Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

February 10, 2010


Host: Ted Simons

Rabbi Plotkin & the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center


  • One of the Valley’s premier leaders in the Jewish and interfaith communities, Rabbi Albert Plotkin, died February 5th at the age of 89. Phoenix Attorney Paul Eckstein, who was in Rabbi Plotkin’s first confirmation class at Temple Beth Israel in 1956, shares his memories about Rabbi Plotkin. Plus, we take a look at the new Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center that’s opening in the newly restored building that was the first Jewish synagogue in Phoenix.
Guests:
  • Paul Eckstein - Attorney


View Transcript
Ted Simons: RABBI ALBERT PLOTKIN, ONE OF THE VALLEY'S MOST BELOVED COMMUNITY LEADERS DIED LAST WEEK AT THE AGE OF 89. HE GRADUATED FROM NOTRE DAME UNIVERSITY AT THE TOP OF HIS CLASS. HE CAME TO PHOENIX IN 1955 TO LEAD THE TEMPLE BETH ISRAEL CONGREGATION AND BECOME A PROMINENT LEADER IN THE VALLEY'S JEWISH COMMUNITY. HE'S REMEMBERED OF BRINGING PEOPLE CLOSER OF ALL STATES AND THAT TRADITION IS EXPECTED TO CONTINUE, I SHOULD SAY AT A NEW JEWISH EDUCATION CENTER THAT BEARS THE RABBI'S NAME. THE CENTER IS RIGHT NEXT TO THE BURTON BAR LIBRARY IN PHOENIX. AND AS DAVID MAJURE REPORTS. IT'S GOT A RATHER SIGNIFICANT PAST.

PKG: NOT IN 1921 IS THE VALLEY'S FIRST JEWISH SYNAGOGUE THIS BUILDING FACED AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE IN 2001. THAT'S WHEN RABBI ALBERT PLOTKIN LEARNED IT MIGHT BE SOLD TO DEVELOPERS.
RABBI PLOTKIN TOOK THAT KNOWLEDGE TO THE JEWISH COMMUNITY AND THE JEWISH HISTORICAL SOCIETY. THEY SCRAMBLED TOGETHER ENOUGH MONEY TO PURCHASE THE FACILITY.
THE PRICE $540,000.
SO WHEN THIS BUILDING WAS FIRST CONSTRUCTED, IT'S INTERESTING THAT IT COST $14,000 TO BUILD THE FACILITY AND, OF COURSE, THE IRONY IS WE SPENT $2.5 MILLION TO RESTORE IT SO IF ONLY THINGS TODAY WOULD HAVE COST AS THEY DID IN 1921.
AFTER MAJOR FUND-RAISING, THE BUILDING WAS RESTORED TO A HISTORICALLY ACCURATE VERSION OF THE ORIGINAL.
ORIGINAL FLOOR. THE WINDOWS HERE ARE ORIGINAL. PEOPLE KNOW A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THESE OLD WINDOWS, THEY HAVE A ROPE LIKE A COUNTERWEIGHT SYSTEM TO KEEP THEM OPENED. THAT'S ALL BEEN PAINSTAKINGLY RESTORED LIKE I SAY. OUR VISION FOR THIS PLACE IN THE FUTURE, THIS IS ACTUALLY GOING TO BE WHERE OUR MUSEUM GALLERY SPACE IS AND SO THE ACTUAL EXHIBITS PEOPLE WILL COME AND LOOK AT AND LEARN FROM, THE EDUCATIONAL ACTIVITIES WILL TAKE PLACE IN HERE. IT'S A SMALL SPACE BUT WE REALLY INTEND TO TRY TO UTILIZE TECHNOLOGY AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE TO REALLY MAXIMIZE THE ADVANTAGES OF IT. I THINK IT'LL MAKE A WONDERFUL GALLERY.
FUND-RAISING FOR THE MUSEUM CONTINUES BUT SOON THE ARIZONA JEWISH HISTORICAL SOCIETY WILL REOPEN THE BUILDING AS THE CUTLER PLOTKIN JEWISH HERITAGE CENTER.
REALLY A PLACE WHERE PEOPLE OF ALL DIFFERENT FAITHS COULD COME AND LEARN ABOUT EACH OTHER AND ALSO TO LEARN ABOUT THE JEWISH EXPERIENCE IN ARIZONA.
HE SAYS RABBI PLOTKIN WANTED IT THAT WAY.
I REALLY SEE THIS AS IN MANY WAYS FULFILLING MUCH OF HIS LEGACY, THIS CENTER WILL DO MANY OF THE THINGS HE TRIED TO DO.
LIKE PROMOTING INTERFAITH EDUCATION AND BRINGING DIVERSE COMMUNITIES CLOSER TOGETHER.
AND THE BUILDING ITSELF THAT WE'RE SITTING IN IS AN EXAMPLE OF THIS. I MEAN, WHAT COULD BE MORE AMERICAN IN A WAY THAN HAVING A BUILDING THAT WAS A JEWISH SYNAGOGUE, IT BECAME A CHINESE SPEAKING BAPTIST CHURCH AND THEN BECAME A SPANISH-SPEAKING CHURCH AFTER THAT AND SO ALL OF THESE DIFFERENT IMPORTANT ETHNIC COMMUNITIES IN PHOENIX ALL SHARED THIS SPACE. IT'S HERE IN THE BONES OF THE BUILDING. THE HISTORY OF PHOENIX IS WRITTEN IN THIS STRUCTURE. AND IT'S A HISTORY THAT INVOLVES A LOT OF DIVERSITY.

