Rabbi Israel and Esther Becker of Congregation Chofetz Chayim will celebrate “40 Years of Torah Growth Together” with an on-line fund-raising campaign on Sunday and Monday, Dec. 8 and 9, and a 40th-anniversary dinner on the last night of Chanukah, Sunday, Dec. 29, at 5 p.m. at the synagogue.
Married in 1973, the Beckers arrived in Tucson in 1979. “Even when we were dating, Esther and I shared a dream of outreach to move ‘out of town’ and inspire Jews that otherwise would not be reached,” says Becker.
After high school, Becker dedicated his next 13 years to Torah study at the Rabbinical Seminary of America/Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Queens, New York, including three years at the seminary’s Jerusalem branch. He received ordination from the Rabbinical Seminary of America and from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the late chief rabbi of the State of Israel. While in New York, Esther worked for Brooklyn College and Equitable Life as a computer programmer and analyst to support her husband and young family.
Following his ordination, Becker was approached with the idea of starting a synagogue on Long Island. At the same time, he learned of an opportunity to start a synagogue in Tucson. “Esther said, ‘Long Island is New York. Our vision is to go out of town and make an impact. Tucson is out of town. Let’s go for it.’”
Becker drove across the country with his father’s Sefer Torah, which had been discovered by an American soldier in the ruins of a Berlin synagogue.
The congregation’s first Shabbos service was held in their home. Soon the Beckers rented their first building for $160 a month. “The place became known as ‘the barbershop shul’ because for many years the space had been a barbershop,” Esther recounts. “Before holding our first service, we swept hair off the floor. Once during services, a leaky water pipe filled one woman’s purse with water.”
Despite these quirks, “in a short time, Jews of all ages and backgrounds began to participate and we were a congregation,” she says.
In May 1980 Chofetz Chayim moved to 5720 E. Fifth St, and in the summer of 1984, to its current location at 5150 E. Fifth St., carrying the Torah in a procession that included future Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild.
Becker began teaching a weekly Torah class upon arrival in Tucson. “For the last decade, the class has been called Biblical Breakthroughs,” he notes. “People tell me that when they come to the class, their whole week has changed.”
The couple established The Southwest Torah Institute in 1986 “to make Jewish learning approachable and exciting for everyone. Classes were open to all Jews regardless of background or affiliation,” Becker relates.
Although Becker is the longest-serving rabbi in the history of the Tucson Jewish community, the Beckers often have struggled for financial security. At one point, Becker called his mentor, the late Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz, who was the rosh yeshiva, or head, of the Queens seminary. “I said, ‘We’re finished. It’s over.’ The rosh yeshiva asked, ‘Are you closed or are you open? You are not closed until you are closed.’ His encouragement strengthened us to persevere. His unwavering trust in Hashem inspired us to strive to follow his example, not to be overwhelmed by our challenges, but to calmly ponder each issue and come to the appropriate solution.”
Help came from an unexpected source.
“One summer when Esther was visiting her parents in Brooklyn, one of the children needed to see a doctor. In conversation with the pediatrician, Esther spoke about our programs in Tucson. The doctor called his receptionist and ordered, ‘Hold all the patients. I must hear this.’ The doctor told Esther, ‘You are doing what we all should be doing. I’ve got to meet your husband the next time he visits New York,’” Becker says.
After meeting the rabbi, the doctor arranged a fundraising “parlor meeting” in his basement. Rabbi Amos Bunim, a noted community activist and author, shared the accomplishments of the Southwest Torah Institute that he had personally witnessed. Becker recalls, “At the end of the meeting, I could hear people tearing checks out of their checkbooks and we raised $15,000 that night. The meeting at the doctor’s house was a turning point for us, revealing that Jews outside of Tucson valued our outreach efforts and were willing to support us. In addition to our backers from within Tucson, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, I developed a network of donors in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Baltimore to help sustain us during those formative years.”
At another fundraising presentation in New York, Becker met philanthropist Naomi Adir, whose donations, matched by donors in Tucson, led to the payoff of the synagogue’s mortgage in 1994.
Over the decades, the Beckers’ outreach efforts continued to expand. In addition to teaching adults, Becker taught children at Tucson Hebrew Academy, the Tucson Jewish Community Center, and the synagogue’s own preschools.
“With children, I focused on concepts of mutual respect, gratitude, the joy of being Jewish, and developing a personal relationship with G-d. I reached out through stories and songs with my guitar ‘Simcha,’” says Becker, who often created his own lyrics to teach various concepts.
In the 1990s, Becker extended his teaching in partnership with the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation. “Those were beautiful years,” he remembers. “We had Shabbatons and classes and events which were life-changing for many students. Many who had never previously seen a Shabbos table were moved to shape their vision of Shabbos observance. Two students met for the first time at our Shabbaton and later they got married.”
