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Arizona’s Mountain Range Jewish Community on the Rise

By , Flagstaff, AZ

“Who would have thought that we would see this type of growth? This is [all] part of the miracle—to have our own building,” Burt Gershalter, a local psychologist living in Flagstaff, says incredulously.

With views overlooking the San Francisco Peaks, the future home of Chabad of Flagstaff will sit on a central road, close to Northern Arizona University (NAU)—the perfect location to answer the needs of the city’s Jewish community.

Not far from the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff is a destination for many world Jewish travelers. The city (population 55,000) counts some 500 Jewish households and about 500 Jewish students at NAU. Israelis, Europeans and out-of-state visitors make for an eclectic, diverse mix of Jews.

Flagstaff’s mild summer weather, the lowest for Arizona, has made it a hot spot for Arizonians living in places like Tucson and Phoenix. For these second home owners coming for summer weekends or prolonged vacations, Chabad provides them a connection to all things Jewish.

Rabbi Dovie and Chaya Shapiro are Chabad representatives here since 2006. “This is a welcoming community,” says the rabbi. In the eight years they’ve been here, the community has grown enough to inspire the dream for its own center.

Dr. Al Silberman from Tempe, Arizona, has been traveling to his summer home in Flagstaff for over forty years. Meeting Chabad four years ago has given him more to look forward to when coming for the summer.

“During the summer I have more time to engage in Jewish activities,” he said. “For all the years I was there, there was nothing really Jewish up there. At times we traveled forty miles to go to synagogue. When we went to check out the Chabad, they were very welcoming, kind and open to us.”

Gershalter describes Chabad’s appeal: “[At Chabad] you are loved first and then you get drawn into study, to learn more.” Most compelling, he says, is that Chabad offers you “the opportunity to learn whatever you want to learn, learn about the holidays, learn about the Torah.”

When the couple arrived eight years ago with their six-month-old child, the community sat in trepidation at the prospects of failure. Instead, activities and participation grew, and an active center for Jewish students, locals, visitors soon emerged. Now, they are busting out of the 3,000 sq foot space.

“Chabad of Flagstaff really needs a new center, a synagogue, for our young people to come together and have a place that they could actually call home,” says local philanthropist Carmen Blank, who was honored with the Generosity Award at Chabad’s dinner in August.

Plans took root with the purchase of 2.2 acres of land through a grant from the Rohr Foundation. The new building which will include a synagogue, social hall, commercial kitchen, library, Mikvah and classrooms, will also house the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center at NAU.

The award-winning Overland Partners architects designed the new building with an open plan to reflect the “hospitality, the energy and spiritual enrichment” of the center. “We really want to try to embody that warmth and openness and energy into the project,” Jim Shelton, a designer for Overland Partners, said.

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