Ted Simons: FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE CUTLER PLOTKIN JEWISH HERITAGE CENTER, VISIT THE JEWISH HISTORICAL SOCIETY ON LINE AT WWW.AZJHS.ORG.

Ted Simons: HERE TO SHARE HIS THOUGHTS ABOUT RABBI PLOTKIN IS PHOENIX ATTORNEY PAUL ECKSTEIN WHO WAS PART OF PLOTKIN'S FIRST CONFIRMATION CLASS AT TEMPLE BETH ISRAEL ALL THE WAY BACK IN 1956. THANK YOU FOR JOINING US.

Paul Eckstein: THANK YOU, TED.

Ted Simons: TALK MORE ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE RABBI.

Paul Eckstein: I FIRST MET THE RABBI AS YOU NOTED IN 1955-'56 AS A MEMBER OF HIS FIRST CONFIRMATION CLASS. I GOT THE TO SAY IT WAS ALMOST HIS LAST CONFIRMATION CLASS. WE WERE ABOUT AS UNRULY AS ANY GROUP COULD BE. I THINK WE WERE SENT BY GOD TO TEST THE RABBI. HE PASSED THE TEST. AND HE MANAGED TO STICK AROUND FOR AWHILE. HE WAS UNLIKE THE TRADITIONAL RABBI. HE WAS SOMEONE WHO WAS A APPROACHABLE AND A LOT OF RABBIS AT THAT TIME WERE SCHOLARS AND AUSTERE AND NOT SO APPROACHABLE. HE WAS JUST THE OPPOSITE. HE WAS THE LIFE OF THE PARTY, A GREAT DANCER, A GREAT SINGER AND A GREAT STORY TELLER.

Ted Simons: HE SOUNDS AS IF HE WAS INTERESTED IN THINGS, CURIOUS IN THINGS, ENERGETIC, OPTIMISTIC, ALL THOSE AND MORE.

Paul Eckstein: I CAN'T THINK OF ANYTHING HE WASN'T INTERESTED IN. HE WAS A RABBI AND THEREFORE INTERESTED IN THEOLOGY AND VERY MUCH A SCHOLAR OF THE PROFIT JEREMIAH. HE WAS SOMEONE WHO WAS ACTIVE IN THE PHOENIX COMMUNITY, CERTAINLY THE JEWISH COMMUNITY AND ABOUT EVERY JEWISH ORGANIZATION THAT ONE COULD IMAGINE AND EVERY JEWISH ORGANIZATION THAT EXISTED AT THE TIME AND WAS A LEADER IN THE ECUMENICAL MOVEMENT IN PHOENIX AND CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT. A TENNIS PLAYER ALTHOUGH AS HE SAID A NOT GREAT TENNIS PLAYER BUT ONE THAT ENJOYED IT HE REALLY GOT THE MOST OUT OF LIFE. I CAN'T IMAGINE ANYONE GETTING MORE OUT OF LIFE THAN RABBI PLOTKIN DID.

Ted Simons: HOW IMPORTANT AND/OR INFLUENTIAL WAS THE RABBI? WE'LL START WITH THE PHOENIX JEWISH COMMUNITY AND THEN TO THE ENTIRE COMMUNITY.

Paul Eckstein: THERE ARE TODAY I THINK SOMETHING LIKE 36 SYNAGOGUES IN THE PHOENIX AREA. WHEN HE CAME TO TOWN, THERE WERE THREE. HE WAS INSTRUMENTAL IN BUILDING, HELP BUILDING THE JEWISH COMMUNITY AND AMONG THE RABBIS WHEN HE WAS AN ACTIVE RABBI, HE WAS REGARDED AS THE LEADER OF THE RABBINICAL COUNCIL IN PHOENIX. BUT THAT WASN'T ALL HE DID. HE WAS REALLY A LEADER IN THE COMMUNITY IN PHOENIX. HE REALLY FOUNDED AND LED THE ECUMENICAL MOVEMENT IN THIS CITY.

