Friday, November 20, 2015

A House of God - Rabbis' thoughts on Temple Beth-El Las Cruces, NM -talk given at the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society Conference on November 15, 2015 in Las Cruces.

Beth-El - a House of God.   The name evokes the story of a place that was unknowingly holy. 
     This tale begins the Torah portion for this week.  Jacob had left home to escape the wrath of his brother Esau, who was angry at him for the loss of his first-born birthright and blessing through persuasion and motherly deception.   Jacob came upon a place and laid down for the night and dreamed of a ladder with angels going up and down upon it and he encountered God in his nightly vision.    Only when he woke up did he realize, in retrospect, that God was in that place, and he had no idea whatsoever of the divine presence that was right there with him. 

     That divine presence offered Jacob a sense of connection when he was alone.  That connection what we hope for when we join and serve a Jewish community.
With Rabbi Howard Laibson
    I am here to represent myself and my full-time rabbinic predecessors at Temple Beth-El in Las Cruces.  Together, we have logged over 30 years of rabbinic service to this community and to Southern New Mexico.  
    To collect comments for this presentation, I contacted my colleagues Howard Laibson, who was here in 1984-1989; Cy Stanway, who served here in 1990-1998, and Paul Citrin, who arrived in 2008 and left in 2011.  Cyrille Kane, widow of Rabbi Gerald Kane, who died this past May, offered reflections on Jerry's years here, from 1998 to 2007.    My wife Rhonda and I arrived here in late June of 2011. 
With Rabbi Cy Stanway
    One of my first impressions of Las Cruces had nothing to do with the meaning of the city's name, understood by many as "the Crosses."  What I did realize is that Las Cruces reminded me of Beersheva, Israel, in its appearance and size.   Once I checked the latitude of both cities, I realized why I sensed such a similarity.  Las Cruces sits pretty at the latitude 32.3144 degrees north.   Beersheva is 31.2589 degrees north.   Immediately, I felt a strong bond with a city in Israel I had visited only once, and with this city that would become home. 
With Rabbi Jerry Kane (right) and
NMSU President Garrey Carruthers
    So what is unique about being Jewish in Las Cruces and southern New Mexico, according to rabbis who have served here?   There is an awareness of being a minority and, perhaps, being on guard due to possible expressions of prejudice.  That feeling has always been balanced with a strong desire to become immersed in community life.   There is a sense of independence, freedom and, in the words of one rabbi, "cowboyishness" that comes from living in this locale.   
    Some people in the general community in Las Cruces and Dona Ana County have had little contact with Jews living here.  Others shopped at the stores run by Jewish New Mexicans and got to know their Jewish neighbors well.
With Rabbi Paul Citrin
    Rabbis who have come to Las Cruces noticed how much Jews have actively participated in city and community life.   Jews have been involved in all manner of organizations in Las Cruces: non-profit charitable groups, service clubs, the local symphony, and the professions (especially law and medicine).    One rabbi noted that if there was any perspective of the Jews in the community held by non-Jews, it was more favorable than the Jews might have thought themselves.  There were many Jews involved at the university, with some of them affiliated with the congregation and others not. 
    There were opportunities for rabbis to be involved in the campus ministry association, now the NMSU interfaith council, and with the Las Cruces Ministers' Association, which now takes the form of a monthly breakfast gathering.    Those groups offered rabbis, ministers and other spiritual leaders an opportunity to engage in meaningful and fulfilling discussions. 
    Rabbi Jerry Kane was particularly close with Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, a relationship cemented at the time of the 9/11 attacks and that continued in the years following.     Rabbi Kane also taught "Studies in Film: Jews on Screen" at New Mexico State University on a regular basis. 
      Rabbis who have served here have felt privileged to hear of or to get to know founders of the congregation and active members in the greater community, such as Sam Klein and the late David Steinborn, who both served as Mayor of Las Cruces.  Members of the Las Cruces Jewish community have served as State Senators and representatives, and as local judges.   There are congregants known for their artistic abilities who share their talents in local circles.  
         And there are the stories that Frances Williams, Bea Klein and other long-time members tell of the history of this community.  I would add the late Mel Taylor to that list as well, for his several decades of involvement at Temple Beth-El.  
