Planning 20th anniversary gala, Or Chadash looks back

Cantor Janece Cohen, left, and Rabbi Thomas Louchheim carry Torah scrolls to Congregation Or Chadash’s new property on Dec. 12, 2004. Founded in 1995, Or Chadash had been known as the “wandering congregation” before it purchased the property on Alvernon Way. (Max Ellentuck)

Congregation Or Cha­dash held its first Hebrew school classes 20 years ago around Rabbi Thomas Louchheim’s family dining room table. Little more than four wooden legs and a table top were needed to gather together Tucson area students and start planting the seeds of Jewish education. Membership has swelled to some 400 member families today, many of who will celebrate the congregation’s anniversary at a Feb. 6 gala at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.

Louchheim recalls Or Cha­dash’s humble beginnings, when a group of some 12 families gathered at the former Buddy’s Grill near Grant and Swan roads to discuss the potential to build a new Jewish way of education and spirituality in Tucson.

“I just remember sitting at a very long table and they asked me if I was interested in being the rabbi,” he says. He responded, “As long as you all start the congregation, and I’m not starting the congregation, you know, if you want to do all the organizing and see if this will happen or work, then great.”

Betsy Sandlin is a founding member of the congregation and served as secretary on the first board of directors. She first heard that a group was looking to start a congregation while volunteering at the Casa Maria interfaith soup kitchen, and attended the formative lunch meeting.

“We all agreed that we liked to pray together as Jews and Tom was a fine rabbi, who, I think we had all met in different ways and at different places. I knew him, he was the officiating rabbi at my son’s bar mitzvah at [Temple] Emanu-El in 1994. I think that was the last bar mitzvah he did there.”

Louchheim had served as an interim rabbi at Temple Emanu-El and was working in Handmaker’s hospice program when he received a call from someone gauging his interest in forming a new congregation.

Or Chadash (Hebrew for “New Light”) held its first Friday night service, attended by more than 150 people, at the Zenith Center at 330 E. Seventh Street in August 1995. Louchheim had been scheduled to lead Jewish High Holiday services at the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation that year, so Or Chadash members joined with Hillel to celebrate the new year.

The group of Or Chadash members would go on to hold services in six other locations around town, including the Louchheim family home and the home of Peggy Hitchcock, a friend of the congregation, which congregants named Peggy’s Pavilion.

“My wife was our first educator, she has a degree in Jewish education,” says Louchheim, noting that along with religious school around the family table, “we had a number of holiday and Shabbat celebrations in our front courtyard.”

Or Chadash didn’t settle into its permanent location at 3939 N. Alvernon Way until more than eight years later. Louchheim hung a mezuzah on the door of the office building on May 2, 2004.

“The home wasn’t really that important, being in a physical home sanctuary wasn’t really that important in our early years at all,” he says. “It was really that we were embodying a different kind of value. We felt that we were embodying something very different, and maybe it’s because we were small … everyone knew each other, was supportive of each other … and it was a family and we just couldn’t let go of each other.”

Sandlin says that a personal touch and desire to give back to the community were at the forefront of values that helped to shape the congregation.

“A lot of it had to do with social action,” she said. “We were homeless and built two Habitat for Humanity homes. We didn’t have our own kitchen, but we worked in soup kitchens. We just did everything that we could see that needed doing.”

Jeff Kaufman was named executive director in October 2015 after leading the accounting efforts of the congregation. He had been an executive director of two other synagogues and has big plans for further growth of Or Chadash.

“I want us to be leader in social action, education, in community activities and involvement so that people know Or Chadash is a really strong place, a really well-respected place, [and] it has a great reputation.

“We’re looking at plans for expanding our facilities. My vision is just to make this a place where the operations run smooth, it’s professionally run, people respect it, people look forward to it, people want to participate, whether it’s in services, or any other kinds of activities.”

Louchheim says that keeping the sense of a close-knit spiritual center has been challenging as membership has increased.

“What we insist is the main mission of the synagogue, is that we’re warm and welcoming. That’s the thing we cling to, and struggle with, and fail with, and try and succeed at. So, it’s a frustration and a joy at the same time.

“I feel that in my heart. It’s a terrible burden on me, but I really want, either me, a member of my staff, or a member of our community to feel that everyone is impacted and important in the congregation. I’m still going to call everyone.”

Kaufman and other members are planning for the anniversary event, a cruise ship-themed evening focused on “cruising into the future,” he says. The event will feature live music, entertainment by Unscrewed Theater’s improv comedy troupe and a buffet dinner with stations from around the world.

The Keep the Light Shining Gala Celebration will be held Saturday, Feb. 6 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $99. RSVP by Jan. 29 at 512-8500 or at orchadash-tucson. org.

Michael Miklofsky is a freelance writer living in Oro Valley with his wife and three daughters. He also is a Realtor® with Realty Executives Tucson Elite and director of marketing for The Shoe House, Inc.