Ted Simons: I WAS GOING TO SAY THE INTERFAITH MOVEMENT IN THE PHOENIX METROPOLITAN AREA, IT SOUNDS LIKE HE WAS RIGHT THERE AT THE FOREFRONT. HOW IMPORTANT THAT WAS TO HIM?

Paul Eckstein: IT WAS -- I WOULDN'T SAY EVERYTHING BUT IT WAS A LOT. AND UNTIL VIRTUALLY HIS DYING DAY, SEVEN DAYS BEFORE HE DIED, HE GAVE A 10-MINUTE SERMON AT ALL SAINTS EPISCOPAL CHURCH WHERE HE WAS THE RABBI-IN-RESIDENT AND RECEIVED A STANDING OVATION AT THE END OF HIS TALK. HE WAS -- I THINK IN PART BECAUSE HE WAS EDUCATED AT NOTRE DAME, SOMEONE WHO WAS COMFORTABLE IN THE NONJEWISH COMMUNITY. MANY RABBIS ARE RAISED SOLELY IN THE JEWISH COMMUNITY AND DON'T HAVE CONTACT OUTSIDE OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY. RABBI PLOTKIN FROM HIS DAYS GROWING UP IN SOUTH BEND AND NOTRE DAME WAS VERY COMFORTABLE IN THE NONJEWISH WORLD.

Ted Simons: DO YOU THINK THAT BACKGROUND, BEING RAISED AS HE WAS AND BEING -- HAVING THE EDUCATION AT NOTRE DAME, COMING OUT TO ARIZONA -- KIND OF THE WILD WEST KIND OF A NEW FRONTIER KIND OF AN AREA, UM AND LEADING THE JEWISH COMMUNITY, WAS IT GOOD TO HAVE THAT KIND OF PERSONALITY AS OPPOSED TO THE MORE SCHOLARLY RABBI THAT YOU MENTIONED EARLIER IN THE INTERVIEW? IT WAS A PERFECT FIT IN OTHER WORDS THAT HE WAS HERE AT THAT TIME?

Paul Eckstein: IT WAS A PERFECT FIT. HIS PREDECESSOR, RABBI KROHN WHOSE NAME WAS RABBI ABRAHAM LINCOLN KROHN WAS SOMEONE WHO WAS ACTIVE IN THE COMMUNITY AS WELL, BUT I KNOW FROM MY PERSONAL ASSOCIATION WITH BOTH OF THEM THAT RABBI KROHN WAS NOT AS OPEN AND MORE OF THE OLD SCHOOL RABBI THAT RABBI PLOTKIN. HE -- IN A WAY HE WAS DESTINED TO COME TO PHOENIX AND HAD BETH ISRAEL AND DESTINED TO BE A RABBI. HE WAS BORN ON THE JEWISH NEW YEAR IN 1920, IN ROSH HASHANAH 1920. TEMPLE BETH ISRAEL WAS CREATED IN 1920, WAS FOUNDED IN 1920. AND BEING BORN ON THE JEWISH NEW YEAR WAS HARD TO BE ANYTHING BUT A RABBI EVEN THOUGH HE WAS A TALENTED YOUNG MAN AND THROUGHOUT HIS LIFE, HE HAD THOUGHT OF GOING INTO VAUDEVILLE. HE WAS A SINGER, A DANCER, AN ACTOR AND PEOPLE WERE SURPRISED AT NOTRE DAME THAT HE DECIDED TO GO INTO THE RABBINANT AS OPPOSED TO STRIKE IT BIG ON BROADWAY.

Ted Simons: AS FAR AS THE JEWISH COMMUNITY IS CONCERNED, DO YOU SEE IDEAS, PHILOSOPHIES OF LIFE THAT YOU SEEM TO DESCRIBE WITH THE RABBI, VAUDEVILLE. DO YOU NOW SEE THAT AS SOMETHING THIS COMMUNITY EMBRACES NOW THAN WOULD HAVE OTHERWISE?

Paul Eckstein: I THINK HE CERTAINLY WAS INFLUENTIAL IN THAT. I LISTENED TO A LOT OF HIS SERMONS. WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I DIDN'T ALWAYS UNDERSTAND THEM BUT LATER IN LIFE, I KEPT HEARING THIS PHRASE THAT HE USED IN HEBREW -- [ SPEAKING IN HEBREW ] IT'S MOSES' CHARGE TO JOSHUA AS THEY'RE ABOUT TO GO INTO THE PROMISED LAND IT TRANSLATES "BE STRONG AND OF GOOD COURAGE." THAT WAS HIS MANTRA IN MANY WAYS, BE STRONG AND OF GOOD COURAGE. HE SAID IT SO OFTEN. HE DIDN'T END EVERY SERMON THAT WAY BUT DID HE MANY AND THAT'S HOW I REMEMBER HIM.

Ted Simons: REMARKABLE MAN. PAUL, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR SHARING YOUR THOUGHTS.

Paul Eckstein: THANK YOU, TED.

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