The Arizona Jewish Historical Society preserves the rich heritage of our state’s diverse history

Cultural Institution

The Arizona Jewish Historical Society preserves the rich heritage of our state’s diverse history.

By Julie Carlson

The Arizona Jewish Historical Society has been preserving and educating guests about Arizona’s Jewish heritage and communities since 1981. The society’s archives currently maintain over 50,000 primary source documents, photographs, artifacts, and memorabilia related to the Jewish experience in Arizona and the American Southwest. They also have 200 oral history interviews and 100 video interviews with Arizona’s Jewish residents, living and deceased.

“We are a historic museum in a city that has so little sense of its own history,” says Lawrence Bell, Ph.D, executive director of the AZJHS and Cutler-Plotkin Heritage Center in downtown Phoenix. “We are a Phoenix Point of Pride and our building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We run a variety of public exhibitions and programs about topics of Jewish history and culture. One does not have to be Jewish to participate or attend.”

In 2001, the AZJHS expanded by acquiring the home of Phoenix’s first synagogue and restoring the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center, which is now its headquarters. The Jewish Heritage Center was named after James and Bettie Cutler, both prominent members of the Jewish and secular communities in Phoenix. The Cutlers moved to Scottsdale from Chicago in 1942 and established Cutler Orchards. Sadly, the couple died in an automobile accident in 1980, but their legacy of quietly serving in various capacities within many charity and cultural organizations and institutions lives on.

The other half of the namesake is in honor of Rabbi Albert Plotkin. Born and raised in Indiana, Plotkin settled in Phoenix in 1955 and served as rabbi and rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Israel for 55 years. He worked to promote civil rights and also helped develop the first synagogue in Sedona and the Jewish Studies Program at Arizona State University. He also served as the chaplain at Phoenix Veterans Hospital and was rabbi-in-residence at All Saints Episcopal Church. He passed in 2010.

Research genealogy, host weddings, B’nai Mitzvahs, fundraisers, and meetings, and explore this historic landmark. Starting on Oct. 15 at 2 p.m. is the opening reception and program for an exhibit by award-winning local artist Beth Ames Swartz called Tikkun Olam.

“The concept for Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world, comes from the Jewish tradition in the Talmud,” says Bell. “The idea is that when God created the world, He left it unfinished. Our work as human beings is to complete the work of creation through the acts of kindness and by performing good works.”

Curated by Swartz, it will feature the art of four local artists: Carolyn Lavender, Janet deBerge Lange, Ann Morton, and Lauren Strohacker. “Their works together showcase themes of social justice, homelessness, women’s rights, and environmental awareness,” continues Bell.

Accompanying the exhibit will be two other events, a forum on the concept of Tikkun Olam in Jewish religion and culture and an artist symposium in January 2018. The topic showcase ways in which art and artists who strive to repair the world in their works can be better engaged with the general public.

Also in the fall, and throughout the year, are film screenings, concerts, and book discussions. The AZJHS is also working on an expansion project called We Remember. It will help tell the story of the Holocaust, and survivors of the Holocaust, through the life masks and portraits of Holocaust survivors by local artist Robert Sutz.

“The idea is not to create a museum of the Holocaust, but rather to tell the larger story through the experiences of the people depicted in Mr. Sutz’ collection,” explains Bell. “Over half of the survivors depicted in Sutz’ work are or were Arizona residents. Our goal is to bring their experiences to their neighbors right here in Arizona.”

With the help of about a dozen dedicated volunteers, the AZJHS has continued its mission of educating the public about Arizona’s rich Jewish heritage. And they are always looking for more museum docents and volunteers to assist with the archives, office work, and event management.

“Volunteers can be of any faith or cultural background,” says Bell. “We are open to all. We are a small organization, very personal, and friendly. We tend to form great relationships with out visitors and our members.”


The Arizona Jewish Historical Society and Cutler-Plotkin Heritage Center

(602) 241-7870

122 E. Culver St., Phoenix


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