How to save a synagogue: Remembering the rededication of a historic temple in Trinidad, Colorado
Hanukkah began at sundown on Sunday. While Jewish people around the world are celebrating the festival of lights, what many might not know is that the word Hanukkah itself means “dedication.”
As the story goes, the holiday commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem after the ancient temple was destroyed. The Jewish people reclaimed it and rededicated it in order to preserve their religion and heritage.
And all these years later, Temple Aaron in Trinidad, Colorado, is having a sort of rededication of its own.
The end of an era
While it was never destroyed, Temple Aaron was on the brink of extinction. In 2016 the then 127-year-old Synagogue was faced with limited funds and declining membership. That's when the for-sale sign went up.
That's when Neal Paul got involved. Paul, a commercial real estate broker based in Littleton and the son of Holocaust survivors, drove for three hours to check out the synagogue. He was joined by Denver attorney David London.
“It's like in the middle of nowhere,” Paul said. “I could not imagine as we were getting closer that there's any possibility of there being any sort of an interesting synagogue or building there.”
As soon as Paul heard about a synagogue in trouble, he knew he had to go see it for himself.
“When we got there it was just completely surprising,” he said. “Once I walked in the building, went upstairs and saw the sanctuary, it was hard not to fall in love with it. I’d love to do everything possible to save it.”
But in order to understand why one of the oldest synagogues in the Mountain West needed saving, you first need to know its history.
Jewish history of Trinidad
According to Kim Grant, the director of Colorado's Most Endangered Places for Colorado Preservation Inc., Jewish people started to settle in the area around 1867.
That’s the year two brothers Maurice and Isaac Wise opened a store on Main Street.
Then a little after that, the Jaffa Brothers Trading Company was established in 1872. The Jaffa brothers — Sam, Henry and Sol — also built Trinidad's Jaffa Opera House in 1882. Sam Jaffa was even elected Trinidad's first mayor.
“Very early on, there is this small but prominent merchant and professional class of primarily German Jews who came to Trinidad,” Grant said.
In 1889, Temple Aaron was built. It sits high on a hill overlooking downtown. It was built in a revival style, harkening back to Moorish, Egyptian and Middle Eastern influence.
Two finials resembling Torah scrolls frame the front façade. The sanctuary has a hand-carved bimah, its original wooden pews and colorful stained-glass windows.
“It's really beautiful when light comes through those windows and bathes the sanctuary with color,” Grant said.
At the temple’s height in 1917, it had about 250 congregants. Grant says those numbers steadily dwindled to a point where the local caretakers can no longer maintain it.
A family synagogue
Some of those caretakers include the Rubin family. Randy Rubin is one of the few surviving people who grew up attending Temple Aaron. He was born and raised in Raton, New Mexico, about 20 miles south of the Colorado border.
“It was basically my brother and myself who were the only two Jewish kids in the Raton school system,” Rubin said. “We did not face any discrimination that I was aware of, but they just didn't know about Jews.”
Once a week, Randy, his brother Ron and their parents drove up to Temple Aaron for services. Rubin said there were no other children, and everybody in those days was probably in their 50s or 60s.
“Everybody was an uncle and an aunt, so to speak,” Rubin said. “And I was bar mitzvahed in that temple, as was my son, and my daughter was bat mitzvahed there. So I have a very close relationship with it, not only physically but mentally also.”
By 1985, Rubin’s parents became the de facto caretakers of Temple Aaron. And in 2011, that job fell to him. That is, until the synagogue ran out of funding from their original endowment from the son of Alfred Freudenthal, the son of the temple's first rabbi, Leopold Freudenthal.
Rubin said they could no longer afford maintenance or upkeep for the temple and decided to put it up for sale.
“It caused consternation and sleeplessness,” Rubin said. “Are we doing the right thing or doing the wrong thing? Will there be a rescue? There was no rescue in sight.”
Restructuring and reviving
That's when Neal Paul got involved. And soon after he was joined by Sherry Glickman, a medical writer and editor in the Denver area.
In the beginning, Glickman she and Paul were uncertain that saving the temple made sense.
“As things kept moving forward, it became clear that to keep going, we needed some additional help,” Glickman said.
They started holding fundraising events in Trinidad and Denver.
“People were really excited to hear about what we were doing,” she said.
As interest increased, so did the strength of the temple’s board members. By this time, Glickman was the treasurer, Rubin became president, and Paul, vice president.
Paul said even though Trinidad lacks a large Jewish community, the temple has received major community support from townspeople, the city council and the mayor.
“It's considered the third most important building that they're trying to save,” he said.
Thanks largely to the support of both non-Jewish locals and Jewish people from around the country who donate to the temple and even fly in for events, Temple Aaron has seen a revival of sorts.
In May, the temple hosted its first bar mitzvah in over 30 years. Last summer, Paul and Glickman got married at the temple’s first wedding ceremony in 10 years.
“I feel very fortunate that we were able to have it there,” Glickman said. “There's a certain feeling inside the temple, as well as just the beauty of it, and it's hard to describe. It was very powerful to feel that love and support there.”
And according to Rubin, all the new events have led to new excitement that, just a few years ago, seemed impossible.
“This synagogue was not built to be temporary,” Rubin said. “We want to have it there for years to come.”
Rubin said he wants the people who donate from places like Maine and California to feel welcome in the temple too.
“Other Jewish people, and non-Jews I might add, see the energy that's been expended, and they want to be part of it,” Rubin said.
But despite all of the changes, Rubin says there are some things he hopes will always stay the same.
“This may sound a little maudlin, but there is an odor when I walk into that temple and I remember from when I was a child,” he said. “It's a distinct odor, it's not foul, it doesn't offend your olfactory senses. And it's still there. And I don't want that to ever leave.”
One way to ensure that is granting the building historic landmark status. Temple leaders first applied three years ago and after an exhaustive process, they're expecting to hear back in early 2022
Grant said historic landmark status is the highest level of protection a building can achieve. He said there are around 200 national landmarks in the United States.
“But only seven of those are synagogues, and I believe only one of those is west of the Mississippi, one or two,” he said. “So this would be a really special deal for Temple Aaron and for the Trinidad community.”
But before anyone can get too excited, Rubin says they're celebrating a different milestone right now: a working heating system.
“It hasn't had heat for about seven years, and we haven't been able to have any events from probably October through April because it's just too cold in that building,” Rubin said. “We've raised enough funds. Heat is being installed as we speak.”
And because the festival of lights falls during the cold weather season, Rubin hopes the temple will hold Hanukkah parties in the coming years.
The guests in this episode include commercial real estate broker Neal Paul; director of Colorado’s Most Endangered Places for Colorado Preservation Inc, Kim Grant; Temple Aaron president, Randy Rubin; and medical writer and editor, Sherry Glickman.
The music featured in this story comes courtesy of freemusicarchive.com. The songs include “shtil” by Dee Yan-Key, “Klezmer” by Crowander, “Bagopolier Freylekhs” by Alicia Svigals and Lauren Brody, and “Dzhankoye” by Vanya Zhuk.