Post-Its | Religion & Jewish Life

New Torah Center Aims to Expand Jewish Learning in Tucson

Rabbi Yeshaya Levin leads a prayer minyan at Tucson Torah Center. Rabbi Yehuda Palgon, the center’s outreach director, is third from left. Photo:

In August 2023, six young rabbis, recent graduates of the Rabbinical Seminary of America in Queens, New York, moved to Tucson with their wives and children to start the Tucson Torah Center (TTC).

The TTC offers one-on-one and group Torah study for men and daily minyanim, plus classes and social programs for women, men, and children.

Its mission is to expand Jewish and Torah education for all ages, says Rabbi Yehuda Palgon, the center’s outreach director. He acknowledges that Tucson has a considerable Jewish infrastructure, including numerous synagogues.

“We’re not here to be a synagogue,” he says, explaining that TTC’s prayer services continue those held by a group known as the Tucson Community Kollel.

The kollel began about two years ago “under a dream of David and Leah Cutler to bring Judaism to all of Tucson, in an all-inclusive way,” says Raquel Gibly, a founding member of the kollel. “We are an Orthodox organization but we invite all Jews to come, learn, pray, and study with us.”

Gibly explains that when people say all-inclusive, they often forget that for the Orthodox, “if we don’t have fully kosher, fully Orthodox [programs], they are not included.”

Cutler donated the use of a building at 4141 E. River Road, on his Felicia’s Farm property, for the kollel, “and we started with about eight to 10 solid families,” Gibly says.

“We rebranded our combined mission as the Tucson Torah Center,” Palgon says.

Gibly explains that Cutler and his wife looked for an organization that would send rabbis here and found the Rabbinical Seminary of America (RSA). Cutler was in Israel and could not be reached.

The RSA, with a student body of around 400, is “known for being very community-oriented,” Palgon says, “and has become a go-to for people recruiting young rabbi families.”

After the Cutlers researched other communities that had created similar organizations, “it was decided that it would take a whole community of rabbis to do this, not just one,” Gibly says.

The Cutlers are also major donors and fundraisers for the project. In addition, the rabbis initiated a fundraiser before they arrived, which raised $425,000, the majority of which came from donors who are not Tucsonans.

Much of the TTC’s focus is on character development and Torah awareness, Palgon says, with discussions ranging from whether it is OK to throw away leftovers to why Jewish law specifies in which order you should tie your shoes.

The TTC isn’t about pushing people to be fully observant of Jewish ritual in an all-or-nothing scenario, Palgon says.

“We would love to give classes, have people more aware of the deeper meaning around their Judaism, and wherever that takes them will be their choice,” he says.

Before committing to the project, the TTC rabbis visited Tucson several times last spring and spoke with “a broad swath of people” from the Jewish community, Palgon says.

Isaac Rothschild met with the rabbis as part of a broader effort to explore increasing the Orthodox community’s engagement in local Jewish secular nonprofits. Rothschild, currently a member of the Jewish Philanthropies of Southern Arizona executive committee, shared the results of JPSA’s 2020 Jewish community survey, which indicated a “desire to deepen education within the Jewish community,” he says.

The TTC has been warmly received, Palgon says, with at least 20 new people at each of its events. Its Hanukkah event, held at the Harvey and Deanna Evenchik Center for Jewish Philanthropy, home of JPSA, drew 115 adults, he says.

Sara Heisler, holding the lulav and etrog, conducts a Tucson Torah Center Sukkot event for women. Photo:

TTC’s monthly women’s programs, such as a sushi-making class in January, have attracted about 50 participants.

Gibly, who taught the sushi-making session, says participants included university students and young professionals, “Orthodox and not.”

Rochie Leiter, who coordinates the women’s programs with Sara Heisler, says attendees are of different ages and backgrounds, “yet also connected by their Jewish heritage and Jewish faith.”

Participants have ranged from a 10-year-old girl to women 65-plus, Leiter says.

For October’s event, held after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel, “we did a pizza-making night and we also wrote letters to IDF soldiers, which was really powerful,” she says.

“We’ve gotten such tremendous feedback. I think people really appreciate having that once a month to come together and celebrate their Judaism,” she says.

The next women’s event will be a hamantash bake on March 6 at 7:30 p.m. at the TTC. RSVP to Leiter at (215) 734-3567.

Leiter says that although Tucson is very different from New York, where the families lived for the past few years, most of them had hoped to move to a smaller community, “to do this kind of work, to help grow and develop the Jewish community.”

TTC’s other programs include a weekly Chill Zone for kids and teens cosponsored by the Tucson Jewish Community Center.

The center also started a preschool, run by Rivky Levin, M.Ed., with 12 children from TTC families as its first pupils.

Palgon says they hope to see a yeshiva in Tucson, someday.

“We want our kids, coming out of their education, being able to walk into any synagogue in the world and be able to join the prayers comfortably,”  he says, explaining that his elementary school education gave him that knowledge.

Another long-term goal, Palgon says, is an eruv in the River Road area. An eruv is a wire boundary that, by Jewish law, extends the private domain of Jewish households, permitting activities within it that are normally forbidden in public on the Sabbath.

They hope to attract more Jewish families to the Riverhaven area, where the six TTC families are living, to create the kind of neighborhood where people can share Shabbat meals with their neighbors.

They also would like to see more kosher dining alternatives in Tucson and even a kosher supermarket, Palgon says, but that would need more kosher-oriented Jews to support it.

“We are very goal-driven,” he says.