Many people take for granted that their synagogue has been in existence for many years and is well established. They walk into the building that either their predecessors built, or that they themselves built. They love their rabbi and cantor. The religious school director and teachers have put together wonderful educational programming that has been perfected over the years. The executive director and all the additional staff handle all of the administrative work.
But every synagogue must start somewhere. Here is the story of how Temple Gan Elohim began:
TGE’s beginnings trace back to the Northwest Valley Jewish Family Alliance (“The Alliance”), a chavurah led by six individuals. Growth came by word of mouth and with publicity in the local newspapers. In the spring of 2000, the Alliance sponsored a Yom Ha’Atzmaut Festival at Canyon Elementary School and over 200 attendants signed in. Their names were collected and a database of Jewish families in the Northwest Valley had begun.
Thanks to the inexhaustible efforts and dedication of Cheri Butkowski, Friday evening Shabbat Services had begun to be held in individuals’ homes on a once-a-month basis; High Holy Day Services were offered at Canyon Elementary School; and, most importantly, contacts with the Jewish community of Phoenix had been made.
During the Yom Ha’Atzmaut Festival, Cheri had the pleasure of meeting Cantor Howard Tabaknek. Cantor Tabaknek understood the need for a multi-generational Reform congregation in the West Valley. After many discussions between Cantor Tabaknek and Cheri, Cantor Tabaknek introduced Cheri to Merle Weiner. Merle was the representative of the Union for Reform Judaism (“URJ”), formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (“UAHC”), in the Phoenix area who helped new congregations in any way that she could. The URJ is the central body of the Reform Movement in North America, whose membership now numbers more than 900 Reform congregations.
The Alliance held meetings in local libraries during the year 2000. In November of that year, we were provided guidelines and an outline of what would be necessary to become a member of the URJ.
One person offered to participate on the Budget and Finance Committee, someone else offered to write the by-laws and before we knew it over 20 individuals had volunteered to make the synagogue a reality. Twenty or so individuals signed a piece of paper, listed their names and telephone numbers, and in January 2001, this small group of approximately 23 families met at the Sunrise Mountain High School’s library to begin its mission: to form a Reform congregation in the Northwest Valley.
The name “Temple Gan Elohim”, which means “Garden of God,” was selected at the first meeting in January 2001. With the assistance of Andy Abraham from Temple Solel in Paradise Valley, our Articles of Incorporation were filed and became official on February 2, 2001.
It was determined that on March 1, 2001, Temple Gan Elohim would be ready to hold its 1st Congregational Meeting. The by-laws were ready, the mission statement had been completed, and the budget and dues structure had been established. On March 1st, there were 27 adults present, representing 21 different families. Upon entering the meeting, each person made a donation of $25 and filled out a membership application. Once this was done, Temple Gan Elohim had its charter members who could then vote to approve the by-laws and select a Nominating Committee so that Temple Gan Elohim’s first Board of Trustees could be elected.
TGE was fortunate to have several “retired rabbis” here in the Valley of the Sun that were willing to help a new congregation get started. Rabbis Maynard Bell, Lester Frazin, and Albert Plotkin lead our services on a rotating basis from our inception until mid-2006. Abe Schwarz, a lay-leader from Temple Chai, also led some services. And in time we were fortunate enough to come in contact with Scott Leader – a talented recording artist and former NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) song leader who served as our cantorial soloist whenever his schedule allowed before becoming our musical director in July 2007.
Temple Gan Elohim held its first Shabbat Services on June 1, 2001, in a temporary building on the campus of the Community Church of Joy on the northwest quadrant of 75th Avenue and the Loop 101 in Glendale. There were more people in attendance than the room could hold comfortably. We knew that we would need to search for other facilities for our High Holy Day Services.
Dove of the Desert became that new facility, and also hosted the temple’s other functions until 2004. When it became clear to the leadership of Temple Gan Elohim that our continuing to use their facilities was becoming too costly, we began our search for a new place to call home.
Late in 2003, Mission Bell United Methodist Church and Pastor Todd Rogers fulfilled their mission of being “a church without walls” by opening their doors and welcoming our temple family into their home.
In 2006, our story took four very unexpected turns … one terrible, three wonderful. An arson fire at Mission Bell in April left our congregation and theirs homeless for much of the year. We held services at Body of Christ Fellowship in northwest Phoenix and also at Horizons Community Church in Peoria while Mission Bell was rebuilt. That was the terrible.
The wonderful took place the day after the fire, in front of the charred building, when at a congregational meeting we voted to hire our first contracted clergy, Rabbi Lisa Tzur. Rabbi Tzur had spent the previous nine years at Temple Chai in Scottsdale and officially joined TGE on July 1, 2006. Her arrival spurred renewed growth in the congregation. We started with 23 families in March 2001. By the end of 2006, we had more than 115 member families.
Also in 2006 our religious school became fully professionally staffed incuding the hiring of Religious School co-directors to help expand our educational offering.
During 2007-08 TGE began its Concert Series featuring Sam Glaser, Rabbi Joe Black and Debbie Friedman. And the congregation – now more than 140 families strong – moved again, this time to Shadow Rock UCC, nestled on the north side of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve.
In the summer of 2010, Rabbi Tzur moved to San Francisco with her family and we hired Rabbi Tracee Rosen, a brand-new Valley resident who had led a combined Reform-Conservative synagogue in Salt Lake City.
Our home is now on the Beth Emeth Congregation Campus. There are Jews in the West Valleys with whom we can make a connection. But to do that, there is much work to be done so come join our Temple Family and help us continue to grow.