On Sunday, June 10, Rabbi Zalman Heber greeted some 400 guests to celebrate the opening of the new Chabad Jewish Center — the first synagogue built in Tacoma and Pierce County since the Reform Temple Beth El opened its doors in 1968.
“How long has it been?” Rabbi Heber asked his audience rhetorically. The struggle to build the new shul, he admitted, had given him some “sleepless nights and white hairs.” But it was worth it. By building a new synagogue, he said, we proclaim to God, “We are your partners in creation.”
How long has it been? Rabbi Heber and his wife Miriam, who grew up in the Chabad-Lubavitch community in Brooklyn, came to Tacoma to begin Chabad of Pierce County in 2003. Two years later they moved into a spacious home on North Hawthorne Street overlooking the Tacoma Narrows, where they still live, converting downstairs rooms into a small sanctuary/social hall/school space. From the beginning, a new shul was planned for the adjoining lot in back, at 2146 North Mildred Street.
Construction, however, did not start until last summer. The project was delayed for two years when neighbors objected to the size of the proposed building in their residential neighborhood, and to the traffic and parking problems they expected. (There is no onsite parking, although the use of a nearby offsite lot has been arranged.) The city of Tacoma refused to grant a land-use variance until a hearings examiner ruled in favor of Chabad in 2010 on the basis of its religious rights.
At the opening, Tacoma mayor Marilyn Strickland congratulated Chabad and noted that “Nothing is more contentious in government than land use.”
Rabbi Heber believes the dispute was strictly over land use. “Nothing more should be read into it,” he said.
Lieutenant Governor Brad Owens brought greetings to the congregation from Governor Christine Gregoire, who could not attend because of family health issues. Pierce County Council member Tim Farrell added congratulations from Representative Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and County Executive Pat McCarthy.
The new shul is a three-story replica of 770 Eastern Parkway, the iconic Crown Heights building and Lubavitch headquarters where the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, held his post until his passing in 1994. The sanctuary, brightly lit on the sunny day through tall, clear windows, can seat 120. There is also ample office and classroom space and a social hall in the basement.
Rabbi Heber stressed that the fundraising campaign is far from over, and dedications are still possible. All major donors to the effort are from the local area, with some individual out-of-state contributions.
What’s the next step? Chabad plans to convert the space now vacated in the old building into a mikvah, Heber said.
The event attracted Chabad rabbis from all over the Pacific Northwest, including the Chabad shaliach for the region, Rabbi Sholom Ber Levitin of Congregation Shaarei Tefilah-Lubavitch in Seattle, as well as Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of the Central Organization for Jewish Education and chairman of the Council of Chabad Rabbis, who had just arrived from Bogota, Colombia. Rabbi Kotlarsky called the new shul an answer to the Holocaust and ended his greeting with a rousing “Am Yisrael chai!” (“The people of Israel lives!”)
“This is incredible,” said congregant Rick Grenhorn. Getting the new shul built has been “like rolling a boulder uphill, but now we’ve got to the top.”
Tovah Ahdut, a major donor to the construction effort with her husband Danny, said the new shul would be “an enrichment for the whole Jewish community.”
Quite a few members of Temple Beth El came out in support, including temple president Jim Friedman. Chabad member Jonathan Friedman directed the Tacoma men’s chorus, the Totem-Aires, and contributed his own solo rendition of “Oseh Shalom.” Rabbi Heber, he said, had changed his life for the better.
The excitement mounted after the speeches ended and the ritual steps toward opening the shul began. Rabbi Heber, assisted by his father Rabbi Shmuel Heber of Brooklyn, affixed the new mezuzah. Then the ceremonial ribbon was cut, and children rushed to release balloons. Finally, the Torah scrolls were carried down the street under a chuppah — as the crowd broke into Chasidic singing and clapping — and installed in their new ark.
The ceremonies continued in the sanctuary, with Torah prayers, singing by the second grade class, and recognition of major donors. Miriam Heber’s grandmother, Itu Lustig, also spoke. She displayed her concentration camp number and said, “We Jews never give up. We just go forward.” Rabbi Heber responded, “This number has been replaced by another number: 2146 North Mildred.
“The reality is setting in,” Rabbi Heber said after the event. “Tacoma has its own traditional shul.”