I asked my colleagues about milestone events during their time here. A food bank was created at a local church in the late 1980s, along with the serving of a hot meal to people in need.  Temple Beth-El was involved from the beginning in those efforts.  Now, we donate food to the Casa de Peregrinos food pantry, and members of the Jewish community serve at the El Caldito Soup kitchen every week.   We have, for the last several years, taken a breakfast every December 25 to Camp Hope, where people who are homeless live in tents for a time with the possibility of receiving housing and getting a job. 
    In the 1980s, Temple Beth-El hosted a legislative luncheon, where congregants and community members gathered to interact with city, county, state and federal officials about current issues important to constituents. 
    In the 1990s, Rabbi Cy Stanway established a Talmud class that is still continuing its long run today.    Temple's major fundraisers, the Gala dinner, and serving signature pastrami sandwiches at the local annual Renaissance Fair, were well-known in the community. 
      During Rabbi Kane's tenure, Temple Beth-El received awards from the Union for Reform Judaism for the best Adult Education program of a congregation its size.  
     Rabbi Citrin led the congregation in commissioning the writing of a new Sefer Torah in 2010-2011, which culminated in a community wide event held at Temple. 
     One major milestone of the last 10 years is the creation and completion of the new building for Temple Beth-El in the Sonoma Ranch part of town and its dedication in 2007.   The new facility was many years in the making.  What impresses me most is how much this building reflects the creativity of Temple members. David Steinborn worked hard to see the project come to fruition.  Talented congregants fashioned the ark, the main lectern, the candle table, the stained glass windows, the depiction of the Burning Bush on the Ark Doors, and the frame and lettering of a verse from Psalms above the ark.  I have never seen such involvement by Temple members in the creation of their congregation's sacred space. 
      In recent years, Temple's Golf Tournament has enjoyed the support of many friends and neighbors.  This year, the tournament was titled the MATZO BALL OPEN and held at Picacho Hills Golf Course.  Some of the proceeds this year went to Mesilla Valley Habitat for Humanity.   
     Temple Sisterhood has held events over the last few years that have included a Tzedakah component with a gift presented to a local charitable organization.  The Sisterhood Judaica shop remains as a central source of Jewish items.
     In 2012 and 2013, Temple Beth-El hosted “A Night with Judaism.”  We invited community members to learn about Judaism by attending a service and a very enhanced Oneg Shabbat that included a question and answer period.  
     In 2014 and 2015, Temple Beth-El embarked on a new fundraiser for the community to come and enjoy the sights, sounds and tastes of Jewish culture.  The Las Cruces Jewish Food and Folk Festival was created and was successful both years. Planning and designing the event drew on the knowledge, experience and wisdom of congregants who worked on the Gala and Renaissance Fair and on the energy and ideas of new members. 
     The spirit of volunteerism and a commitment to joining together as a community for holidays and social gatherings continues here. 
     Our Frances Williams Library has an extensive collection of Jewish books and resources.  And this is the only community which I have served with its own Chevrah Kadishah.
     Music has become an important part of Temple worship and education over the last several years.  Our choir turned intergenerational for the 2015 Jewish Food and Folk Festival, demonstrating the special spirit that knows no bounds based on age.  
    Temple's Wednesday breakfast, with a speaker every week, draws people from the congregation and greater community. 
    Adult education continues with programs that attract people from all over Las Cruces on a regular basis.    Learning among our children, even in a small Religious school, continues with enthusiasm and quality.   Teens still participate in the Southwest Region of the North American Federation of Temple Youth. 
    Individually and as a congregation, we remain connected with our neighbors, hoping to improve life for our fellow citizens in the city, county and country. 
     In the Torah reading for this week, Jacob was amazed at the angels going up and down on that ladder in his dream, and at God's appearance next to that stairway to heaven.  
     In this beautiful area of New Mexico, with stark scenes, incredible sunrises and sunsets, overwhelmingly frequent sunshine, and amazing mountain views every day, we have a sense that we can be angels for one another to keep Judaism vibrant and to preserve the warmth of community among us.  
      And we can lift our eyes to the hills, and look into each other faces, and know that God is in this place, God who is the Oneness that will continue to bind us together to perform acts of lovingkindness, righteousness and justice for ourselves and for our neighbors

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