I asked about the Jewish history of Las Vegas and the street addresses I had stood at. Ray told me I had been standing in front of the synagogue. The Catholic Newman Center had been the synagogue until 1950 when it was sold to the church. The Jewish community had declined and the building could no longer be maintained.
For whatever reason, I thought, "how many other cultural tourists come to this place, pirouetting like idiots and not knowing what is what or where they are. Maybe if I could historically mark this site I could help others." Over time, I found myself actually saying, "God, I may not have done much in life so far but if I can mark the location of one of your houses of worship I will have been of some service here."
"Ray", I asked, "if I pay for a historic marker, would you be willing to work with me to historically identify the site?" "Yes" was the unequivocal answer. I had no idea what was involved but I soon learned.
Ray did all the key work. It had not even occurred to me that I needed special permission to put a plaque up on the side of the Newman Center. Ray first consulted with the local priest who consented but he needed to check with the Archbishop of Santa Fe first. Could it have been the memory of the Jewish aid to Bishop Lamy's great cathedral in Santa Fe, I never knew, the Archbishop gave his permission.
Locating a foundry, it turned out to be a Jewish foundry in Pennsylvania to produce the marker; we incorporated an image of the original building and a Star of David in the simple design. Searching for what I believed was a non-existent Jewish community in Las Vegas was difficult. Using the internet, for the great tool that is was becoming, I came across the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society and contacted its then president David Scholders. I told David about my idea and he too responded positively.
On the morning of the dedication, Judy and I stood outside the Newman center and waited. Ray showed up. We did not know if we would be standing there entirely by ourselves as Ray drilled and screwed the marker into place on the wall. A bus pulled up, people got out, other cars began arriving and suddenly from out of the woodwork people began congregating. We learned later that day that people had come from all over Northern New Mexico; a couple had made the trip from Paris, France because their family originated in Las Vegas. The New Mexico Historical Society did its part. They brought a group of people including the State Historian of New Mexico, Dr. Stanley Hordes, who spoke about New Mexico and the Conversos the hidden Jews who came with the Conquistadors secretly searching for a place they could worship God openly as Jews, not afraid of the inquisition.
The majority of people present were the modern hidden Jews of Northern New Mexico. Through the eternal link that seems to bind Jews together, word of mouth spread about the dedication of the marker. The people came, some overtly aware of their Jewish identity, some only vaguely aware that they had been Jewish at one time, but they came.
The greatest surprise was when it was announced, after more than 50 years of the Jewish community having been extinct, the local priest, with the blessing of the Archbishop of Santa Fe, had given permission for the Jews to once again have Shabbat services in the old synagogue building. A small torah had been obtained and we all went inside the Newman Center to look around. The Ten Commandments, carved in wood so many years ago, still stood over the back wall and seemed to look down on us. The Jewish Community of Las Vegas was reborn.
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The rebirth of the Las Vegas community and the Jewish story of Northern New Mexico were tied into a larger exhibit that was held at the Palace of the Governor's in Santa Fe, the Jews of New Mexico.
From an accidental beginning, standing like a fool, pirouetting on a street corner next to the Catholic Newman Center, I wondered later, could this be done again? Could I, maybe, find other places of American Jewish historical significance and mark the sites for others to know that the American Jew did not get off the boat yesterday. Jews have been part of the American story from the beginning. The Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, www.JASHP.org , was created.
Since its accidental beginning, JASHP has completed projects in twenty states as well as three major international projects, numerous articles and speaking events.
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Jerry Klinger is the President and founder of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation.