Story and Photos by Diane Joy Schmidt
To give their readers a picture of Jewish Albuquerque today, The Intermountain Jewish News of Denver, Colorado published the following story as a two-page spread in their Dec. 4, 2015 Chanukah edition:
A funny thing happened when the Jewish Federation of New Mexico decided to count how many Jews there are in New Mexico. First of all, they found that if you’re not affiliated with a congregation, you’re not so easy to find. So, they resorted to some quirky measures, like scrolling through old phone books looking for Jewish-sounding names.
Nevertheless, with a very respectable 1,700 survey responses, in January the federation announced its results, NM Jewish Population Survey Results Announced, and one number that surprised everyone here: the survey told us that there are many more Jews in New Mexico than anyone knew — about 24,000, twice as many as previously estimated.
New Mexico has a population of 2.086 million, so that makes up only about 1.15% of the population, yet their imprint is outsized.
Another important finding: The percentage of the Jewish population in New Mexico over 55 is greater than in the general population. This is important for the federation to figure into strategic planning.
Given that many of the survey respondents were affiliated with congregations, it was understood that the results may be slightly skewed for those who identify strongly as Jews.
Still, even for those who remain unaffiliated, as they age or face other challenges, as was expressed with some exasperation in one of the focus groups that comprise part two of the survey (released in November), they will still look to the Jewish community to be there for them.
The survey also showed that a majority of New Mexico Jews have advanced degrees and that 87% were not born here but moved here from somewhere else. Three-quarters of us live in Albuquerque or Santa Fe. There are also established Jewish communities in Taos, Los Alamos and Las Cruces, and smaller communities that meet regularly in Las Vegas and Roswell, and there are Jews to found in almost every county of this large rural state.
The survey was carried out with the help of Kupersmit Research, a Denver-based strategic research firm.
Second Phase of the New Mexico Jewish Survey
In the second phase of the survey, 10 focus groups were held around the state. Those results were also revealing:
- Everyone wants less fracturing in the community (in other words, less arguing gabout politics).
- Everyone wants to attend a Jewish meal — a Shabbat dinner, a Passover seder, if not High Holy Days services, at least once a year.
- Some don’t really want to be an active part of the Jewish community, and are happy to have gotten away from Jewish communities they left elsewhere; but more feel a desire to be part of the Jewish community — if only they could find an agreeable way to fit in.
The question was asked, are we even observant, are we praying? Some said that they came here to get away from their upbringing. Others said that they were in search of spiritual meaning that they find in New Mexico and are coming back to in some form in Judaism. The survey divined that on either end of the spectrum: Among Chabad, Renewal and Reconstructionist, members are getting more religiously observant here, while the great unwashed in the middle, those who identify as reform and conservative, are still leaving the fold.
The Jewish community in Albuquerque as we know it today was established with German immigrants who arrived in the 19th century. The New Mexico Jewish Historical Society has a wealth of information on these pioneers.
For those who are fascinated by the almost 500-year-old story of the Jews in New Mexico, the very popular and quickly sold out week-long Roads Scholar program, “New Mexico’s Conversos and Crypto-Jews,” is offered almost every month here throughout the year with guided tours and with lectures by Norma Libman, Rabbi Min Kantrowitz and Converso descendent and historian Daniel Diaz-Huerta.
Some of the first non-Natives to settle in this furthest outpost of New Spain, which reached up into what is today New Mexico and Colorado, were conversos — Jews who had publically converted to Christianity, and crypto-Jews — those who kept but hid their Jewish identity, but found they had to flee from the still very active Inquisition. The Inquisition was alive and well in New Spain and many Jews tried and burned at the stake in the New World.
A major exhibit that is expected to attract international attention, “Fractured Faiths: Spanish Judaism, The Inquisition, and New World Identities,” will open next spring May 22, 2016, in Santa Fe at the New Mexico History Museum. The exhibit will detail the history of Jews as they left Spain and Portugal and came to the New World.
