The Las Cruces area attracted individual Jewish settlers and families during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many were related to each other. This pioneer community underwent new growth before and after World War II, when some Holocaust survivors and university faculty came to the region and when the growth of White Sands Missile Range brought new Jewish families to the area. This growth continued during and after the 1970s. 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 1953, when Jewish adults from White Sands discussed creating a Religious School in Las Cruces for Jewish children. The children previously had to be taken to El Paso for Jewish educations. Other Las Cruces families joined this effort and created the Religious School. It first met in the homes of two families with adjoining back yards. About twenty children were taught by the parents. By 1956, Las Cruces area 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 buildings and once a month at White Sands Missile Range. 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. The group raised funds through an annual deli dinner that served from 800 to 1,200 people.
The community began a membership drive and raised funds for a permanent structure on Parker Road. Families donated Torah translation volumes, an ark and a lectern. The new structure was 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. Temple Beth-El affiliated with the Reform Jewish movement and was incorporated in 1968. The community also established a Jewish area in a cemetery that year. 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 raised funds for additions to the Temple including one completed in 1968 and another in 1981.
Temple Beth-El grew to more than 100 member families as the Jewish population of the greater Las Cruces area increased. Over time it raised additional funds from an annual Gala dinner, a rummage sale sponsored by the Sisterhood, and a deli booth at the Renaissance Faire. It also raised funds for medical research by Hadassah in Israel, and it became active in social improvement projects and interfaith discussions. The Temple hired a nationally prominent retired rabbi and scholar, Rabbi Joseph Klein, as a part time rabbi in 1977, and 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 held lay-led services during a search until it hired Rabbi Gerald Kane in December, 1998. As the Temple’s membership grew, members formed a committee in 1994 to determine the community’s needs for a new and larger building. Members raised funds from 1994 until the completion of a beautiful new building in January, 2007. The new Temple included classrooms, a library, a rabbi’s study, and flexible space for a sanctuary and social hall that enabled seating for 400 people. Our Rabbi during the period from 2008 through June 2011 was Rabbi Paul Citrin. Rabbi Larry Karol, our current Rabbi, began his service to the congregation on July 1, 2011.
Temple Beth-El now has almost 125 member families who come from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds and from many parts of the United States and the world. It continues its social and interfaith activism, and it has raised funds more recently from a Jewish Food and Folk Festival and a Matzo Ball Golf Tournament. The active Sisterhood has been joined by a men’s Mensch Club.