February 22, 2024
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February 22, 2024
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Visiting the Valley of the Sun: Jewish Life in the Arizona Desert

It’s late December and we all know what that means … no school, but not in the majority of local yeshivas. Yeshiva break will have to wait until January. When it comes time to look for a warmer place to go on vacation for a week or so, many from the tri-state area try to find places that have access to kosher food and minyanim to make everything a bit more convenient.

Arizona (specifically Phoenix/Scottsdale) has recently become more popular for these reasons. The area features shuls, kosher restaurants, family-friendly activities and some great places within a few hours driving distance as well.

The first thing you need to know about the area is that Phoenix and Scottsdale may be technically two different cities, but they border each other, and the two Jewish communities are separated by only a few minutes by car. If you plan on being there for Shabbat, make sure that you check out exactly where the different shuls and eruvin are.

One strategy that could greatly enhance your stay is to check Airbnb for timeshare properties at golf courses. While Airbnb is usually people renting out their own homes, some of the timeshare golf resorts in the area rent out properties that are currently not in use by putting them on Airbnb. This allows you to get something a little nicer than your average hotel for the same or less money. If you are looking to stay in Scottsdale, these properties may also offer a very convenient location compared to hotels.

There are almost 10 Orthodox shuls spread out between Phoenix and Scottsdale, so finding a minyan is not a problem. Some of the shuls have more minyanim than others, so make sure to check which shuls are closest to where you are staying and what their schedules are.

Phoenix has four different small kosher supermarkets, while Scottsdale offers enhanced kosher food sections in their local supermarkets. You can find raw meat, cheese, deli, and even snacks from Israel. Unless it’s something very specific, you should be able to get it in Arizona.

In terms of restaurants, there may not be the depth of choices that can be found in some tri-state area communities, but Phoenix and Scottsdale have enough options to get you through a week of vacation. If it’s meat you’re looking for, there’s one option each in Phoenix and Scottsdale.

Phoenix has Cafe Chenar, a Bucharian restaurant that will remind you of some of the places you can find in Queens. They have Bucharian classics such as lagman (a tomato vegetable soup with meat and noodles), achichuk (tomato and onion salad), manti (steamed meat dumplings), samsa (crispy pastry stuffed with beef and onions), plov (a rice dish with carrots and lamb), and an assortment of kebabs. If you already know and love the places closer to home, this will hit the spot.

Scottsdale’s Kitchen18 is the real gem of the area. With reasonable prices, huge portion sizes and great flavors, you won’t be disappointed. The menu is an eclectic blend of different cuisines and has something for everyone. One of the ways they accomplish this is by giving options. For example, they make their poppers or wings in six different sauces, and entrees allow you to choose side dishes from a list of a dozen choices. They’ve even managed to have a sleek design and ambiance, but still keep a family-friendly vibe. You’re just as likely to see a couple eating the teriyaki salmon and ribeye steak as you are to see a family of five eating burgers—try the pastrami or Southwest—and fries (four types).

Kitchen18 is well aware that many visitors are walking through their doors and they are prepared for it. Whether it’s packaging their food for takeout in the best way possible for tourists on the go, or being there to help you with recommendations on what to do nearby, they are ready. How ready? They have an entire Shabbat takeout menu and will even rent you a hot plate if you need it!

If it’s dairy you’re looking for, you have three restaurants to choose from. Each of these options has something specific. All three have pizza and pasta, but other than that, they provide plenty of other things that differ from each other.

Inside the Scottsdale JCC you’ll find Milk+Honey Espresso Bar & Eatery. They serve breakfast (bagels, eggs, French toast) and sushi, and have a small Mexican menu. As their name indicates, they also have a full espresso bar with a great selection of coffee drinks.

Phoenix is home to Manhattan Pizza & Subs. Just like the previous entry, their specialty is also in their name. They offer 10 different options for hot dairy sandwiches, a rare find in a kosher restaurant. Some entries are more tame, like the Atlantic Submarine (a pizza sub), and others are targeted at more adventurous diners, like the Shipyard Special (fish, peppers, onions, mushrooms and melted cheese).

