B'nai Israel History
The First 90 Years. The early days of Congregation B'nai Israel - as well its subsequent growth and development - are a lasting tribute to the perseverance, dedication and unflagging Jewish spirit of its founders: a handful of men and women who, despite many obstacles, visualized the need and translated into action the desire to plant the seed of Judaism in the far-flung Southwest.
In 1920, Congregation B'nai Israel was incorporated by a small Jewish community who felt the need for traditional Jewish services and Jewish community activities as well as the importance of organizing a Hebrew School for their children. Among the charter members who worked indefatigably for the success of the congregation were the following: D. M. Elias, Hyman Livingston, Ben Marcus, David Meyer and Aaron Katz, all of blessed memory.
During the early years of its history, without a permanent place to hold religious services, the congregation hovered perilously on the brink of extinction. Services were held sporadically in private homes, hired halls, and when the occasion demanded, even in the rear of stores. Only a fervent desire to transcend all obstacles and difficulties kept the spark of life that was “the shul” from being snuffed out.
In 1934, the congregation rented quarters at 116 ½ West Central Avenue and regular services and activities were inaugurated. In 1935, Arthur Ravel assumed the presidency and held the post for seven years. During this period the Jewish community experienced a steady growth and the need for permanent quarters to accommodate the increasing number of worshipers became clear. Plans were made for the construction of a synagogue. The Ladies Auxiliary purchased a lot at Coal and Cedar Avenues in 1937. Enough money was pledged to permit the start of construction on January 15, 1941. On February 9, 1941, the cornerstone – since reinstalled at the entryway of the current building – was laid. The handsome, California-mission style building with whitewashed walls and red tiled roof stood until it was sold and then demolished to make way for medical offices in the late 1960’s.
Jack Levick, the first president in the new structure, was elected for a two year term in 1942, during which time plans were formulated for the purchase of land for a congregational cemetery and organization of a Chevra Kadisha. David Pincus became the first full-time rabbi of the congregation, serving until 1942.
In 1944, with Ben Markus as president, the congregation burned the first mortgage on the building.
During the 1940’s administrations of Jack Meyer, Gabe Block and Jack Mendelsberg, many improvements to the Hebrew School were made. Additional land for the congregation’s cemetery was purchased, as well.
The 1940’s also witnessed the arrival of several Holocaust-survivor families in Albuquerque. They found a welcoming home within the congregation. Fred Veston, whose memory is still cherished by long-time members, still recall his studio in the rear of his jewelry shop at First and Central where he lovingly re-created scenes of the Old Country. Many of his works are still on display in the congregation social hall.
The decade of the ‘50’s began with another burst of growth when under the leadership of David Klein, when an addition to the building at Coal and Cedar was completed. The expanded facility provided the congregation with additional classrooms, an enlarged kitchen and a social hall that could double as a space for extra seating during High Holy Day services.
The growth of the congregation mirrored the 1950’s-era expansion of the City of Albuquerque. Jewish scientists, engineers and enlisted men with Kirtland Air Force Base and Sandia Laboratories found a spiritual home within the synagogue and diversified the congregation’s mainly merchant-based membership.
Bernard Leach led the congregation from 1952 – 1953; David Specter in 1954; Sol Taylor in 1955; Phil Levy from 1956 – 1957, and Simon Goldman assumed the Presidency in 1958. Old-time members recall synagogue dues being very affordable for all. Periodically, they say, the “balebattim” – the shul’s leaders, would gather to collectively pay off synagogue bills.
During these years a building site was selected for a new, larger synagogue at Indian School Road and Washington Avenue, NE. In 1959, the presidential gavel was passed to Kurt Kubie, who raised $35,000 to purchase this corner, five acre property. It was also during this period that Philip Pfeffer was engaged to serve as the first Cantor of the congregation.
Lawrence Wayne served as the presiding officer in 1961 and was followed by Herman Bloch under whose leadership the congregation continued to grow and prosper. In 1963, Edward Seliady held office for a year.
Sam Green assumed the Presidency in 1964 for a two-year term. Under his leadership, the remaining indebtedness on the second mortgage was paid, and two additional classrooms were added on the Coal/Cedar site to meet the needs of an ever-growing Hebrew School enrollment.
