It’s fitting that the miraculous story of how a Northern New Mexico Jewish community came to reclaim a historic place of worship will culminate on the first day of Hanukkah. The celebration, itself a remembrance of the Maccabees reclamation and rededication of a Jewish temple in the 2nd century BCE, begins on Sunday.
Members of Temple Montefiore in Las Vegas will begin this year’s winter festival in a newly purchased building—one they’d owned until about half a century ago—and which, by most accounts, was the first synagogue in the New Mexico Territory.
The long-sought purchase of the building, constructed in the late 1800s, comes as the Archdiocese of Santa Fe continues to sell property, in part to settle lawsuits filed on behalf of victims of child rape by clergy and the church’s subsequent cover-up.
Nancy Terr, vice president of the Las Vegas Jewish Community, a nonprofit group that organizes local Jewish celebrations and services, grew up in Las Vegas and was one of the driving forces behind purchasing the building from the church. Terr moved to Las Vegas as a child and jokes that her family doubled the Jewish population in town when they took up residence across the street from Milton Taichert, a legend in the Las Vegas Jewish community.
By the time Terr and her family moved to Las Vegas, the closest synagogue was an hour away in Santa Fe. She says the community had sold the building to the archdiocese after the city’s Jewish population dwindled so significantly that there were “more of them in the [Montefiore] cemetery,” than there were living in the area.
Over the years, Terr says, the Jewish population began to grow again and the archdiocese would periodically rent the space for high holidays and celebrations such as Terr’s son’s bar mitzvah. Members of the Las Vegas Jewish Community board asked from time to time about buying the building back, but were repeatedly shut down. That is, until the archdiocese began liquidating assets as part of its bankruptcy proceedings.
Board President Sheila Silverman says she wrote numerous letters to the archdiocese over the years and only got a positive reception when things got financially bad for the church.
“When they were having problems, we got the phone call,” Silverman says. “And we know the reason why, and it’s very sad.”
When Terr finally spoke to a lawyer representing the archdiocese, she says, there wasn’t an official asking price, but an urgency to sell both the building and the house next door. She says the church’s attorney implied there was another buyer interested in both structures and urged a quick sale. In another instance reminiscent of the origins of Hanukkah, Terr tells SFR the board only had a little more than $1,000 in the bank, but that she wasn’t deterred.
“[The attorney] says, ‘Well, do you have money?’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah,’” Terr recalls. “I lied.”
Terr declines to disclose the final purchase price, but says a previously reported amount of $352,000 is “close to accurate.” That figure does not account for the additional cost of buying the house next to the temple. But Terr isn’t shy about sharing that she felt like the final amount was a “crazy inflated price” and that it seemed like the archdiocese pressured the board to also buy the adjacent house.
“It was sort of a ransom and in Jewish tradition, you pay ransom whenever it’s asked,” Terr says.
The Archdiocese of Santa Fe did not respond to requests for comment.
After the group set up a crowdsource campaign, the money started rolling in and the nonprofit was able to purchase the two buildings in September. Terr says she isn’t sure what the house next door will be used for, but she imagines the possibility of temple offices or a Jewish history center.
Terr anticipates the Las Vegas Jewish Community board will hold services there and continue the tradition of renting the space out to others as needed.
During SFR’s recent visit, about a dozen people prepared the temple for Sunday’s service.
Board member Amy Kaplan, who’s mother lived in Las Vegas and was buried in the Montefiore Cemetery on the western edge of town, says the building shifting back to a Jewish temple will help solidify the city’s Jewish community.
“I’m Jewish. So it doesn’t matter where I go, I’m always going to be Jewish,” Kaplan says. “So I like to be around my fellow Jews. It just gives me a sense of connection because we aren’t the same as other people. We’re Jewish.”
Board member Johanna Keenan moved to the United States as a young child from Estonia and says despite not being Jewish, she was welcomed with open arms when she moved to Las Vegas in the 1990s and her neighbor invited her to Seder.
“I was welcomed so nicely and I liked the people, so I’ve been part of the community since 1995,” Keenan tells SFR.
The new iteration of the temple, Keenan says, offers a centralized meeting place without forcing someone to offer up their home, which she says has been common practice until now.
“It’s a real miracle that we were able to get it, because we didn’t really believe that we could raise the money,” Keenan says.
Sunday’s Hanukkah services are open to all, but because of health concerns, space is very limited so reserving a spot by calling (505) 450-2758 is encouraged.