Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
LAS VEGAS, N.M. – An expression of reverence and affection plays across Zelda McCrossen’s face as she gazes around the interior of the old building, taking in the dazzling white walls and shiny floors.
“What I love about this building is its simplicity,” she says.
The windows are stained glass, Stations of the Cross line the long side walls and a large image of Jesus Christ hangs in a corner near the entrance. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe has owned the building at 901 Eighth St. since the 1950s. It has been used as a Newman Center chapel, a place of worship and community for Catholic students attending New Mexico Highlands University.
But it was built in the 1880s as Temple Montefiore, the first Jewish place of worship in New Mexico Territory.
Now, after all these years, the Jewish people of Las Vegas have an opportunity to buy back the building and reclaim a vital part of their history. McCrossen, 85, is the treasurer of the Las Vegas Jewish Community, which is engaged in raising $200,000 to be used toward the total purchase price.
“Everyone is really excited,” she said. “There is a lot of support and a feeling this is something the community needs.”
On the trail
In the mid-1800s, Jewish merchants were among those who followed the Santa Fe Trail into New Mexico, settling first in Santa Fe, but later, when the railroad skirted that city, gravitating to railroad towns such as Albuquerque and Las Vegas.
According to Henry J. Tobias, author of “A History of the Jews in New Mexico” (University of New Mexico Press, 1990), there were only a half dozen Jews in Las Vegas in 1870, but that number had increased to at least 48 and perhaps as many as 70 by 1880, two years after the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway steamed into New Mexico.
Prominent Jewish merchants doing business in Las Vegas after the Civil War included Marcus Brunswick, Joseph and Emmanuel Rosenwald, Adolph Dittenhoffer, Isidor Stern, Simon Rosenstein, Adolph Letcher and Charles Ilfeld.
By 1884, the Jews of Las Vegas were a well-established presence in the town. That year, they formed the first Jewish religious organization in New Mexico, a congregation that would be named for British philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore.
The congregation soon set about raising funds to build a synagogue.
According to Tobias, half of those who contributed to the building fund were not Jews, an indication of the esteem in which the Jewish people were held by their neighbors. Tobias writes in his book that the temple, the very one now for sale, was dedicated in September 1886 to the accompaniment of music provided by the Presbyterian choir.
In the early 1880s, the Las Vegas Jewish community had established Montefiore Cemetery, believed to be one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries west of the Mississippi.
History in headstones
Ted Herburger and his dog, Rufus, are walking through Montefiore Cemetery about noon on a recent sunny day. Herburger is looking for the oldest grave, but Rufus is on the prowl for gophers.
Herburger, 83, is vice president of the Montefiore Cemetery Association as well as the cemetery’s caretaker. He said that before a restoration effort started in 1993, the cemetery was overgrown with weeds and trees, littered with broken headstones and dusted with the powder of disintegrated cement.
A major force in the cemetery’s restoration and maintenance, Herburger has over the years kept the grounds groomed, repaired headstones and set straight toppling monuments. He continues his work on a handsome stone fence that will one day circuit the cemetery.
He recognizes the cemetery’s importance to the Jewish history in New Mexico. Members of the old pioneer families are buried here.
“There is a lot of information here about the Jewish community in the 1880s,” he said.
But the cemetery is also a physical record of the ebb and flow of the Jewish population in Las Vegas. Its former decline can no doubt be traced back to the 1930s when a downturn in Las Vegas’ economy sent Jewish families seeking opportunities elsewhere. By the 1950s, the few remaining members of the community sold the synagogue to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
But the Jewish population experienced a rebound in the 1990s, about the time efforts started to clean up and repair Montefiore Cemetery.
Diana Presser, a member of the board of the Las Vegas Jewish Community, said the organization’s mailing list includes 40 Jewish families, but about a dozen core members have been responsible for keeping the Jewish presence alive in Las Vegas.
Over the past 25 years, she said, members of this nuclear group conducted lay services when a visiting rabbi was not available. Services took place in private homes or in Las Vegas churches. Presser said Immaculate Conception Parish made the Newman chapel available for services and the Presbyterian, Methodist and Episcopal churches hosted Jewish community events.
For some time, the community has wanted to buy the old Temple Montefiore building to use as a permanent center for religious services and other activities, but the property was not for sale. Until very recently.
Now it is being sold by the archdiocese to pay a small portion of a $121.5 million settlement with victims of clerical sexual abuse, and the Jewish community has until the latter part of this month to come up with the money.
“We only found out about (the sale) two weeks ago,” Presser, 76, said. “It was like a lightning bolt.”
The community is seeking donors across the country and has set up a GoFundMe account.
“We are absolutely optimistic,” McCrossen said. “Money is coming in – from everywhere. GoFundMe has been pretty active.”
Temple Montefiore was not always on Eighth Street. It was constructed on the 900 block of Douglas Avenue.
In 1922, the synagogue was moved uphill to its present location. Soon, if the Jewish community can raise the funds, the building will make the transition from Catholic chapel back to its roots as a Jewish house of worship.
“It will be an active synagogue, absolutely,” McCrossen said. “But it will also be a community center, a historical and education center. We want to tell the story of Jews in New Mexico. We want to aim education at the general public to increase understanding and (battle) anti-Semitism.”