Three years ago, Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Berel Zaklikofsky was driving across Interstate 10 from Palm Springs, Calif., to Brooklyn, N.Y., when he stumbled upon Goodyear, Ariz., a fast-growing, sun-drenched community 20 minutes west of Phoenix in the state’s arid Southwest Valley.
With a Jewish population of 3,000, Goodyear – situated on land purchased in 1917 from the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company – draws warm weather enthusiasts, working professionals and golf mavens alike. The thriving city, where the median age is 35, is dotted with trendy restaurants and recreational parks, and is also the site of Goodyear Ballpark, spring training ground for the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds.
But when Zaklikofsky happened upon Goodyear, there was one noticeable thing absent: a synagogue.
“I saw that this was a vibrant community that was being built up and I figured there must be Jews living there,” recalls Zaklikofsky of that initial quick stop. “It was a brand new city with a wonderful infrastructure. But it was also far away from Jewish culture. There was no rabbi. The nearest synagogue was a 30-minute drive at least. Some people were driving 45 minutes to an hour to a synagogue in Scottsdale.”
Without missing a beat, Zaklikofsky returned to Brooklyn and began hatching plans to establish the Chabad Jewish Center of Goodyear.
Rabbi Zalman Levertov, regional director of Chabad of Arizona, was also instrumental in rallying support for the project.
“We held our first event last December during Chanukah,” says Zaklikofsky, now co-director of the new Chabad House. “We didn’t even have a building yet.”
Zaklikofsky admits that he was “not optimistic” about the turn-out for Goodyear’s inaugural public menorah lighting, so much so that he only ordered 80 latkes, the traditional potato pancake eaten during the eight-day festival of lights. He assumed he’d over-ordered.
“I was expecting 50 people,” he gently laughs of the outdoor gathering at a local park. “200 people showed up.”
On June 1, the Chabad Jewish Center of Goodyear officially moved into its new rented quarters at 2508 North 134thAvenue.
“G‑d willing, in the next couple of years, based on the enthusiasm and excitement of the community, we’ll get together and build a permanent home,” says Zaklikofsky, who directs the center with his wife, Chana Rivka Zaklikofsky.
If Goodyear resident Allan Aron is any indication, that dream could happen sooner rather than later.
“I got a call out of the blue about a year ago from Rabbi Berel saying that he was looking to put together a group of Jewish people so they’d have a place for prayer,” recalls Aron, a 50 year-old salesperson that moved from Toronto to Arizona in 1991. “I mentioned that I could help and that I would love to be associated with it. His whole philosophy was to bring people together who felt they didn’t have a place to call home.”
Since arriving in Goodyear, the Zaklikofskys have hosted community Sabbath dinners, classes on Judaism and a Purim celebration, with a roster of both adult and children’s educational programming slated for fall.
Recently, the rabbi assisted Aron in putting up a mezuzah – the traditional parchment with Torah verses that is affixed to the doorframes of a Jewish house – in his new home as part of a local “mezuzah campaign.”
“Rabbi Berel is more than just a rabbi,” says Aron. “He’s a friend. I like knowing him. His being here is good for me, and if it’s good for me then it’s good for everyone.”
Chana Rivka Zaklikofsky, who balances her hefty work commitments as co-director while tending to the couple’s newborn twins, Ovadia and Chaya, already feels that she has been embraced by members of the surrounding Jewish community.
“It’s very exciting,” she exclaims. “We’ve been visited by so many families introducing themselves and asking if they can help out with the babies or anything else. It’s been amazing.”
Goodyear’s next official event will be a meet and great opening night celebration planned for the end of August. The couple is also looking to reserve a function hall at a nearby hotel for the High Holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in September.
“People are very interested in knowing what the next big thing is,” says Zaklikofsky. “They are already asking what the next event is as if we have been here for ten years.”
As Aron describes it, a collective current of gratitude now runs through Goodyear’s Jewish community.
“There is a huge need to create a future for the Jews here,” says Aron. “Goodyear is not like Montreal or Toronto or New York in terms of its Jewish population, but we are out here and it’s important that we can now establish a close community.”