Contemporary Jews in New Mexico
World War II (1939-1945) and the half century that followed sharply changed New
Mexico and its Jewish population. The establishment of Los Alamos was the first
step in this process. A host of related industries, such as Sandia Corporation in
Albuquerque, followed. They were heavily supported by federal investment. New
Mexico’s clear skies and isolation also led to the creation of Air Force bases around
In 1940 there were about 1,100 Jews in the state. By the year 2000 there were well
over 10,000. The Jewish newcomers, unlike the earlier immigrants, were mostly
American-born Easterners. Attracted to New Mexico by the new economy, they
were frequently scientists, engineers, university faculty, and professionals, such as
doctors. They became a significant part of the new social composition of the
World War II and the years immediately following it produced some of the highest
and lowest points in modern Jewish history. Nazi Germany gave them the
Holocaust. Six million European Jews died in concentration and labor camps.
Most survivors chose to go to Palestine, the United States, or Latin America. From
these events, the state of Israel was born in 1948.
The needs of the refugees and the new Jewish state produced an era of activism
among American Jews to aid the victims of Nazi persecution. In New Mexico,
where such activity had been modest, the persecution produced a host of
institutions and open support that had not been known before. Fundraising
became an important aspect of the new activism.
The new issues on the political forefront, civil rights and feminism, produced a
community far more active than before World War II. The awareness of a Jewish
past in New Mexico also grew. In the 1980s the community created its own
historical society and took on responsibilities including caring for cemeteries of
older Jewish communities such as the one in Las Vegas.
The growth of the Jewish community of New Mexico, increasing almost nine times
since World War II, brought with it additional social issues such as caring for the
aged and refugees and contributing to the defense of Israel.
New institutions that included all Jews grew alongside the religious
congregations. They underwent an evolution which resulted in the creation of the
Jewish Federation. That development reached its peak in 2000 with the opening of
the Jewish Community Center in Albuquerque. It houses a school, a gymnasium,
facilities for elders and accommodations for large scale meetings. A monthly
newspaper, The New Mexico Jewish Link, also has its office there.
Jews had always participated in the civic affairs. Such activities continued into the
post-war period and Jews gradually broadened their participation into every
aspect of communal life. They became conductors of the symphony, police chiefs,
and representatives to the national government such as Steve Schiff who was
elected to the House of Representatives from 1988 to 1998 when he died in office.
After the Catholic Church liberalized its views towards Jews in the 1960s,
interfaith activities became common. Dialogues between religious faiths have
taken place on a regular basis and continue between Jews and Catholics, as well as
among Jews and Protestant branches of Christianity, Quakers, Muslims, Hindus,
and other religions. New Mexico has been in the forefront of such activities.
Synagogues in Albuquerque and New Mexico
Albuquerque now has a variety of Jewish synagogues. Several years ago, the
Chabad, which practices Orthodox Judaism, opened a Chabad house that
functions as a synagogue. Congregation Albert is a reform congregation affiliated
with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Congregation B’nai Israel is a
conservative congregation affiliated with the United Synagogue of America. New
forms of Jewish religious organizations have emerged in the last half of the 20th
century including Chavurat Hamidbar (Fellowship of the Desert), an independent
group emphasizing Jewish education and discussion, which was formed in 1973.
In 1982 Nahalat Shalom was created with Lynn Gottlieb, the first female Jewish
rabbi in the state, as its leader. Both of these last two organizations are part of the
fourth wave in Judaism, which has been called “Renewal Judaism,” and
represents a resurgence of home-based Jewish community.
Outside of Albuquerque, there are synagogues in Carlsbad, Las Cruces, Santa Fe,
and Taos. At present, there are as many as 10 rabbis in the state and three cantors,
Jewish prayer and musical leaders.
Unique to New Mexico is Gershon Winkler, a circuit-riding rabbi, who lives with
his family in a remote region of the San Miguel Mountains of northwestern New
Mexico near Cuba. Winkler is a well known scholar of Jewish mysticism, theology,
law, and lore. He has published 13 books since 1980, two of which have been
banned by the Orthodox rabbinate. Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, and educated
in Orthodox Jewish communities in the United States and Israel, he is a
For more than two decades Winkler has lived in remote regions across the country,
working as an itinerant rabbi, writer, and farm hand. His scholarly brilliance and
unconventional lifestyle have won him recognition in such diverse media as the
Wall Street Journal, a PBS series, and The Jerusalem Post. Winkler serves the Jewish
communities of Durango, Colorado, and Missoula, Montana, and teaches regular
monthly Kabbalah seminars in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
Founded in 1913, the ADL exists to fight hate, discrimination and anti-Semitism
worldwide. Locally, ADL tracks hate groups and domestic terrorists, leads
workshops on diversity, cosponsors programs for mutual understanding,
addresses important issues such as racial profiling and homeland security, and
counsels victims of discrimination. Some of the highlights of the ADL office in
New Mexico include passage of hate crimes and anti-terrorist training bills into
law and removing a scientist from the New Mexico Space Museum Hall of Fame
who was linked to Nazi experiments at Dachau concentration camp.
