Our Past is Prologue to the Future
The Las Cruces area began to attract individual Jewish settlers and families during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of them were related to each other. This pioneer community underwent new growth before and after World War II, when some Holocaust survivors and university professors came to the region and when White Sands Missile Range and general urban growth brought many new Jewish families to the area. The Jewish community has been a vital part of Las Cruces, and three of Las Cruces' mayors have been Jewish.
The first effort to organize a Jewish community began in 1954, when two families with adjoining back yards hosted the first Sunday School. About twenty children enrolled, taught by their parents. By 1956, Jewish women formed a Sisterhood, and the Las Cruces Jewish Community Group began holding lay-led religious services three weeks per month in Las Cruces and once a month at White Sands Missile Range. Services were held in an office building, a public library, the Elks Club social hall, and various churches. Rabbi Albert Bilgray of Tucson's Temple Emanuel occasionally led services. The small community celebrated its first bar mitzvah in 1958. The Sisterhood donated an ark and an altar cloth and gave the Group a Sefer Torah. Rabbi Joseph Renov of El Paso's Congregation B'nai Zion officiated at the special dedication service. The group raised funds through an annual deli dinner that served from 800 to 1,200 people.
The community began a membership drive in 1960 and raised funds for a permanent structure on Parker Road. Families donated Torah translation volumes, an ark and a lectern. The new structure was completed and dedicated in 1962 at a ceremony led by Rabbi Floyd Fierman from El Paso's Temple Mount Sinai. The community formed a youth group in 1964 and established a Jewish section in a local cemetery in 1968. Members led Reform-style services on Friday nights and conservative-style services on Saturday mornings until 1968, when Temple Beth-El was incorporated in the state of New Mexico and became a Reform-affiliated congregation. Although retired, Rabbis Herbert Strauss and Abraham Kertes briefly served the congregation before or after 1960. Lay members led services for most of the period to 1977. The congregation subsequently raised funds for two additions to the Temple, one completed in 1968 and the other in 1981.
Temple Beth-El grew to more than 100 member families as the Jewish population of the greater Las Cruces area increased. It hired a nationally prominent retired rabbi and scholar, Rabbi Joseph Klein, as a part time rabbi in 1977, and it hired Rabbi Howard Laibson as the Temple's first full time rabbi in 1984. Rabbi Laibson served until July, 1989. After a year of lay-led services during a search process, the Temple hired Rabbi Cy Stanway in the summer of 1990. He served until July 1998. The Temple returned to lay-led services during its search before it hired Rabbi Gerald Kane in December, 1998. As the Temple's membership grew, members formed a committee in 1994 to determine our building needs for the next generation. The Temple inaugurated a fund-raising drive that led to the completion of our beautiful new building in January, 2007. The new Temple includes classrooms, a library, a rabbi's study, and flexible space for a sanctuary and social hall that enables seating for 400 people. We now have more than 140 member families who come from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds and from many parts of the United States and the world.
Rabbi Paul Citirin served the congregation from 2008 until June 2011. On July 1, 2011, Rabbi Larry Karol began his service to the congregation.