While Congregation Lev Shalom, Flagstaff’s only egalitarian Jewish congregation, is more than 40 years old, it has undergone more changes and improvements in the last two years than ever before.
Having begun with only four families, the congregation never had a consistent rabbinic presence in the community, but rather a trickle of student and visiting rabbis.
Several years ago, however, the congregants began looking for a rabbi who would live in the community and found Rabbi Mindie Snyder. Snyder moved from the Valley to Flagstaff in August 2015, and since then, the congregation has made and continues to make tremendous strides.
“The difference from when I first arrived to now is truly night and day,” Snyder said.
For starters, the congregation has undergone a name change since Snyder’s arrival — switching from Congregation Heichal Baoranim to Congregation Lev Shalom. The congregants and Snyder have also worked together to create their first mission, vision and values statement.
“The best thing for me has truly been sitting down and talking with the community,” Snyder said. “There is a lot of diversity here in terms of what the people are looking for from their Jewish tradition.”
Congregation Lev Shalom does not just encompass Flagstaff, but also draws in a number of people who live two or three hours away in several directions. Congregation President Lanny Morrison calls the community scattered, explaining that it is encompassed by all of Arizona north of Sedona from the California border to the New Mexico border.
Despite covering so many miles, the Jewish community in Flagstaff and the surrounding area remains small. Morrison cited a master’s thesis written in 2007 that estimated Flagstaff’s Jewish population to be roughly 500 — many of whom were part of interfaith families.
“We might be small, but we definitely have visitors,” Snyder said.
There are other organized Jewish presences in Flagstaff. The Chabad of Flagstaff, which was founded by Rabbi Dovie and Chaya Shapiro in 2006, broke ground on a new 11,500-square-foot Jewish community center this past spring. There is also the Chabad Jewish Student Center at Northern Arizona University, as well as a Hillel. And now, Congregation Lev Shalom is really finding its footing.
The congregation recently hosted a couple of men from Israel who were adventuring around Flagstaff on vacation, as well as several young women who were biking across the country as part of a tzedakah project. Even more, the congregation saw an influx of visitors this past June when they hosted their first fundraiser, a concert by world-renowned pianist David Syme.
The concert, which was planned by the congregation’s first fundraising and development committee, was a success and ended up being 20 percent oversold. Snyder and the congregation hope to continue building upon this success and offer more cultural and experiential programming for the community.
Aside from fundraisers, Congregation Lev Shalom has a special fund, the Rabbi Nina Perlmutter Fund, through which it is able to bring in scholars to talk about a diverse array of topics. Last year, the congregation had an Islamic scholar come and address issues of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in order to bring a greater understanding to the community of what Islam is and is not.
“I knew that there was a large amount of work to be done and an enormous opportunity for growth when I accepted this position, but I have been blessed with many devoted congregants who have been willing to work with me to move things forward,” Snyder said.
Morrison called Snyder a blessing to the community. As a skilled Reform rabbi who is part of the clergy at the local hospital, Snyder is able to not only address the needs of the community, but also provide pastoral counseling to individuals in the hospital, as well as to their families who are going through difficult times.
“The other day, there was a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor who was about to pass away … his Hispanic wife, who was not Jewish, contacted us because she wanted to know how to sit shiva. We were able to talk to her about this, as well as death and dying from the Jewish perspective,” Morrison said. “At the funeral service, my wife — who is the cantorial soloist — was able to sing a [Sephardic] Ladino song and touch both the deceased and widow’s culture.”
Morrison admits that the congregation faces many challenges as it continues to grow, but feels confident that it has a strong future, in part because of Snyder’s presence in the community. While Morrison used to lead the congregation’s Torah study group, he is happy to merely be a participant now, letting Snyder be the teacher.
“Every time I talk to Rabbi Snyder, I learn something new, and everybody I know has this same wonderful experience,” Morrison said.
Looking forward, Snyder plans to focus on addressing the needs of congregants of different ages among the community, as well as special needs and LGBTQ groups. Additionally, the congregation hopes to increase Jewish education and partake in social action initiatives while collaborating with Jewish agencies, such as the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, whose leadership has been working closely with the congregation.
“Rabbi Mindie and [Congregation Lev Shalom board trustee] Bob Braudy’s leadership in Flagstaff is incredible. I and some of our volunteer leadership have spent time in Flagstaff helping them redefine their mission and increase revenue via fundraising,” Federation Executive Director Marty Haberer said. “I was amazed by how many members of their congregation came down to our Mega event last year and I look forward to many great collaborations with them in the near future.” JN
Jamie Cohen is a journalism student at Duke University. She was a summer intern at the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun JCC.