Jewish News of Greater Phoenix via JTA – Stan Coffield and his wife were quite open-minded when deciding where they would retire.
“I wanted a place where the cost of living was lower [than New York] – hot, dry, near a body of water I could water ski on, and had some kind of Jewish presence, âCoffield said.
In 2010, they moved into their home in Lake Havasu City, about 200 miles northwest of Phoenix. Even though the synagogue is small, Coffield hasn’t looked back since.
âWhen my wife and I first moved here you would turn around a corner and you were really tempted to pull over to the side of the road and look; it looks like a postcard, âhe said. “And you go three blocks, and that’s another postcard.”
Coffield and his wife are two of the roughly 60,000 residents of Lake Havasu, according to the US Census Bureau, and are among some 30 members of the area’s only synagogue, Temple Beth Sholom.
âSince we are the only congregation and synagogue in all of Mohave County, we have the full range [of members], “he said.” We have people in Havasu, God bless them, who manage to be Orthodox and stay kosher, to the fringes of the Reformation. “
Jewish life takes a different form in the rural areas than it does in the city – and often requires a great deal of dedication. In some places, this means that the faithful have to learn to lead services as they can only afford to have a rabbi come periodically. For some, that means driving for hours from one remote area to a small synagogue in another small town. And in almost all communities, a rural Jewish life is one in which your synagogue is like a family for better or for worse, and like any family, you only have one.
Coffield was president of the congregation for about six years, doing his best to provide regular service and Torah study and to grow the congregation. A rabbi travels to Lake Havasu from Los Angeles about once a month to hold a Shabbat service on Friday and a Torah study on Saturday. The congregation tries to coordinate its trip with Jewish holidays.
The synagogue strives to have a schedule posted three months in advance to ensure that members, some of whom drive nearly two hours to get there, have enough time to plan.
âWe have worshipers from Laughlin, Bullhead City, Blythe, Calif., Needles – I mean, we are,â Coffield said.
Being the only Jewish institution miles away may mean Coffield becomes the person people turn to to deal with end-of-life issues. Lake Havasu is “almost exclusively retirees and service personnel,” Coffield said. According to the US Census Bureau, the median age in the city is 54.2.
As president of the congregation, he receives âpainful phone callsâ from people he has never seen in synagogue but who are suddenly in need of spiritual support. Coffield does his best to meet these requests, “but it’s just difficult from so many different points of view.”
Yuma, about 200 miles southwest of Phoenix, is also home to a small but dedicated Jewish community. With a population of nearly 100,000, the city’s only synagogue has around 20 family units.
âIt ranges from singles to couples to people with children,â said Leone Neegan, President of Congregation Beth Hamidbar. The synagogue, whose name means “house in the desert,” meets in a space rented from a church.
“I’m not sure anyone for whom their Jewish religion is the most important part of their life would move to a place with so few Jewish institutions,” she said. âWe don’t know how many, but there are Jews here who don’t belong to the congregation, who just aren’t religious at all. “
For the past seven years, a rabbi has driven from Orange County, California to Yuma to lead the services of High Holiday. âThe rest of the time he gave us a class on lay-led services, so we take turns leading Shabbat services and pooling our knowledge,â Neegan said.
Members meet for services twice a month most of the year – in the summer it’s halved. Some of the devotees also meet in a weekly Torah study group.
Neegan was born and raised in Phoenix, but moved to Yuma in 1975 after graduating from the University of Arizona when a friend told her about a job at the local library that had opened up. At the time, she didn’t expect to stay in Yuma for long. âI couldn’t imagine anyone living here. It was just, for me, a very small dusty town, âshe said.
For a few months, she thought she was the only Jew in town. But one day she saw an article in the local newspaper about High Holiday services. âI went to services and found that there was a small Jewish community here and the people were very welcoming,â she said.
At the time, the congregation was not affiliated with any branch of Judaism, as those who attended had a variety of Jewish backgrounds and observances. Eventually, he joined the Union for Reform Judaism.
Neegan never thought she would be as involved in her congregation as she was.
“If I had stayed in Phoenix or Tucson, or some other big city with a bigger population, I might not have been as involved in religion or the congregation as I ended up being,” he said. she declared.
Neegan’s congregations have become “one giant extended family,” she said. âIt’s like being on an island with people. If you get angry, there is no other synagogue to go to. You have to get by one way or another.
Rabbi Nina Perlmutter, Rabbi Emeritus of the Lev Shalom Congregation in Flagstaff, said she has often found that the further a Jewish person lives from an established Jewish community, the more dedicated they are to building a Jewish community.
Many Jews who live in the Grand Canyon, where Perlmutter often officiates at life cycle events, or in other rural areas of Arizona have relocated for the beauty of the scenery, she said. For most of them, Jewish life was not necessarily a priority and is not easily supported by the Jewish infrastructure in the region.
“But then they often find out that they miss having Jewish connections,” she said. âI know people who have commuted for a long time, like the folks from the Grand Canyon, to Flagstaff. It is not easy. You really have to want to do it.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix and is republished with permission.