ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Jewish Federation of New Mexico celebrates two 70th anniversaries this year, its own and that of the State of Israel.
The Federation is one of about 150 similar organizations throughout North America that work through philanthropy, education and social action to meet the needs of Jewish communities in New Mexico, Israel and worldwide.
When it was first incorporated as the Albuquerque Jewish Welfare Fund on Feb. 14, 1948, Albuquerque merchant Arthur Ravel was chair of the campaign to raise funds for the United Jewish Appeal to help Jews fleeing from Europe to the U.S. and what was then still Palestine. The state of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948.
“This year is a turning point in Jewish history. It is the ‘Year of Destiny,'” Ravel said in an Albuquerque Journal story published March 7, 1948. “This community, like others throughout the country, has in its hands the future of large masses of the Jewish people. … I am sure we will not fail.”
In the seven decades since, the organization has evolved from focusing primarily on those fleeing Europe in the aftermath of World War II, to a broader mission.
In 1987, it became the Jewish Federation of Greater Albuquerque and in 2006 took on its present name.
Elisa Simon, who was executive director during the 1980s, said that was the time when they started Jewish Family Services to meet community needs. They also worked with Albuquerque Public Schools to educate students about discrimination and the Holocaust.
“It was a very impactful program and also cathartic for those who had lived through the experiences and wanted to share their stories,” Simon said.
The Federation now has about 700 members throughout New Mexico and works closely with an array of Jewish organizations to raise roughly $600,000 a year, which is distributed to its numerous activities. They include Hillel, the student organization at the University of New Mexico; the Jewish Care Program, which provides support services to about 400 families statewide; youth and cultural programs at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Albuquerque; Jewish centers in Taos and Las Vegas; programs at Temple Beth Shalom in Santa Fe; Keshet Center for the Arts; and the Holocaust and Intolerance Museum of New Mexico.
“We see an obligation to serve the broader community and the need that exists here,” said Zachary Benjamin, who became executive director in August 2015.
Since then, he has reached out to build stronger relationships with synagogues and other Jewish organizations in New Mexico and launched the podcast “Chai Desert Radio.” The program, available on iTunes and Google Play, gives a New Mexican perspective on matters of interest to the Jewish community, locally and internationally.
Benjamin said there are plans to open a satellite office for the Jewish Care Program in Santa Fe, the first outside Albuquerque, to serve seniors, low-income families, Holocaust survivors and others in need.
Seventieth anniversary activities will include New Mexico Walks for Israel, which will highlight the relationship between New Mexico and Israel and the state’s Jewish community of more than 20,000 people. It will be a family-oriented event in the fall at Domingo Baca Park.
Blue and White Night, a gala celebrating the 70th anniversary, will be held May 6 at Sandia Resort & Casino with entertainment from reggae artist Matisyahu.
“It will be something that will be reflective of how far our community has come, the level of collaboration, professionalism and our vision for the future,” Benjamin said.
While 70 years seems like a long time, the history of Jews in New Mexico goes back centuries.
“Jewish history is woven into the local history,” Benjamin said. “That’s part of the New Mexico experience.”
Paula Amar Schwartz, former president of the New Mexico Jewish Historical Foundation, has been fascinated by the diversity of cultures in this state. She came here from her native Pittsburgh in the 1960s for graduate studies and settled here in 1991. She worked with San Diego-based director Isaac Artenstein to produce a documentary, “Challah Rising in the Desert,” which uses the metaphor of the five-stranded braided challah bread, used on ceremonial occasions, to trace the history.
“I thought it resembled the five different strands of New Mexico’s Jewish community,” Schwartz said.
The strands include the “Conversos” who fled the Spanish Inquisition in the late 15th century, followed in the 1800s by the German-Jewish pioneers who came west on the Santa Fe Trail and became merchants. In the 20th century, many Jewish scientists and engineers were among those recruited for the startup of Los Alamos and development of the universities. More recently there were those who came with counter-culture groups of the 1960s and founded communities like the Lama Foundation, New Buffalo commune and the Jewish Renewal movement.
Challah Rising has been shown in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Tucson and Los Angeles and is scheduled for a film festival in Atlanta. It is the first in a series of documentaries Artenstein is making about the Jews of the Southwest. Artenstein has had previous work broadcast on PBS and hopes this series may one day get a national airing.
Many of the Jews who came here played an important part in the economic and political life of New Mexico before and after it became a state in 1912.
Henry N. Jaffa became the first mayor of Albuquerque after its incorporation in 1885. His nephew Nathan Jaffa was in business in Roswell and was appointed secretary of the Territory in 1907. The Jaffa family, from Germany, had businesses in Trinidad, Colo., before expanding into New Mexico.
Solomon Bibo, one of several Bibo brothers from Germany who came to New Mexico and traded with Native American tribes, was chosen as governor of Acoma Pueblo in 1885.
Jewish-owned stores were prominent in towns all over New Mexico in the late 19th century and well into the 20th century; notably Charles Ilfeld’s in Las Vegas, Morris and Simon Herzstein’s in Clayton, Spiegelberg Brothers in Santa Fe, and Seligman’s mercantile in Bernalillo.
The Bell family opened stores in towns all over northern and central New Mexico. Lance Bell said his grandfather Morris Bell was one of several siblings of the large Belitzer family who came to the U.S. from Merkine in Lithuania sometime between 1916 and 1920.
“There were about six of them, the two who stayed (in Lithuania) were married to well-off men. The rest were dreamers, just like everyone else, there was nothing for them there,” Lance Bell said.
Some of the brothers had a business in Trinidad, Colo. Morris and his brother Barney Bell came to New Mexico and opened a store in Española. Lance Bell, 51, said he and his brother Jon Bell, 53, grew up working in the store at 116 W. San Francisco in Santa Fe. Back then, he said, Santa Fe had many Jewish-owned stores such as Kahn’s shoe store, Spitz Jewelry, Goodman’s men’s store and Gans Southwest Arts & Crafts.
Albuquerque, too, had many household name stores owned by Jewish families; Kistler-Collister and Stromberg’s fashion stores, Freed & Co. and American Home Furniture opened by E. Mannie Blaugrund in 1936.
Blaugrund was among those who signed the certificate of incorporation of the Albuquerque Jewish Welfare Fund in 1948.