Jewish Routes // Arizona

By | May 19, 2014

Phoenix & Tucson

Defying stereotypes, early Jewish pioneers in Arizona were not just storeowners and bankers, but cowboys, lawmen, ranchers and entertainers. The first known Jewish settler was the German-born Nathan Benjamin Appel, who headed west in 1856 from New York to St. Louis, then followed the Santa Fe Trail to the territory’s new capital, Tucson. Appel went on to lead a colorful life in the Wild West: He married a Catholic woman (there were no Jewish women in the territory), had ten children, and was a sheriff, saloon owner, wagon train leader and merchant. Loyal to his heritage, upon his death in 1901, Appel had a Jewish funeral led by a rabbi.

For Appel, like the others who followed him, facing danger and adversity was part of everyday life. But despite blistering weather, wars and hostilities with Native Americans, the first Jews worked tirelessly, starting dry goods stores and banks and investing in mining and real estate. Prominent Jewish pioneers Phillip Drachman and his cousin, Isaac Goldberg, opened a well-known general store in Tucson. In 1890, the Arizona Daily Citizen praised Drachman as “one of our most popular and respected citizens”  who “has always taken an active part in the affairs of the city…and has held several important offices.” In 1886, Jacob Mansfield, who owned a bookstore with a lending library, served on the first Board of Regents of the University of Arizona and helped obtain land for its first buildings. Jews were active citizens in Tucson and throughout the territory, holding political offices in towns large and small as well as the territorial government.

But it wasn’t only cloth and sundries that Jewish men imported to the Arizona Territory. Jewish women were in short supply, and young men traveled to New York, Tennessee or California to find Jewish wives. In 1884, 21 of these brides organized Tucson’s Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society with the goal of “aiding the needy in times of distress.” Funds were raised through teas, bazaars, luncheons and the Purim Ball, which was the talk of the town. The Society also tackled the task of supporting Arizona’s first synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, which opened its doors in Tucson just in time for Rosh Hashanah in 1910.


First Jewish Mayor of Tucson, Charles Strauss and his son.

Jews settled in Phoenix a little later than they did in Tucson. One of the first was Emil Ganz, a successful businessman and banker who went on to serve as the town’s mayor in the late 1880s. By the 1890s, several major Jewish retail merchants made their mark in Phoenix, establishing the New York Store, the Boston Store and Goldwater’s Department Store. Barry Goldwater, the Arizona senator and 1964 presidential candidate, known as “Mr. Conservative” and an Episcopalian, was descended from the Goldwater family. As Jewish Phoenix community members became more prosperous, they too built Jewish institutions and entered political life. Beth Israel Jewish Cemetery sits on land bequeathed in 1889 by Michael Wormser, a prominent French-born Jewish farmer and businessman. Phoenix’s first Jewish congregation, Temple Beth Israel, was started in 1920. And in the political realm, a trailblazing Jewess, Freeda Marks, served in 1922 as the minority Republican leader of the Arizona State Legislature and co-founded the Phoenix chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women.

Jews also settled in other parts of the state. In addition to Tucson and Phoenix, the towns of Yuma, Prescott, Bisbee and Tombstone all had Jewish mayors between 1883 and 1919. Tombstone, a tough silver-mining town notorious for the bloody 1881 shootout at the O.K. Corral between sheriff Wyatt Earp and the Clanton clan, was home to at least 75 Jewish families during its boom years of 1880 to 1884. Most were merchants, including future mayor Abraham Emanuel, who was the superintendent of the town’s water, mill and lumber company, and the owners of the stationery, cigar and tobacco store, the Golden Eagle Saloon and the barbershop. The Jewish barber, Emil Marks, left town, unnerved by the Clantons’ habit of resting their six shooters on their chests while he shaved them. But the most famous Jew in town was Josephine Sarah Marcus, who had fled her wealthy San Francisco German-Jewish upbringing for a career on the stage. It was in Tombstone that “Sadie” met and fell in love with sharpshooter Earp, whom she later married.

Lured by cacti, desert sands, plenty of sunshine and a dry climate, combined with modern amenities such as air-conditioning, Jews—like everyone else—have continued to move to the Southwest. Today Tucson has a Jewish population totaling nearly 25,000 and more than a dozen synagogues. And like a younger sibling who outgrows the elder, Phoenix—now the state capital—boasts one of the largest Jewish communities in the United States, with nearly 100,000 members. It has more than 40 congregations, many of them in nearby Scottsdale, which is dotted with golf courses and is home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert masterpiece, Taliesin West, nestled in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains.