Major Jewish Organizations in Albuquerque
Jews are not only an intimately woven part of the fabric of the state; the community is very much alive and very active. What follows is a snapshot of the major (but not all!) Jewish organizations in Albuquerque. Additionally, an up-to-date and comprehensive calendar of Jewish events in Albuquerque, including synagogue services, and even where to buy Jewish goods and which funeral homes cater to Jewish clientele, is at Abq Jew Web, at www.AbqJew.com. Founder Marc Yellin conceived of the AbqJew site five years ago after moving here from New Jersey. Yellin also volunteers as organizer for the Chevra Kadisha of Greater Albuquerque, whose members, under the guidance of Rabbi Kantrowitz, “perform the mitzvah of traditional, ritual preparation for burial, known as tahara (purification).”
The Renewal synagogue in Albuquerque, Congregation Nahalat Shalom, at 3606 Rio Grande Blvd. NW, hosts services led variously by Rabbi Deborah Brin, Cantor Beth Cohn and members, including a Sephardic/Converso/Crypto-Jewish Shabbat service led partly in Ladino and by congregation members who are descendants of the crypto-Jews of Northern New Mexico.
Rabbi Brin, who led the Women of the Wall in the first torah service conducted by women at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 1988, will offer a new monthly Jewish meditation class beginning in January. Internationally-known Rabbi Shefa Gold, who lives up in the Jemez mountains, continues to lead the Enchanted Circle chanting.
Rabbi Paul Citrin, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Albert (1978-1996), conducts Torah study classes at Nahalat Shalom and also services at the Taos Jewish Center, and Rabbi Miles Krassen, a former Professor of Contemplative Judaism at Naropa University, has just begun offering an ongoing series of talks there, “Planetary Judaism: Bringing Down the Torah of the Future” which, in “updating the teachings of Hassidism and Kabbalah, explores ways in which Torah can support an emerging vision of planetary consciousness.”
There is also an annual Festival Djudeo-Espanyol held in the spring. The congregation has a 23-piece Klezmer band, and the Yiddish dance troupe Rikud leads dances to the music. KlezmerQuerque, the internationally recognized annual festival of klezmer music & dance will be held February 12-14, 2016.
Congregation Albert, in Albuquerque, is the largest congregation in the state. The reform congregation, founded in 1897, is led by Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld with Cantor Barbara Finn. Located at 3800 Louisiana Blvd, NE, tel: 505-883-1818, it has a full program of activities for children and adults.
The Early Childhood Center, headed by Dale Cooperman for children ages 2-6, offers a complete school and daycare schedule.
The Sunday morning Brotherhood breakfast regularly hosts major leaders, usually attracting the local TV news stations. A recent panel, organized by Brotherhood President Jeffry Paul, placed the city’s police chief, the mayor, the U.S. Attorney for New Mexico, and a trial lawyer from the Dept. of Justice at the same table to publically discuss the memorandum they have agreed to carry out to address reported police misconduct.
Open Mind, a Thursday lunch monthly program of interesting guest speakers, chaired by Janice Goodman, celebrates its 17th year. A monthly Saturday morning Shabbat meditation is led by Paula Amar Schwarz in the sanctuary with chanting prayers led by Paula Donahue.
The Sisterhood hosts many active projects, including rotating annual book and rummage sales.
Rabbi Joseph Black, who is now senior rabbi at Congregation Emanuel in Denver, was the rabbi at Congregation Albert for 16 years, from 1996 to 2010. He returned to Albuquerque on Sunday, Nov. 29 to sign copies of his latest book, “There Once Was a Man from Canaan, The Five Books of Limerick” at one of Albuquerque’s last independent bookstores, Bookworks, at 4022 Rio Grande Blvd.
The conservative synagogue is B’nai Israel, at 4401 Indian School Rd NE, Albuquerque. It is the second-oldest synagogue in the state, at 90 years, and is led by Rabbi Arthur Flicker. Upcoming special events in December include the annual Sisterhood Joint Chanukah Luncheon on Dec. 10th and the Sparks of Celebration Friday evening series on Dec. 11.
Chavurat Hamidmar, which describes itself as “an egalitarian, eclectic, independent congregation in Albuquerque,” meets in homes and holds Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at the UNM Chapel. The services are conducted principally in Hebrew and may have a special appeal for those with a conservative background. It has been going strong for many years.
MAKOR-Jewish Source, “A spiritual approach rooted in Jewish tradition,” is led by Rabbi Chavah Carp and meets in her home on Albuquerque’s east side. She also offers Hebrew and B’nai Mitzvah classes, and leads High Holiday services for the Jewish community in Las Vegas, NM. Free spirits will feel at home here.
