Anshei Israel to mark 85 years of community building

You may not know this, but every anniversary is (according to a tradition probably created by Hallmark) associated with a particular gift — paper for the first, tin for the 10th, diamonds for the 60th. The 85th anniversary is the diamond and sapphire anniversary. Both stones because, let’s face it, after 85 years of gifts, couples might expect to see some repeats.

That glittering combination of blue and white — the colors on the national flag of Israel — are a fitting tribute to Tucson’s second-oldest synagogue, Congregation Anshei Israel, which will be celebrating its 85th anniversary as a cornerstone of the local Jewish community early next month.

Rabbi Arthur Oleisky
Rabbi Arthur Oleisky
Rabbi Robert Eisen
Rabbi Robert Eisen

In 1981, Anshei Israel’s then-rabbi, Arthur Oleisky, led the first congregational trip to Israel from Southern Arizona.

Oleisky, now rabbi emeritus, says that after spending time in Israel as a student and long-term visitor on multiple occasions, he thought it was important that his congregants “get to experience the spirituality of Israel, and especially of Jerusalem.” It had been a mission of his to make such a trip long happen before the first pilgrimage actually took place 10 years into his rabbinical career at Anshei Israel, and the mission has remained close to his heart ever since. In fact, after serving 29 years on the pulpit, Oleisky took a yearlong sabbatical during which he led 10 separate trips to the Promised Land before officially retiring in 1999.

After receiving an extremely charitable donation from one of its members, Anshei Israel is marking the sapphire and diamond anniversary by throwing a party — what Board President Richard Fink calls a “birthday party.” The event will feature a cocktail hour on the newly updated outdoor patio, as well as a ceremony during which the patio will be officially dedicated to Oleisky, followed by a performance by comedian Rabbi Bob Alper in the hall named after Anshei Israel’s first clergyman, Rabbi Marcus Breger. The night culminates in a catered dinner provided by Feast. Tickets are available at caiaz.org at a cost of $85 per person.

Another honoree of the night, Anshei Israel’s current rabbi, Robert Eisen, is clearly a bit shy about his congregation’s intention to pay him tribute, saying that he’d rather pay deference to his congregants, though he is nonetheless “touched” by the gesture. Eisen, who has been on the job at Anshei Israel now for 16 years, says that building a strong foundational community amidst the sea of wanderers that is Tucson is what has kept the congregation going strong for all these years.

“So many of the people in Tucson are not from here … so many of the people have moved here (from other places),” says Eisen. “How do you find a home? How do you find the grounding that enables you to find life meaningful? Well, you find it in your synagogue community — it’s where you find your extended family and your strength to grow.”

Fink echoes this sentiment, pointing out that growing up in a Conservative Jewish synagogue is what taught him the importance of charity and community. “Alongside my family, I learned everything at synagogue,” says Fink, “so synagogue is very, very important to me and will continue to be.”

As the notion of “community” comes up in almost every conversation about Anshei Israel, there can be little doubt that it plays a major role in keeping the congregation going strong, with more than 3,000 members. Anshei Israel has won multiple awards for its adult education and preschool programs while at the same time supporting a youth program with a full-time director on staff.

With regard to that notion of community, Oleisky points out that it is important to serve people and families at all levels of life — from birth to death — without giving preference or priority to any one particular group. Accordingly, Oleisky says that underneath the portrait of him that hangs on the wall of Anshei Israel today is a verse from the book of Exodus that reads, “We shall go forward with our young and with our old.” And so, forward they will go, together, ever closer to the century mark and beyond.

Craig S. Baker is a freelance writer in Tucson.