Photo: Larry Cutler at his bar mitzvah with Rabbi Albert Plotkin in 1965. Photo courtesy the Arizona Jewish Historical Society.
Lawrence “Larry” Cutler will be honored with the 2021 Jerry Lewkowitz Heritage Award at the Arizona Jewish Historical Society’s Centennial Heritage Gala coming up on Oct. 30. When asked about the recognition, Larry shares that he doesn’t think he deserves to be honored.
“My mother always taught me that you should never talk about mitzvot, good deeds, that you’ve done for others or the community, because if you do, then they’re not good deeds,” says Larry. “I really wasn’t anxious to have my accomplishments broadcast. But I agreed to do it to raise funds for the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center and the very important work that we do for the entire community.”
In fact, the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center’s name is a tribute to Larry’s parents, Bettie and James Cutler, z”l, and the rabbi who knew the family and officiated over consecrations, b’nai mitzvah, weddings and funerals over four generations, Rabbi Albert Plotkin, z”l.
Larry’s grandparents moved to Scottsdale in the early 1940s from Chicago and purchased farmland in what’s now known as the Arcadia neighborhood in Phoenix. Cutler Orchards sold every type of citrus and dates and operated a fruit stand on East Thomas Road. They also shipped quite a bit of produce to the East Coast.
“My mother was active in both the Jewish and secular community,” remembers Larry. “She was vice president of the Jewish Community Center and started a Hadassah group; she also was a docent at the Phoenix Art Museum.” Larry remembers going to summer camp at that Jewish Community Center, the first one in the Valley, located at 1501 E. Camelback Road.
There was another building that acted as an informal community center when it housed Phoenix’s first permanent Jewish congregation – Congregation Beth Israel – located at First St. and Culver. Construction began on Oct. 30, 1921, and for the next 28 years, the building would be used for religious services, lifecycle events and during World War II, holiday celebrations for the Jewish service members stationed at Luke Field.
In 1949, Congregation Beth Israel sold the property to the Southern Baptist Convention. The building then became home to Phoenix’s first Chinese-speaking Christian Church. “There’s a room there next to the bimah where a translator would sit. When the minister spoke, the translator would translate into Chinese for the congregants,” shares Larry. From 1951-1981, the building served as a religious and social hub for Phoenix’s Chinese-American community. Then in 1981, the property was deeded to a Spanish-speaking Baptist church, Iglesia Bautista Central.
In 2001, Larry was president of the Jewish Historical Society when Rabbi Plotkin found out from his good friend, the senior pastor at Iglesia Bautista Central, they were thinking of selling.
“Rabbi Plotkin and I met with the senior pastor and junior pastor of the church, and also a member of their board of trustees to inquire if we could purchase the building,” says Larry.
Larry figured they had to try and buy the building because it had such historical significance to the Jewish community of the Valley. He knew if it were sold to a developer, it would just be demolished and apartment buildings would be built on the valuable land.
“Unfortunately, there was a big rift because I suggested that we tried to save that structure, and several very prominent members on my board of directors opposed,” Larry recalls. “They didn’t think that the Jewish Historical Society should be in the business of owning real estate, or anything else, and they resigned from the board of directors because of it.”
But Larry was determined, and he created a building fund. He was the sole contributor for a while, and then those funds ended up being used for the earnest money deposit. Then when it came time to close escrow, they needed more funds, but people were skittish because if they didn’t close the deal, all the money invested would be lost. So, Larry agreed to come up with the remainder, and in turn, he was granted the naming rights to the center.
Once they owned the building, it was easier for the Jewish Historical Society to raise funds for the 80-year-old building’s restoration. “The restoration project was incredible,” says Larry. “The color inside the sanctuary is the original color of the original building. I think the contractor had to sand through around 20 coats of paint down to the original so that we could see what color it was. It’s an unusual color, but the color was matched.” Unfortunately, they couldn’t rely on original photographs because they were all in black and white.
On Feb. 22, 2011, the center was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has also been voted a Phoenix Point of Pride, in company with the Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona Biltmore Hotel, the Wrigley Mansion and other notable locations in the Valley.
“It’s always been important to me to build bridges between Jews and non-Jews. That’s why I fell in love with this project because the sanctuary building was a holy place for different religions and ethnicities; that’s something that we all shared,” says Larry. “It’s made a complete circle from the Jewish community through other communities and back.”
For more information on the Centennial Heritage Gala or on the other events at the Arizona Jewish Historical Society and Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center, visit azjhs.org.