sits near the street, was designed by the noted architect, John Gaw Meem. Finally after years of raising funds, the sanctuary was dedicated on September 14, 1953. A Cadillac, then the car with the significant cache that only the most affluent were able to buy, was raffled off to pay for the interior décor and finishing touches.
But to some the name of the synagogue didn’t reflect the community and in 1970, at the request of the confirmation class, it was changed from Santa Fe Jewish Temple and Community Centre to Temple Beth Shalom.
As the state grew so did Santa Fe’s Jewish community and soon the temple was too small. The original building, is now used for a children’s religious school, library and meeting rooms. There are 60 day school children and 150 who come after school for religious classes and various lectures and programs are offered.
By 1980s a new sanctuary, just behind the original building, was designed by the local architect Ed Mazria. The completion was in 1986 but it also raised the bar for many other buildings. Mazria was a solar architect which meant the building needed less heat in the winter months and to this day has no need for air conditioning which is most impressive since the days I was in Santa Fe, the temperatures were well into the high 80 F (30 Celsius). At 7000 feet above sea level, this city of height can be proud of the innovative solar feature
Although the’ guess-timate’ is that there are between 5,000 and 7,000 Jews in and around the city with a population of 100,000, only 350 Jewish families are members. An interesting fact is that Temple Beth Shalom is self-supporting. There is an endowment along with various fund raising campaigns.,
Rabbi Schwab, formerly of California, has been the rabbi here for four years. Prior to him, Rabbi Abraham Schindeling was the first committed rabbi who for 30 years, from the 1960s to the 1990s, commuted from Albuquerque (about 60 miles away) to officiate at services
Today the Temple Beth Shalom is a Reform synagogue but for many years, it served the diverse population of Orthodox and Conservatives, as well.
“It was what we laughingly call reconservative,” smiled Dorothea. “A bit of reform, a bit of conservative and a bit of orthodox.. There was an Orthodox ‘minyan’ ( the needed 10 men for morning prayers) upstairs each day and once a week a minyan for the Conservative faction.
“About 1/3 of our congregates are intermarried,” Dorothea continued. “We have about 20 Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and several marriages each year”. Since strictly kosher food is impossible to purchase in Santa Fe, the kosher cut meats are served at these occasions.
Dorothea and I crossed the small garden to the sanctuary. A large metal Star of David over the door is a strong, meaningful symbol which certainly can’t be missed. As we entered, by most standards this would be considered a little ‘shul’. It was immediately apparent that this must be for a small group. The simple benches, the bimah, the arc are without any flourishes. However, on the High Holidays, a room divider is pulled to the side which offers more seating for the often, standing-room-only group. The blue cloth covers on the bimah were being replaced by ornate white in observance of the up–coming holidays.
Dorothea opened the Ark to show the Torahs. A significant fact is that among the four Torahs, one came out of the Holocaust. Then there’s a heavily engraved silver plate over an embroidered Torah cover, recently donated by a prominent family for the birth of their first grandchild. The Torah covers were all made or contributed by the community But perhaps the most important donation is a Torah which was brought to an nearby city by wagon train, date unknown, but the Torah is about 200 years old. For the past five years this Torah was on exhibit at the Museum of New Mexico. It now has its place of honour beside the others.
Outside again, the Santa Fe sun shining, the temperatures hot, there were several children playing and laughing in the garden. Their childish squeals of happiness were the perfect background for this serene space -s a true oasis in the desert.