Once, a sergeant at Davis Monthan Air Force Base responded to a newspaper ad for a Talmud class. “He had grown up in Long Island, without much spirituality in his background. He enrolled in numerous classes and became a regular at our Shabbos table and at Chofetz Chayim,” the rabbi says. Through Esther’s late brother and her sister-in-law in Silver Spring, Maryland, they arranged an introduction to a young woman. The couple fell in love over the telephone and when the young man flew to Silver Spring, they got engaged that weekend. “Today they are raising a beautiful Jewish family.”
Beginning in 1995, Becker taught in the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning. In recognition of his impact, he received the 1996 Community Professional of the Year award from the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, which never before had been given to a rabbi. A group of students asked to continue learning after completing the two-year Melton program, “and our long-lasting Southwest Torah Institute Enlightenment Series began,” he says.
“Rabbi and Esther have been a true blessing to our community,” says Stuart Mellan, JFSA president and CEO. “Driven by the purest mission to inspire a love of Judaism and Jewish living, they have inspired so many of us through their teaching, through their personal commitments, and their many kindnesses.”
“It is said that words from the heart enter the heart, and that surely captures the teachings of Rabbi and Esther Becker. Their devotion, dedication, and commitment to opening hearts and minds have enabled those fortunate enough to have been their students or congregants to develop a deeper and richer understanding of the beauty of Judaism,” adds Amy Hirshberg Lederman, who founded and directed Tucson’s Melton school.
In 2001, Becker was nominated for the prestigious Covenant Award, which honors exceptional Jewish educators in North America.
Also in 2001, he created Tucson’s Spirit Program, an ongoing outreach program for Jewish men and boys featuring visiting scholars from Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, his alma mater.
In 2018, with the leadership of a student congregant and in conjunction with the Federation, he brought two rabbis and 12 yeshiva students from the Foxman Torah Institute in Cherry Hill, New Jersey to Tucson for three weeks of free Torah learning for men and women in a program called, “The Connection.”
While raising a family and working full-time in the computer industry, Esther began teaching women individually and at Rosh Chodesh dinners. In 1997, she began teaching full-time at the Southwest Torah Institute. Grants from the Avi Chai Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona led to founding the Women’s Academy for Jewish Studies.
Since 2004, one of the Women’s Academy hallmarks has been an annual community-wide women’s book brunch in the High Holiday season.
The Beckers worked for nine years to build the Perach Yisroel (Flower of Israel) Community Mikveh, which opened in 2003 for all Jewish women, with an interior by an award-winning local design firm Lori Carol and Associates. “We wanted to create a dignified, five-star facility that women look forward to using,” Esther says.
In September 2014, Chofetz Chayim dedicated a new Torah written in Israel, with 150 people attending the celebration.
Earlier this year, Becker made history by creating the Tucson Eruv Project, the first official demarcation of sanctified private space within the city. It allows for carrying objects within its boundary on Shabbat and other Jewish holy days. “This comes after several years of painstakingly detailed work in conjunction with Tucson Electric Power and Southwest Energy Solutions,” he says, noting that among others, the eruv benefits young families and those who need to carry medication or use walkers or canes.
The Beckers currently teach over 100 students weekly, via individual, group and online classes, and lead periodic Israel journeys. The rabbi produces a weekly “Torah Energizer,” a short video exposition of the weekly Torah portion delivered by email, with 443 episodes to date. New programs include “Power Talmud,” a nightly study group for men, and a weekly Hebrew class for women. In addition to Shabbat and holiday services and community events, the synagogue holds daily minyans and bar mitzvah and bat Torah training.
“Our outreach efforts have been assisted by the help and creativity of congregants and students, which could not have happened without generous financial support from within the synagogue and the extended Tucson Jewish community,” Becker says, expressing thanks to all who have worked with them “for our first 40 years.” One student recently digitized 169 class cassette recordings, which will soon be available via the Tucson Torah website. Another congregant is transcribing all of the Torah Energizers into book form.
The Beckers point to their parents as exemplars of Jewish outreach. “Both of our sets of parents were leaders in the community, always displaying a tremendous amount of acceptance and love,” Esther says. Becker’s parents were Holocaust survivors and he grew up speaking Yiddish.
The Beckers raised nine children here. “We were very blessed,” the rabbi says. “We included our children in our outreach activities. The life of our family and the life of our children was the life of the community. They developed a love of every Jew while growing up here in Tucson.”
“Rabbi and I look at ourselves as simple messengers for the community. The people of Tucson are really special,” Esther adds.
To participate in the fundraising campaign, visit www.causematch.com/en/projects/tucsontorah-2019 or call Esther Becker at 591-7680 to make a pledge that can be paid over time. Either way, matching donors will quadruple donations. To RSVP for the 40th-anniversary dinner, visit www.tucsontorah.org. For more information, contact Jeff DuBois at 248-8663 or [email protected].
Cheryl Toff is a Tucson Jewish community volunteer. AJP Executive Editor Phyllis Braun contributed to this article.