Finally there’s La Bella Pizzeria & Restaurant. This Phoenix eatery offers an extensive fish menu. This isn’t just sushi (though they have that), it’s more than a dozen options for hot fish dishes. They are very well known for their pasta dishes, but if you’re able to make it there on a Tuesday or Sunday, you’ll be able to order from their Mexican menu. So if you feel like a trip to the Southwest isn’t complete without a burrito, you know where to go!

In terms of activities, there are a multitude of options for visitors of all ages. There are also some marvels of nature within a few hours drive.

Only a few minutes from downtown Phoenix you can find the Desert Botanical Gardens. A unique experience awaits at this amazing garden that is both beautiful to look at and educational. The gardens house all sorts of desert plants from all over the country. These are things that you would never be able to see all in one place, up-close.

If education is your thing, Phoenix has two museums that stand out above the rest. The Heard Museum is “dedicated to advancing Native American Art” and is known to be the best of its kind. From different eras to different types of art, this museum will give your trip that regional significance you might be craving.

The other museum that gains wide acclaim is the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM). With an incredible building full of fascinating exhibits, you could spend an entire day there and not see the whole thing. As you walk in, they hand you a machine the size of an old Walkman with a pair of headphones. Any time you walk near a screen, your headphones will play the audio from that exhibit. The MIM houses at least one of almost every musical instrument ever made, separated by country of origin. You’ll see Chinese instruments that are almost 3,000 years old down the hallway from a guitar made in Africa out of 100% recycled materials. It’s an unforgettable experience.

Also on the educational spectrum, Taliesin West is a true marvel for anyone who appreciates architecture. The winter compound of perhaps the greatest modern architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, this Scottsdale location offers tours to get an up-close look at what a truly creative mind can do when using the desert as a canvas.

On the fun side, there is the newly minted Arizona Boardwalk in Scottsdale. While not in any way an actual boardwalk of any kind, this circular pavilion is full of great activities for the whole family. These attractions include OdySea Aquarium, Butterfly Wonderland, a location of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, Laser + Mirror Maze (features a funhouse style maze and a room where you dodge security lasers like in a movie), VR XTREME (an arcade full of virtual reality games), Pangaea: Land of the Dinosaurs (an indoor park full of animatronic dinosaurs), Surprise Your Eyes (a gallery with backgrounds to take pictures that look 3D), and Johnny’s Playground (an indoor playground for kids of all ages).

There are two attractions slightly east of the city that make for a nice day trip when paired together. The first is Goldfield Ghost Town. Now a tourist attraction, this was a huge destination during the Gold Rush, as the town sits on top of what is likely still one of the greatest deposits of gold in the United States. Due to irreversible flooding, the town was abandoned until a few decades ago when an entrepreneur bought the land and restored it into a replica of the town with all sorts of things to do, including a historical steam engine ride, a tour of a mine replica and much more.

Only a few minutes away (through a truly scenic drive through windy mountain roads) is the Dolly Steamboat. Here you can take a cruise on scenic Canyon Lake as a guide tells you everything about the region. On this great trip through nature it’s fairly common to spot bald eagles in the wild.

If you are willing to venture a bit farther, two hours north of Phoenix is Sedona, where many people go to hike on the desert vistas that are sometimes described as looking otherworldly. Options abound for any difficulty level and length. If your family is a clan of hikers, this is an unmissable excursion.

Last but certainly not least, the Grand Canyon is about two hours further north (four hours total). It goes without saying that it is an absolute marvel of nature. (In fact, upon seeing it one should say the bracha of osseh ma’asseh bereshit. Whether or not one should use Hashem’s name is a question for your local Orthodox rabbi.) There’s plenty to do at the Grand Canyon other than just look at it for several hours in amazement (though there are multiple lookout points and a scenic drive around the edge if that is your goal). There’s a geological museum and a museum about the history of humans and the canyon. The visitors’ center also has an IMAX film with everything you need to know. Just remember that when you drive four hours north, it may be colder. That said, the canyon will be just as grand even if you need a winter coat.

Given everything available, Arizona is certainly a great place for a vacation. There are so many things to do and see, all with access to kosher food and minyanim.

What more could a traveling Jew ask for?

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