Phil Levy was re-elected in 1966, and in 1967 the Board of Trustees launched a fund-raising campaign, chaired by Julius Wollen, to build a new facility on the recently acquired land. Construction seemed assured until the shul, responsive to Israel’s plight in the Six Day War, contributed most of its substantial building fund to aid in Israel’s defense.
When Sidney Gasser assumed the Presidency in 1968, the building fund drive was resumed, and with the cooperation of many faithful and devoted workers, it was successfully concluded. Bids were let, and the ground-breaking ceremonies for the present synagogue, school, and social hall took place in December, 1969. The old building held its last service in November, 1970. Shortly thereafter, the traditional Torah procession was made from the old building to the new, distinctive, golden-yellow “tent,” reminiscent of Biblical gatherings.
The new sanctuary made many recall the traditional Friday evening prayer, Ma Tovu: “How goodly are your dwellings, O Jacob,Your sanctuaries, O’ Israel.”
During Sheldon Bromberg’s administration in 1970, arrangements were made for the sale of the shul’s former home at Coal and Cedar.
In the congregation’s fiftieth year, Irving Friedman was elected President. The congregation obtained the services of Rabbi Isaac H. Celnik in 1971, and with his leadership, attendance at services grew and the community at large was enhanced by his presence as both ritual leader and teacher for the next twenty eight years.
Robert Katz was president in 1973 – 1974, a time coinciding with the Yom Kippur War. The congregation, feeling Israel again at risk of annihilation, held rallies and raised funds to help support it in every way.
In 1975 – 1977, during the presidency of Alan Greenfeld, the synagogue was remodeled and a handicapped-accessible ramp was installed.
Marilyn Reinman became president following the untimely passing of Larry Schwartz, holding office from 1978 – 1980. Marilyn, daughter of long-time President Arthur Ravel, was one of the first women chosen to lead a Conservative congregation in the United States.
The early 1980’s witnessed the start of the pre-school, under the presidency of Brian Ivener. Under the next presidencies of Charles Glass (1981 – 1983) and William DeBois, the congregation steadily grew and the budgets were balanced.
The 1980’s were years of tremendous growth for Congregation B'nai Israel. Under the administration of Wayne Bobrick many still-memorable events were initiated, including the beloved Shabbat Dinners, held four times a year.
Under Howard Friedman, the endowment fund was inaugurated. During his presidency, a major renovation began: an enlarged social hall, two new kitchens, and additions to the education wing were begun. Construction was completed during Burrell Ross’s time in office, 1989 – 1990. At this time, Josh Perlman was hired as Cantor. Cantor Perlman served as hazzan for the next eight years and also instructed the Confirmation Class students. School enrollment skyrocketed in the 1980’s when classes averaged as many as twenty students.
The shul continued to grow under the leadership of Al Berlin (1991 – 1993) and Judy Gardenswartz (1993 – 1995). A strong push was made to attract young families to the congregation, and the Board fully supported the founding of a Solomon Schechter Day School, which called the shul its home until moving to the new Jewish Community Center facility.
During the second half of the decade of the 90’s, when Madeline Dunn, Bonnie Ivener, David Berlin and Martin Sherman were congregational presidents, plans were drawn up and funds were raised to remodel the sanctuary. Congregants from those years remember the remodeling-fund drives, the closing-down of the sanctuary as carpeting, seating, lighting, and sound systems were installed.
When Lawrence Golden became president, the new bimah, complete with the impressive Yehi Or (“Let there be Light”) sculpted letters on the cherrywood doors became the place of honor for the congregation’s six Torah scrolls.
Rabbi Arthur Flicker became the congregation’s new Rabbi, replacing Rabbi Isaac Celnik.
Harvey Buchalter became President in 2003, at which time a gala celebration commemorating the first 85 years of the shul was held. Caitlin Bromberg, one of the first female Hazzans graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary, became Cantor.
Under the presidencies of Alan Chodorow and Keith Harvie, the Men’s Club and Sisterhood grew and their innovative programs became models for the other synagogues nationally.
Wayne Bobrick assumed the presidency in 2009, his “second time around” as leader of the shul. He leads a congregation of approximately 280 members who join him on looking forward to the shul’s next 90 years. In April, 2011, Harvey Buchalter assumed the Presidency of the Congregation, his “second time around.”
In 2013, William Hochheiser and Robert Lewis became the congregation's first co-presidents. Richard Hammer assumed the presidency in 2015.
We are all looking forward to the next 90 years of our shul.