The Arizona Jewish Historical Society held a tribute to Rabbi Albert Plotkin Feb. 15 in the newly restored sanctuary at the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center. The tribute was the first such community event to be held in the space since its 2002 purchase and subsequent renovation by AJHS.
The downtown Phoenix synagogue began life as Temple Beth Israel in 1920, the same year that Plotkin was born; the rabbi led the congregation from 1955 to 1991, and served as rabbi emeritus until his death Feb. 3.
Lawrence Bell, executive director of AJHS, estimates that about 100 people attended; he said that additional tributes to Plotkin, celebrating different aspects of the rabbi's life and career in Phoenix, will be held throughout the year.
"Probably the next thing we'd like to do is something that recognizes his work in encouraging interfaith relations," Bell said.
First to offer a tribute was Larry Cutler, who described how the minister of the Mexican Baptist church that was occupying the Culver Street building at the time called Plotkin to let him know that his church was moving and he thought the building should be back in the hands of the Jewish community.
"Some of the board members (of the AJHS) resigned over the matter," Cutler recalled. "They felt the building should only be acquired if it could be moved to the (Scottsdale) JCC campus." But other AJHS board members and supporters, such as Beryl Morton and Plotkin, prevailed.
Cutler made the purchase financially possible and named the new center after his parents, who had been killed in a car crash, and Plotkin.
Cutler recalled Plotkin giving him "a little Torah" when he started Hebrew school with him, in 1959. Fifty years later, Cutler still has it.
Irv Pearlstein, who followed Cutler, met Plotkin when the latter moved here in 1955. "I noticed there was something a little different, a little unusual about this man," Pearlstein told the audience. "This man could mix with, converse with, average people as if they were important, and important people as if they were average." Pearlstein called Plotkin "the sweetest, kindest, most caring, intelligent, happy person," and said that in all his 93 years, he has never met anyone else like him.
Rabbi Maynard Bell talked about who "Al" was for him: a reliable constant who adjusted admirably to change, and someone who never held grudges but instead knew how "to let go and move on." Bell noted that the rabbi was a magnet for people, with an almost unmatched ability to remember faces and names, and he said that when Plotkin died, a "one-word eulogy" sprang to mind: "ebullient."
"I don't think his kind of longevity and his kind of constancy will ever be matched," Bell said.
Introduced as the past president of and "the engine behind" the AJHS, Jerry Lewkowitz told the audience that he refers to Plotkin as "Mr. Jewish Phoenix." He noted that "this edifice, this beautiful gorgeous heritage center, was named for Rabbi Plotkin. The floor itself is the original floor. The windows are the original windows. It just almost makes you want to cry to walk in here."
Lewkowitz met Plotkin in 1949, he said, when Lewkowitz was a student at the University of Washington and Plotkin was an assistant rabbi at a Spokane synagogue. Lewkowitz said the rabbi looked so young at the time that the Jewish fraternity to which Lewkowitz belonged tried to get Plotkin as a member.
After Lewkowitz spoke, tenor Ken Goodenberger, who had opened the program with a performance of the Puccini aria "Nessun Dorma," (one of Plotkin's favorites), sang "E Lucevan l'Estelle," also by Puccini. The aria sounds somber, Goodenberger explained, but it's not; the man singing has been condemned to die, but instead of being maudlin, he remembers a night of passion, "a word that applies to Rabbi Plotkin."
Goodenberger, who sang in the choir at Congregation Beth Israel and recalled hearing the rabbi on many High Holidays, said he had known "so few men who were so full of joie de vivre" as Plotkin.
After the tribute, visitors admired the photographs of Plotkin that hung in the sanctuary, and toured the AJHS facility, which is not yet open to the public.
"Until (our museum) is finished we won't have a grand opening," Bell explained, "but we'll have a more formal opening on April 18 so the public can come see the facility and learn what we've done to restore it and also learn about our vision as we move forward with the museum."
Bell said that the AJHS sees the center itself, located at 122 E. Culver St., in downtown Phoenix, as a tribute to Plotkin. "The kinds of things we're going to be doing with the heritage center are the kinds of things Rabbi Plotkin worked for: building a strong Jewish community for all different kinds of Jews, trying to unify the Jewish community, and also providing a place where the community can reach out to people of other faiths."