When Rabbi Victor Beck moved to Ahwatukee Foothills from Brooklyn, N.Y., several years ago, he found a different kind of Jewish community - one that was largely disconnected and somewhat transient.
"It's not very visible," he said. "There's really no sense of community."
His Eitz Chaim Congregation, founded in 2006, was an attempt to create a place for those who have lost touch with their faith and heritage.
"To be honest, I really didn't know what to expect. Being born and raised in New York, you're relatively insulated," Beck said. "A lot of people had told me that there were a lot of Jews in Ahwatukee that were scattered around and not affiliated with anybody. Frankly, that bothers me. If you're Jewish, you should have some identification with your Judaism, and if you don't, there's something we're not doing to foster it."
On Friday, Sept. 17, Beck, a trained opera singer who said he has performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and venues in Tel Aviv, London and Rome, meditated in his Ahwatukee home, preparing to sing "Kol Nidre," a haunting melody that would kick off the Yom Kippur holiday that evening. For Jews, Yom Kippur is the "Day of Atonement," one of the holiest days of the year.
On such holidays, Beck said attendance is double that of the usually Friday Sabbath service, which normally attracts about 30 people. Eitz Chaim aims to bring in people who may not have participated in services for some time, to help them reconnect, he said.
"I treat it more as a learner's service. If people have a question, I encourage them to ask it," he said. "The service that I run now is a very open service."
Beck moved to Arizona about five years ago, and began Eitz Chaim soon after.
"The Torah is called the eitz chaim, the ‘tree of life,'" he said. "It is a tree of life to all who grasp onto it, and all its ways are paths of peace."
Initially, the congregation met in a room at the Ahwatukee Foothills Prep charter school.
"Until they had a monsoon rip the roof off," Beck said.
After spending some time meeting at his home, services eventually moved to the East Valley Jewish Community Center in Chandler, southwest of Ray and Alma School roads, where it remains today.
"(The congregation) is basically split between Ahwatukee, Chandler, Gilbert and Maricopa. Many of the people that come haven't been to services in 25 to 30 years. They're at a time in their life where many feel they should reexamine," Beck said. "We do have an ebb and flow. We bring in more than we lose. The area itself is more fluid than I realized."
The idea is to make attendance easy for people who otherwise might not go to synagogue.
"I'm only interested in looking for people that are not affiliated somewhere else. If they are already going someplace and they're happy there, terrific," Beck said. "I'm concerned about people who are not affiliated."
He said his inspiration came from a rabbi he knew back in New York named Daniel Fingerer, whose door was always open to people with questions.
"I sat and marveled at the way he'd help them in one way or another," Beck said.
While he misses New York, Beck said he's happy to have made the move to Ahwatukee.
"I happen to love it," he said. "There are a lot of places in Arizona I could have lived. But this is where I wanted to be."
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