Susan M. Seligman, local director since 1989, works with law enforcement, media,
schools, the legislature, elected officials and various community groups in a proactive
effort to combat prejudice, discrimination and anti-Semitism. One of the
state’s experts on domestic terrorism, she trains law enforcement on hate groups
throughout New Mexico. She facilitates anti-bias trainings for schools,
government and community groups. She lectures on global anti-Semitism and
runs workshops on Confronting Anti-Semitism for students and adults.
The Jewish Federation of New Mexico
The Jewish Federation of New Mexico is a multifaceted social service agency. It
has created the Jewish Community Center in Albuquerque and the Shalom House
for low-income Jewish seniors. It also brings the community together to celebrate
joyous and solemn Jewish holidays.
Federation activities include:
*The Jewish 505 Project, jointly supported by the federation and Jewish
Family Services, a separate agency, seeks to expand the community from
central New Mexico to a network of New Mexico Jews throughout the
*The DVora Project is sponsored by the women’s division of the federation
and Jewish Family Services and works to combat domestic violence,
especially among Jewish people.
*The Jewish Community Relations Committee of the federation along with
United Jewish Communities sent popular talk show host, Larry Ahrens, to
Israel for a week. Ahrens’ live broadcasts from Jerusalem brought
contemporary life in Israel home to thousands of listeners in the region.
*The federation sends Shalom Neighbor and Shalom Baby gift baskets to
welcome and congratulate news members of the community. Every teen
bar and bat mitzvahed receives tzedakah boxes, or charity boxes, as a gift
from the community.
*The federation established the Jewish Community Endowment
Foundation in 1997. It seeks to cultivate bequests from wills, life insurance,
and retirement plans for the future of the New Mexico Jewish community.
*The Jewish Foundation of New Mexico publishes The Link, a monthly
newspaper providing local news, announcements, and diverse viewpoints
on matters of local and global Jewry.
*The Jewish Foundation also provides staff and volunteer support for the
New Mexico Jewish Historical Society which was organized in 1985 and
leads the Southwest in research, archive development, genealogy, oral
history, and publishing. The society organizes workshops, lectures,
concerts and audio-visual presentations and publishes a quarterly
newsletter about Jewish life in the region. The society is a beneficiary
agency of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico.
Sam Sokolove was named executive director of the federation in August of 2005.
Prior to this, he was executive director of the San Diego Chapter of the American
Jewish Committee, the Jewish community’s leading human relations organization.
Sokolove’s priority with the JFNM is to reassert the role of tzedakah, or charity in
the Jewish tradition, through the JFNM’s annual campaign, and identify ways to
make the meaning and message of the federation’s annual campaign more
resonant. Sokolove has also made reasserting the federation’s role as a primary
conduit between the Jews of New Mexico, Israel and Jewish communities
worldwide a priority. Also, Sokolove recognizes that the Federation must begin
mentoring and engaging younger Jews to ensure the next generation of Jewish
communal leadership in New Mexico and beyond.
New Mexico Holocaust and Intolerance Museum
On January 18, 2001, the New Mexico Holocaust and Intolerance Museum opened
its doors at 415 Central Avenue NW, Albuquerque. Founded by Werner Gellert, a
Holocaust survivor, and his wife, Frances, the museum’s mission is to combat hate
and intolerance through education. Exhibits include artifacts, memorabilia,
photographs, artwork, and documents. They relate not only to the Holocaust but
also to Native American cultural genocide, Armenian and Greek genocides, the
Bataan Death March, and slavery in America.
Volunteer docents have guided thousands of New Mexico’s students and other
visitors through the present facility. In addition, survivors of the Holocaust and
other individuals who have been exposed to hate and intolerance have spoken at
schools and community organizations throughout the state. Dozens of boxes of
educational materials have been given to teachers and shipped, free of charge, and
bus transportation to the museum has been funded for Albuquerque Public School
and Rio Rancho students by the Albuquerque Community Foundation, PNM
Foundation and private individuals. Also, the museum is a beneficiary agency of
the Jewish Federation of New Mexico.
The University of New Mexico began a research-service learning program in the
fall of 2006 where students were to become involved with the survivor community
in the state by interviewing, recording, and transcribing their histories for the
museum. They volunteer in the museum leading tours and cataloguing and
archiving research materials. In the near future, the college students will assist the
museum in its upcoming relocation to a new facility.
The museum will partner with the African American Museum and the Martin
Luther King Jr. Memorial Committee in the new facility. The new building will
house a state-of-the-art multimedia exhibit reflecting Dr. King’s life and teachings
of diversity and inclusiveness. The New Mexico Human Rights Coalition will be
housed there as well. Also, once there is increased space, the museum plans to
create additional exhibits. Two planned are depictions of the T-4 Project where
Nazis killed more than 50,000 physically or mentally disabled persons and the
Gulag where 20 million individuals died at the hands of Stalin’s regime. Traveling
exhibits sponsored by the museum in the past dealt with Oskar Schindler, the
Kindertransport, and Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945.
The museum’s website is at www.nmholocaustmuseum.org.
Admission to the facility is free; donations are welcomed and encouraged.