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Tucson’s Jewish history

22 Jan 2016 by BizDESIGN in Building Community, WINTER 2016

By Monica Surfaro Spigelman –

Holocaust Remembered
Linking Past Tragedy to Current Human Rights Issues

Along a downtown road less traveled, a campus celebrating the powerful and fascinating corners of Tucson’s Jewish history is emerging.

Soon, the small 1880s barrio home that adjoins the Jewish History Museum at 564 S. Stone Ave. will debut as Tucson’s own Holocaust History Center. After almost a year of restoration, collaborators at the Jewish History Museum and the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona have created an environment that ties the inspiring personal stories of Holocaust survivors who settled in the region to contemporary human rights issues.

A ribbon-cutting and public lecture are planned on Feb. 21 for the signature installations and reflection gardens at the Holocaust History Center as well as reopening new exhibits in the historic Jewish History Museum.

“This does not intend to be grandiose, but rather to be a campus that is unique with world-class style, just like Tucson is unique in the world,” said Jewish History Museum Board President Dr. Barry Friedman.

More than 230 Holocaust survivors from 18 nations have made Southern Arizona their home during the post-war era. Photos of many of them line a wall of remembrance. “Placing survivors front and center shows how, despite suffering and loss, many miraculously persevered to accomplish great things,” said Bryan Davis, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council and interim executive director of the Jewish History Museum.

In 2001, a group of local stewards formed a nonprofit organization to reopen the 1910 revival structure on South Stone Avenue – once the original
synagogue of the Arizona territory – as the Jewish History Museum. There had been iterations including a Mexican radio station in the building’s storied history after the Temple Emanu-El moved further east from downtown in the 1940s. The nonprofit meticulously preserved original woodwork and restored the synagogue-turned-museum as a showcase of collections depicting a rich regional Jewish history.

In 2012, the nonprofit acquired the adjacent 1880s territorial building, and within a year opened a 400-square foot exhibit, the first phase of an envisioned Holocaust History Center, in collaboration with the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.

The response to this tiny yet ultimately poignant and inspirational depiction of the Holocaust survivors who located to Tucson was immediate – more than 2,000 school children and thousands more adults visited. The powerful installation stirred momentum for a capital campaign to restore all 2,000 square feet of the house.

An original $750,000 capital campaign grew to $1.1 million in pledged support this past year, allowing restoration to begin in June 2015. “Everyone involved has a vision and a passion for this project,” said Joe Gootter, chair of the campaign’s fundraising cabinet. “We want education to be the cornerstone, where we inspire a constant exchange on the lessons of the Holocaust.” The success of this campaign allowed the buildings and gardens to be converted into a campus that provides both intimacy and uplifting spaciousness.

The new Holocaust History Center grabs attention along Stone Avenue with its preserved façade, use of distressed materials and novel touches including a front sculpture gallery. A think tank of interdisciplinary talent was responsible for the restoration, including locals SBBL Architecture + Planning and Kittle Design and Construction.

Also assisting in revamping the building’s educational and media zones were Tectonicus Constructs, founded by Benjamin Lepley, Open Lens Productions, founded by Jonathan VanBallenberghe, and Avitecture, whose founder Sidney Lissner recently moved to Tucson. The team, working in collaboration with the capital campaign committees, has ensured a multi-sensory and teachable experience throughout the campus.

Additional conservation and research areas are planned, including a library to house the nonprofit’s large collection of Holocaust-related literature and local Jewish history.

The welcoming front environment features a sculptural grid, depicting the original barrio and how it has been transformed by growth. In the rear, visitors exit the center onto an elevated terrace where there are private spaces framed by salvaged beams and steps down to reflection gardens.

“We are marrying the history of the Holocaust with contemporary human rights issues – drawing lines from past to present with the testimonial voice as our primary tool,” Davis said. “Every inch is being utilized, making this campus a space that is dense with opportunities for meaning making.”

Friedman said, “The restoration allows us to present the public with important works that honor a most unique aspect of this region’s cultural vitality.”

He hopes that communicating the stories of Holocaust survivors helps the campus become a pivotal gathering point in Tucson and also provides an unprecedented opportunity to highlight Tucson’s relevance to the global dialog about human rights.

“We want this to be a campus that inspires meaningful exchange about history and our individual abilities to influence the world into the future – and does this in ways that help everyone feel at home,” Friedman said.

The visual journey in the Jewish History Museum and Holocaust History Center campus is still unfolding. Visitors entering the center may notice a basket of stones – traditionally used on graves in Jewish cemeteries – as symbols of permanence. The stones seem well suited to honoring the importance of memory felt throughout, where the impact of the collections is just as lasting as the stones.

For updates, visit JewishHistoryMuseum.org.

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