When Sheila Schwartz moved from New York to Phoenix in 1959 to marry Jess Schwartz, the Jewish community was small. “Maybe there were 10,000 Jews here at that time,” she says. Today, that number is estimated to exceed 120,000.
Schwartz has seen many changes in the Jewish community over the past 54 years, and according to Lawrence Bell, executive director of the Arizona Jewish Historical Society (AZJHS), there isn’t an organization in this community that hasn’t been touched by her in some way. “Many, many people have benefited from her generosity, and in particular, her support of Jewish education,” Bell says.
To that end, the AZJHS will honor Schwartz at a musical celebration featuring classical pianist Jeffrey Siegel on Sunday, Oct. 13, at the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix.
“We’re thrilled to be able to honor her and do it in a very fun way,” Bell says.
When Schwartz was approached about being honored, Bell says, she asked AZJHS to make sure the event was affordable for everyone who wants to attend. “It’s a fundraiser for us, but the base ticket price is only $36.”
For her, Jewish education is of foremost importance. “If the Jews want continuity, they’re not going to get it unless they educate their children,” Schwartz says. “I don’t think (students) can get their full Judaic education if they’re just (studying) for a bar or bat mitzvah.”
To ensure that Jewish children got the schooling they needed, Schwartz and her husband, Jess, who died in 1996, were among the founders of Phoenix Hebrew Academy. The Schwartz family gave a major gift to fund the Jess Schwartz Jewish Community High School, which opened in 2001 and closed in 2012.
Schwartz’s community engagement has many facets. She received the Jewish National Fund Tree of Life Award in 2003 and was awarded the Medal of Honor by the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix in 2010. In addition to being a member of Beth Joseph Congregation, she is involved with Arizona State University’s Center for Jewish Studies, Council for Jews With Special Needs, Partnership For Excellence in Jewish Education, Chrysalis (a shelter for victims of domestic violence) and The Wellness Community, among many others.
“The non-Jewish charities are more about community,” Schwartz says. “This is my home.”
Another way Schwartz has made an impact on the Valley’s Jewish community is by bringing young Jewish singles together. Back in the ’70s, she started organizing free parties for Jewish singles, informally know as “Schwartz parties,” when she discovered that many young people in the community didn’t know each other. It took her a year to gather the names and addresses of the young adults from various Jewish organizations. Her first event was held at the exclusive Jockey Club in Phoenix. “I had about 400 at the first dance,” she says. “When [people] left, they asked me ‘When is the next one?’” She hadn’t planned another dance, but it was such a success that Schwartz ended up organizing four parties a year at discos and clubs in Phoenix and Scottsdale for more than 20 years. Many matches were made at those parties, she says. “I’m still friendly with some of them.”
Would she consider doing it again? “It would be hard. I don’t have the list anymore.” Now people are meeting on JDate, she says.
Schwartz has three children: Frank, who is married to Jennifer and lives in Hawaii; Abby, who lives in Phoenix; and Lesley, who is married to Dr. Eli Hammer and lives in Phoenix. She also has six granddaughters: Elexa, Hayley, Jaclyn, Ava, Mandy and Danica.
Who: Arizona Jewish Historical Society
What: “A Celebration of Music and Philanthropy,” pianist Jeffrey Siegel performs “Great Jewish Composers”
When: 5:30 p.m. reception; 7 p.m. concert, Sunday, Oct. 13
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 203 W. Adams St., Phoenix
Cost: Program only, $36/$54; preferred seating and reception, $180; $500 VIP
Contact: 602-241-7870 or azjhs.org