THE FIRST SYNAGOGUE
Rhoda Abeshaus reads over a pamphlet from the grand opening of the Molly Blank Jewish Community Center, brushing her hand over its thick pages. An artist rendering of the large building shows a modern space, squared, with windows lit by painted sunlight.
Abeshaus, who started Flagstaff’s first synagogue in the 1970s, was in the hospital when the Molly Blank center opened. But someone recorded the ceremony and brought the video to her hospital bed. In it was a surprise that still brings Abeshaus to tears. She watched as Rabbi Dovi Shapiro bemoaned her absence and thanked her husband Merrill for all they’d done; suddenly someone from the crowd shouted her name, and slowly all nearly-700 people joined in to chant “Rhoda, Rhoda, Rhoda.”
Abeshaus is one of 21 women featured the Resilience: Women in Flagstaff’s Past and Present exhibit and is responsible for starting Heichal Baoranim, which translates roughly to Temple in the Pines, nearly 50 years ago now. She and her husband used to host Friday and Saturday services in their home. It was not long after moving to Flagstaff that the Abeshauses began listing their number under “Synagogue” in the yellow pages of the phonebook.
The Abeshauses moved to Arizona from Pottsville, Pennsylvania in in the late 1960s, leaving a large community of about 250 Jewish families first for Tuba City, where Merrill was doing his medical residency as an orthopedist. Two of the couple’s four children were born in Pennsylvania, the other two in Tuba City. By the time the younger kids were born, Abeshaus had fallen in love with Arizona.
“At our farewell dinner one of the other doctors’ wives said, ‘When you get sand in your shoes it’s hard to get rid of, and then you find that you just always want it there,’ and that’s exactly how it felt,” Abeshaus said.
The family stayed in Tuba City for three years, relocating to Flagstaff in 1972, a town where Judaism was practically nonexistent at the time. The day they arrived, Merrill began to set up one of the first orthopedic practices in town and Abeshaus scanned the phone book for “Jewish sounding names.”
“We needed a Jewish community. We wanted our children to have more than just [going to Phoenix for the high holidays.] We wanted our children to have a Jewish education, and we couldn’t do it alone,” Abeshaus said.
Soon a core of two, then three, then four families took turns hosting services at their homes. Abeshaus could perform Friday night services and another of their friends was able to do Saturdays and could read Torah, the Jewish Holy book. During the early days, the families were loaned a Torah by a synagogue in Phoenix. They eventually bought their first one for $5,000. A Torah runs anywhere from $35,000 to $120,000 and must be handwritten by a trained scribe, called a Sofer. The process can take up to a year and a half. The smaller the scroll, the heftier the price-tag.
After a few years moving between homes for services, the Abeshauses and their friends purchased a building for Heichal Baoranim—a former home turned credit union, turned church—on 7th Avenue and Patterson Street, now Congregation Lev Shalom.
“We started it from the ground up, and all the children grew up there in that synagogue.”
Then she asked: “Have you ever seen Field of Dreams? It’s like that line, ‘If you build it they will come,'” and we’ve certainly seen it happen that way,” she said.
Abeshaus stands up and walks to a China cabinet where she pulls out a small personal Torah encased in a Plexiglas case. She turns the scroll that moves its reader from page to page and points to the lettering—Hebrew words with some letters extended so the margins are the exact same width on each page—as she reminisces over the days of prayers held in living rooms and food prepared for Rosh Hashana in family kitchens, the days in which services would be postponed if they overlapped with the big football game between high school rivals Flagstaff High and Coconino.
The Abeshauses moved to Chabad of Flagstaff 14 years ago, leaving Heichal Baoranim under new leadership after decades of running the synagogue. Though she wasn’t able to attend the opening ceremony for the Molly Blank center, Abeshaus is slowly regaining her strength and has since been able to visit. Last week she attended synagogue for the first time since becoming sick more than two months ago.
“I missed it horribly,” Abeshaus said.
One of the first things visitors see when they walk through the door of the Murdoch Community Center is a photograph of children at Flagstaff’s Dunbar School. Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans admired it often as a young girl, a jumble of students at the formerly segregated school staring back at the camera. One particular face always stuck out to Evans—that of a girl, 4, maybe 5 years old holding a stuffed rabbit.
