With community room, Or Chadash can celebrate Shabbat in its own space

Congregation Or Chadash is “the congregation that’s been wandering in the desert forever,” says Cantor Janece Cohen.

Not any more. Or Chadash’s May 20 Shabbat service will be held in a new community room on its property at 3939 N. Alvernon Way, which the congregation will use for virtually all worship services, except High Holidays. The May 20 dedication will be followed by a celebration at the Or Chadash Lag B’Omer barbecue on Sunday, May 22.

The new space was created by knocking down a wall between two classrooms on the Or Chadash campus. “We were surprised by how huge it was,” says Cohen. “We found that we have a space that’s perfect for us.”

The multipurpose room seats up to 200 people, accommodating as many as the Great Room at Handmaker, where the congregation most recently had been holding Friday night services. That means it will hold the crowd for Or Chadash’s monthly Friday Night LIVE! service, the cantor notes.

A sliding wall allows the space to be converted back into classrooms.

The new space will provide opportunities for the congregation to serve the community better, says Rabbi Thomas Louchheim, adding that he means “not just the Or Chadash community but the general Jewish community and also the Tucson community, and the partner agencies we have like ICS (Interfaith Community Services) and TIHAN (Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network) [and] the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) groups that we work with.” Louchheim also envisions greater possibilities for partnering with neighbors such as Congregation Bet Shalom, Tucson Hebrew Academy and the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.

The room will also enhance Or Chadash’s adult education possibilities. For example, says the rabbi, he’s making plans to bring in a scholar-in-residence from Hebrew Union College, which he was reluctant to do when it meant the congregation would have to pay to rent space elsewhere.

Cohen points out that the new space will even accommodate B’nai Mitzvah services. The congregation should only need to rent space for the High Holy Days, when it needs room for up to 1,000 people.

“The trend today is not for synagogues to build a space that’s only used three days a year,” she says, adding that when Or Chadash was conducting its “Build Me a Sanctuary” campaign, the intent was not to build a space large enough for High Holy Days crowds.

Louchheim explains that the community room is a step on the way toward the eventual building of a sanctuary. “Our capital campaign right now is dedicated to pay down our mortgage and then to finally raise the money for a 300-plus [capacity] sanctuary in the middle of our property,” he says.

The community room renovation was made possible through “a very kind donation” by congregants Nancy and Steve Cohen, whose son, Noah, died last year, notes the rabbi.

The donation was not really in Noah’s memory, explains Steve Cohen. It was two years ago, when the family was planning Noah’s Bar Mitzvah, that Steve decided he’d like to help Or Chadash develop a worship space. When Noah’s funeral had to be held in a rented chapel at Evergreen Mortuary, he says, “it just doubled my thoughts” about Or Chadash’s need for a space of its own.

Steve had initially envisioned a temporary free-standing structure, but says congregants worried it might interfere with the sanctuary campaign. Implementing the classroom renovation took longer than he expected, but in the end it required a small enough contribution that he was able to fund it himself, “which was ideal,” he says.

The May 20 Shabbat service and dedication will be held at 6:30 p.m. The May 22 Lag B’Omer barbecue will begin at 5:30 p.m. The cost is $8 for adults and $5 for children 9 and under. For more information, call 512-8500.