Chabad of New Mexico, at 4000 San Pedro NE, Albuquerque, established in 1992, is directed by Rabbi Chaim Schmukler and his wife Devorah Leah.
There is a vibrant Hillel at the University of New Mexico, which meets at the David Aron Bram Hillel House on campus, located at 1701 Sigma Chi Rd NE. It has had its share of turmoil in successfully facing down a strident Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that has been pushing to pass student resolutions to boycott Israel. Hillel Director and Director of Community Outreach Sara Koplik noted in 2014 that UNM had had more anti-Israel events and speakers than Harvard or UC Davis.
Hillel students have recently begun hosting Klezmer jam night sessions twice a month, held the second and fourth Thursday of the month at 8 p.m. Students held a well-documented hilarious sukkah building contest between student engineers on the campus lawn.
The winning sukkah booth was transported to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Albuquerque at 5500 Wyoming Blvd, NE, where it immediately held a PJ Library pajama party storybook read-aloud and picnic, also organized by Koplik. This attracted many young parents, some of whom said they ordinarily don’t find the time to participate in the Jewish community, and who virtually all said the grandparents signed up their children to receive the free monthly books.
The big annual community Hanukkah Fest at the JCC took place there on Sunday, December 6. Jewish cultural events are organized throughout the year by JCC Cultural Affairs Director Phyllis Wolf. Major annual events include the JCC Book Fest and Author Series, the Taste of Honey, which showcases different community members and clergy, and Israeli Independence Day celebrations. The surrounding Jewish community also spontaneously gathers at the JCC during difficult times. An annual Women’s Maimouna dinner event, a tradition from Morocco that takes place following Passover, rotates between the JCC and congregations Albert, B’nai Israel and Nahalat Shalom.
The Jewish Federation of New Mexico at 5500 Wyoming Blvd is headed by Executive Director Zachary Benjamin. They support the many programs of the Jewish community throughout the state.
The Jewish Care Program, led by social worker Erin Tarica, offers referrals, a grief and loss support group, a caregiver support group, visits to seniors living in residential facilities, the Holocaust Survivor Care Program, emergency assistance funds, and mitzvah projects. If you or someone you know is in need of these services, feel free to contact Erin Tarica at (505) 348-4451 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Anti-Defamation League of New Mexico, cited in the federation’s statewide survey as the one organization that most Jews in New Mexico can identify with, is headed by Regional ADL Director Suki Halevi.
The New Mexico Jewish Historical Society has an active program of speakers and an annual world-class conference that attracts many from surrounding states. Its website hosts writings by their historians about the pioneer families of New Mexico of the last 150 years, along with an archive of its quarterly publication, Legacy.
Hadassah’s active New Mexico chapter hosts monthly luncheons and special events. Join their email list at email@example.com.
The Holocaust and Intolerance Museum, located in downtown Albuquerque at 616 Central Ave SW, (505) 247-0606, states “Our purpose is to educate visitors well as teach about other genocides and forms of bullying that have affected people around the world. We are not limited to one religion, culture, geographic area, or time.”
The museum, founded in 2001 by Holocaust survivor Werner Gellert and his wife Frances, has educational exhibits and archives, a summer children’s art class series, films, speakers and unique volunteer opportunities for high school students.
The DVora Project, co-chaired by Diane Chodorow, educates people about domestic violence, and began by placing information in Jewish bathrooms (both men and women), marking the difficulty professional Jewish women have in facing this issue. The Diaper Bank of New Mexico, a non-profit founded by avowed “Diaper Schlepper” Susan Dooreck, has distributed 99,490 diapers and incontinence products to date.
A hugely popular Jewish non-profit dance organization here is Keshet which, with Director Shira Greenberg, will be hosting their 19th annual Nutcracker On the Rocks contemporary dance performance, running the first two weeks of December and which, for the first time ever, will be held in its very own performance space, Keshet Center for the Arts, at 4121 Cutler Ave NE in Albuquerque. By establishing the state’s very first arts business incubator, Keshet will anchor a number of other theater troupes, arts ventures and educational programs. Keshet’s dance programming includes bringing in international dancers, programs for disabled youth and adults, and holding workshops that reach youth in shelters and detention centers and at many schools and community centers throughout the state.