“I remember when I first saw it. I knew that little girl, but why did I know her?” Evans said.
Then one summer, her aunt visited town, as she had many times before, and Evans got her answer.
“My aunt was like, ‘You don’t know your own mother?’” Evans said with a laugh.
Evans is one of 21 women featured in Resilience: Women in Flagstaff’s Past and Present, as is her aunt, Joan Dorsey—the first black flight attendant for American Airlines.
Evans joined Flagstaff City Council in 2008, later running for mayor and winning in 2016. The decision to enter politics was one prompted by her fight to save the Dunbar School from demolition. The city was slated to sell the building, but Evans, along with the Southside Community Association, fought to keep it standing. The push proved successful and the school was renamed and re-designated as the Murdoch Community Center, a place that now serves as a historical landmark and community gathering space. The Dunbar School was desegregated in 1954.
“I grew up with stories of Dunbar. Then when I heard that the city was looking to sell it and tear it down, I knew we needed to save it,” Evans said. “This is a part of history. I grew up with an appreciation of this history, knowing where you come from, knowing not to make the same mistakes again.”
Joining council all those years ago proved to be a steep learning curve for Evans, she said, and something she never imagined would be her career path.
“I don’t think my younger self would have comprehended what that was. I had no clue about politics until late 2005,” Evans said. “Being mayor, council, public policy, none of that was within my consciousness as a kid, so I think if I went back and said, ‘You’re going to be mayor,’ I can’t even tell you how my younger self would have reacted.”
Evans and her twin brother Ben, now a doctor practicing in Phoenix, grew up in Silar Homes, some of the first public housing established in Flagstaff. Though Evans remembers a beautiful childhood, she remains cognizant that it wasn’t always an easy one.
“We grew up in poverty,” she said. “I remember one summer where we only ate potatoes because they were 38 cents a pound. So we had fried potatoes, baked potatoes, mashed potatoes. But I also realized we probably had more to eat that summer than other people.”
Her mother being a single parent meant that Evans and her brother shared the same hobbies, among them ballet, choir and soccer, which the twins all took part in together.
When her brother wanted to play hockey in high school, Evans joined him. Encased in a glass vitrine at the Arizona Historical Society Pioneer Museum is a hockey stick that Evans and another player traded at a match in Houston. They saw each other across the rink, two girls on opposite sides playing on all-boys teams. Evans would spend her high school career playing as the only girl on Flagstaff High School’s North Stars. Her brother played goalie, she, left defense.
Her mother died of breast cancer the year before Evans herself was diagnosed—the same year she began her bid for mayor. Evans decided not to make the news public, but continued campaigning with a team of people that helped her juggle her run with the cancer treatment.
The word resilience is not one Evans thought applied to her, but when Bill Peterson of AZHS approached her about it, she began to parse the term carefully.
“I don’t think people consciously think about being resilient, but I do think we are resilient. I’m starting to pay more attention to that word, and have started pointing out to people who are being resilient. Part of my resiliency might be that I’m just kind of stubborn and I’m gonna do what people tell me I can’t do, but the other part is that I have people that believed in me,” Evans said.
Though her mother didn't live to see Evans become mayor, Evans’ daughter Destiny, brother and father were at her first swearing in. Evans had reunited with her father a number of years after her mom’s death after finding his name online. She saw him for the first time at her daughter’s sweet 16 mass. She and her father have since become very close. He even shadowed her at work a couple months ago.
Evans is currently campaigning for a seat on Arizona’s Legislative District 6, a position that would place her in the Arizona House of Representatives.
“I love my community and I think it’s such an honor to be able to represent my community. I love the way we come together when we have major issues, the conversations we have about the struggles and the conflicts we have with our different values and the best way to move forward from them. I love the policy work and the relationships, the people. I can’t imagine a cooler job. And now that I’m campaigning for LD6 I look at that like, ‘Wow, now I have the opportunity to take that to a district-wide role,’” Evans said.
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