The J. Goldwater & Brothers store in Prescott, AZ.

Members of the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society of Tucson.


Both cities are home to active Jewish programming, including annual film festivals, which have reflected the community’s growth. “We started from a little film festival with the screening of three films in November 1996 at Camelview in Scottsdale, and now we host 24 screenings at three different locations,” says Bob Segelbaum, executive director of the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival. Other activities include Arizona Adventurers, the Phoenix outdoor experience group for Jewish singles and couples, and Chabad of Tucson’s Chanukah Party at the city’s Reid Park Zoo. 

Rabbi Robert Eisen, spiritual leader of Tucson’s Congregation Anshei Israel, founded in 1930, looks back at the state’s early Jewish pioneers with pride. “The Jewish founders of Arizona built very strong foundations enabling our present Jewish communities to flourish,” he says. “Although Arizona has been weathering the same economic storm as the rest of the country, we are still looking forward to a very bright future (no pun intended). Arizona is a very good place to be!”—Diane Heiman

Tucson region heritage sites


Jewish History Museum 

The museum is located in Temple Emanu-El’s 1910 building, home to the city’s first congregation, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A permanent collection of historical objects and rotating exhibits tells the stories of Jewish pioneers who began moving westward in the 1800s.



Historic Jewish Cemetery & Monument at Boothill 

In Tombstone, approximately 70 miles south of Tucson, local Jews were buried in a section separate from the Silver Rush section in this 1879 cemetery. A monument to honor the Jewish pioneers who helped settle the West was erected during the cemetery’s restoration, led by the efforts of Judge C. Lawrence Huerta, a Yaqui Indian. The monument is adorned with both Jewish and Indian symbols. Ceremonial items including soil from Israel are sealed inside.


Holocaust History Center

Through oral histories and artifacts, the Holocaust History Center describes Nazi persecution and shares the personal stories of survivors who now call Southern Arizona home. The center—located in a separate section of the Jewish History Museum—includes a wall of photographs of more than 100 local survivors.


Sculpture Garden at the Tucson Jewish Community Center

Works of art from around the world grace the grounds of this outdoor sculpture garden. Sculptures from juried exhibitions and pieces from the permanent collection are available for purchase.

Phoenix  region heritage sites


Plotkin Judaica Museum at Congregation Beth Israel, Scottsdale

The museum’s permanent collection contains almost 1,000 Jewish artifacts from around the world. One highlight is a reconstructed composite Sephardic synagogue copied from a small family synagogue in Tunisia. A biblical garden featuring plants mentioned in the Bible can be found on the grounds of the synagogue.


Phoenix Art Museum

The museum includes works of art by many famous Jewish artists including Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Michal Rovner and Sol LeWitt.


Jewish War Veterans Memorial Marker

This memorial marker was placed in 1950 to honor the memory of the eight Jewish Arizonans who lost their lives while serving in World War II. The marker can be found in Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, in front of the Arizona state capitol.


Cutler Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center 

Housed in the original home of Temple Israel built in 1921, the Heritage Center is operated by the Arizona Jewish Historical Society. This mission-style building is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Phoenix Point of Pride. The center hosts a museum gallery.

Phoenix  region cultural sites

Israel 66 Celebration
A community-wide Yom Ha’atzmaut Israel celebration featuring Judaica from local southern Arizona artists, music, food and more.
May 14, 2014


Tucson International 

Jewish Film Festival
The 24th annual festival provides a showcase for American, Israeli and international independent films with Jewish themes.
January 2015


Young Jewish Tucson
Jewish adults (22-45) enjoy events each month.

Phoenix  region cultural sites

Yom Ha’atzmaut­—Israel Independence Day

An annual community-wide celebration that features music, vendors, food and children’s activities.
May 10, 2014
Valley of the Sun JCC


Limmud Arizona

A one-day celebration of Jewish life and learning.
February 8, 2015


Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival

The 19th annual festival shows Jewish-themed films from around the world.
February 8–22, 2015


Arizona Adventurers

An all-volunteer Jewish outdoor club with singles and couples.

One thought on “Jewish Routes // Arizona

  1. teri Green says:

    A remarkable history of the Jews of Arizona. My husband and I moved to the southwest last year and all the Jews we met are friendly and happy to help a midwestern gal get used to the cactus lifestyle. Thanks for your article, I found it very interesting.


    Atlas Biomechanics

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