Built in 1910, the building that is now the Jewish History Museum on South Stone Avenue has lived many lives. It was built to be the first synagogue in Tucson and served that purpose until 1949, when its founding congregation, Temple Emanu-El, outgrew the building and moved to a new home on Country Club, where it remains today. Between 1949 and 1982, the building was used as a church, a movie theater, the headquarters for a Mexican radio station, and more, until it was left vacant, a home for squatters. Having fallen into state of extreme disrepair, the building was about to be condemned by the city, when a group of citizens (including, for a time, Judaic Studies’ professor – then doctoral candidate – Beth Alpert Nakhai, and Ken Miller, the first graduate of the Judaic Studies Graduate Certificate Program) rallied to purchase and repair the building, restoring it to its original state. It now serves as the Jewish History Museum.
Walking into the Holocaust History Center at the Jewish History Museum, one is immediately overwhelmed by faces. On the left side of the room, faces we know, like Hitler’s; and iconic images from World War II flank the walls. On the right side, faces we don’t, like that of Annique Dveirin, born in 1936, in Poland. Annique had a false identity during the war, and made it from Poland to France, then to the United States, where she became a French and English teacher and a public speaker about the Holocaust. Annique’s picture, mounted on the wall, has three rocks stacked on top of it, much like you’d see at a Jewish gravesite. The Jewish History Museum takes a chapter of history most of us are familiar with, the Holocaust, and gives it a special Southwestern spin. Half of the exhibit is dedicated to Holocaust Survivors who have connections with the Tucson area, giving a unique representation of the Holocaust. Judy Rose Sensibar, Executive Director of the Jewish History Museum, is especially proud of this exhibit, saying, “It’s a great way to add our personal touch to a chapter of history that’s already memorialized in so many ways.”
The main exhibit area of the Jewish History Museum also explores the history of Jews in the Southwest. Through the end of March, The Ketubah Exhibit will be on display, showing wedding gowns and ketubahs (Jewish marriage contracts) from as early as the 1500s. Most of the wedding gowns and ketubahs, as well as the wide range of artifacts in the permanent collection, were donated by local Jewish families. “People often don’t realize that many of the most prominent families in Tucson’s history were Jewish. The Drachmans, Mansfields, and Goldschmidts have all donated quite a bit to our museum,” Sensibar said.
Students, faculty, and community members who are looking to expand their knowledge of the history of our local Jewish community would enjoy and benefit from a visit to the Jewish History Museum. For more information on the Museum and its current exhibits and upcoming events, visit www.jewishhistorymuseum.org.