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Roberta Bracker: In Nogales, Ariz., creating a rich Jewish family life and a caring community

Roberta Bracker
Roberta Bracker

Growing up in the Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles, Roberta Bracker, now 76, took being part of a Jewish community for granted. At her high school, all of the kids were Jewish.

Bracker’s mother wanted her three daughters to be knowledgeable about music and Judaic studies. She envisioned her daughters playing chamber music together until the day Bracker’s violin bow was broken. Bracker would not tell which sister crashed the bow on the piano. Aside from music lessons, family life for Bracker and her sisters (Rayna Gellman of Tucson and the late Esther Capin) pretty much revolved around L.A.’s Temple Israel.

Things changed when she moved to Nogales, Ariz., in 1957 after marrying the late Robert (Bobby) Bracker, who grew up there. Historically, the Jewish families had always played a central role in Nogales, where the community was mostly Latino. Charley Bracker, her father-in-law, served on the school board in the ’30s and her husband, Bobby, served on the Nogales city council for 12 years in the ’70s and ’80s. The family was always involved in the Mexican holidays and Nogales city politics.

“When I got to Nogales, I realized I was the minority,” Bracker says. “Being Jewish in Nogales was different. I was aware that my spiritual beliefs and paractices were in great contrast to the Roman Catholic culture. I soon recogized that at some point I had to create a Jewish identity for my children.”

The Bracker family she joined was large and intertwined (her sister Esther’s husband, Richard Capin, was Bobby’s first cousin), but overall the Jewish community in Nogales was tiny, with perhaps 75 Jewish people in its heyday, she says.

Bracker set about creating a Jewish home, lighting Shabbat candles every week as her mother had. For several years, she and Esther, Bobby and Richard took turns toting their kids to Tucson to attend religious school at Temple Emanu-El, a 140 mile round-trip that, when Bobby was driving, included a stop for Le Cave’s donuts in South Tucson.

“Temple really was the center of my life for many years,” she says. Some of the young Tucson couples she and her husband met in those days became lifelong friends.

Still, it made sense to start a religious school in Nogales, which she coordinated with the help of Tucsonans such as Alvin Stern, a former Temple Emanu-El religious school teacher, and the late Joseph Meyerson, a former Temple president.  The school, which met in classrooms at the A.J. Mitchell public school, had as many as 20 students at one time (among them were Bracker’s four kids and Esther’s five). She recalls creating hands-on Judaic experiences for the students, such as marching in the desert with the Torah and baking matzah. Sitting on his front porch at night, Perry Coll, a Holocaust survivor living with his wife, Rose, in Nogales, trained 17 local children to become B’nai Mitzvah.

For about 10 years, the Nogales Jewish community also held a weekly Torah study group. And there were always large holiday celebrations. “We always celebrated Passover,” Bracker says, “sometimes in my mother-in-law’s home, other times at my home, and still other times, we had community Seders at our locally owned motel.”

Today, Bracker says, there are about 15 Jewish residents in Nogales, where she maintains the Jewish cemetery. “It’s very beautiful,” she says, with about 300 gravesites, but only some 50 people buried there. Each year, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon of Temple Emanu-El holds a Kever Avot (literally, the Graves of our Ancestors) service there, and afterward, there’s a barbecue supper at someone’s home. Families travel from as far as Los Angeles and San Francisco to share the observance.

“That’s really the only opportunity for all of our Jewish community to come together,” she says.

Bracker’s children don’t live in Nogales proper, but they’ve mostly stayed fairly close. Her son Bruce and his partner, Alexis, and her daughter, Nellie, live in Tubac. Her son Michael lives in Tucson and her son Steven and his wife, Nina, live in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Her children and two of her grandchildren, she says, practice a “filtered version” of Judaism, but she’s pleased that in recent years, they too have started lighting Shabbat candles.

Bracker was a Feldenkrais teacher for  20 years and trained with the founder of the Feldenkrais Method, Moshe Felden­krais, in the early 1980s. Feldenkrais includes exercises that emphasize “awareness through movement,”® often as group classes, as well as individualized “functional integration”® lessons that include gentle touch and movement.

Life in Nogales has enriched Bracker’s life in ways she could only imagine as a young bride. “I have had the support of a large, loving family and the time to develop my own interests.”
Naturally, living so close to the border, she became fluent in Spanish. “The Latino community’s been a big part of my life,” she says.

Bracker served as a community activist in the greater Nogales community in various ways, from helping to start a “Circles of Peace” program that provides counseling for families where abuse has occurred, to raising money for the library and grammar school. She’s volunteered at the mental health clinic. For eight years, she served on the board of the Nogales branch of the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona.

She’s also supported the Santa Cruz Family Foundation, adding to a fund created by family and friends after her husband’s death. She told the Nogales International newspaper in 2011 that she was influenced both by her husband, who “gave of his time and effort and money” to show his love for his community, and by Jewish tradition, which teaches that “God intentionally leaves the world incomplete so that it will be up to us to perform the healing acts of compassion and charity.”

While there is still much work to be done in her corner of the world, if Bracker were granted one wish, she says, “it would be for all of us, including myself, to develop our awareness of the possibilities for compassion and charity in our daily lives.”