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Temple Aaron

Trinidad. Colorado

In 1994 we were zipping along at high speed on the interstate swiftly passing exit after exit in a rush to get to our destination, Crested Butte, Colorado. Suddenly a landmark unusual for this landscape popped up on the horizon. Driving along I25North toward Denver as we were, people might be in such a hurry, they would bypass one of Colorado’s best treasures, Temple Aaron of Trinidad. But of course, I brake for synagogues.

My husband begrudgingly got off the highway and we drove the three or four blocks to the commanding red brick and sandstone Temple. Excited at finding such an elegant old synagogue in this small (pop. 7,000) city in the Rockies, I jumped out of the car and began snapping pictures from all angles with several cameras. Once I coaxed Ron into moving the car from in front of the building (something he has since learned to do from the get-go), even he agreed that this synagogue, the oldest still operating in Colorado, is one of the most beautiful we have explored.

Let’s look at how Trinidad became the home of enough Jews to build Temple Aaron. Jewish traders had been active along the Santa Fe Trail, on which Trinidad lies, for many years. In 1867, after Abraham Jacobs extended his stagecoach line from Denver to Trinidad, Jewish merchant Maurice Wise set up shop on Main Street. The Jaffa brothers, Henry, Sol, and Sam (later Mayor of Trinidad) soon followed and by 1878 there were enough Jews to form a B’nai B’rith lodge. As the city’s industrial enterprises resulting from coal-production and iron ore smelting grew, more Jews moved to Trinidad from the U.S. and Europe.

By 1883, Congregation Aaron was officially founded with 24 members; first holding services at the Odd Fellows Hall, and then at the new Jaffa Opera House. In 1887 they hired their first full-time rabbi, a Rev. Dr. Gluck, who remained for two years. By 1889 Temple Aaron Congregation, now numbering 54 members, hired Rabbi Leopold Freudenthal. A native of Germany and graduate of Heidelberg University, Rabbi Freudenthal had been ordained in America in one of the early classes of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. This was unusual at the time as most rabbis in America up to this point were educated and ordained in Europe and sometimes came to America under questionable circumstances, often sporting Old World traditions. The congregation was Reform from the very beginning. Freudenthal conducted the service in both German and English for a number of years, and gradually introduced moderate Reform practice.

He was charged with a great many tasks including the weekly services, direction of the Sunday school, and counseling. He also traveled southern Colorado and New Mexico officiating at weddings, burials, and Bar Mitzvah services. His circumcision record book shows that he officiated at the brit of about 200 Jewish infants during his 27-year tenure. He was devoted to encouraging Jewish practice and values throughout the region.

Near the turn of the century demand for Trinidad’s natural resources declined and many Jewish merchants left to find opportunity elsewhere. As the congregation decreased Rabbi Freudenthal twice agreed to salary cuts. He died in Trinidad in 1916, leaving with his sons, an astounding legacy for Temple Aaron.

Freudenthal’s sons Samuel, a prominent Colorado attorney, and Alfred a Trinidad surgeon, had a joint will with their father that stated that upon the death of the last of the three of them, a foundation was to be created. When Alfred died, his estate, estimated at between $400,000 and $1,000,000 was left to Temple Aaron in the form of the Alfred Freudenthal Memorial Trust Fund,to perpetuate Judaism in the area. The majority of the money is to provide for continuing maintenance and repairs of Temple Aaron. The remaining funds are to support a variety of important community social services and education as well as to “teach understanding, good will, and tolerance of all people regardless of nationality or religion.” Over the years the fund has benefited an estimated 24 non-profit institutions in the area, including neighboring churches.

The synagogue building was designed by Trinidad architect Isaac Hamilton Rapp who is known to have originated the “Santa Fe style”. The large social hall and two classrooms are on the bottom floor. On the floor above this is the sanctuary, which seats 250. The design of this substantial structure is described as eclectic Victorian, with a Moslem minaret (or onion dome) opposite a German tower on the front; Romanesque Gothic windows, and Moorish detail. The stained glass windows are original to the temple. Such lavishness of design indicates a prosperous era for the Jews of 1880s Trinidad. According to present day member Kathryn Rubin of Raton, New Mexico, the inside is even more beautiful than the outside. It boasts an extensively detailed hand-carved pulpit. The original cost of the temple was $11,915.36.

The Rubin family members have belonged to Temple Aaron since Barney Rubin opened his retail store in neighboring Raton, New Mexico in 1916. Kathryn Rubin says that in the 55 years since she married Leon and moved from Albuquerque to Raton, the congregation has always engaged an ordained rabbi to come to Trinidad on High Holy Days. These have included prestigious, even famous rabbis such as Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus, Sylvan Schwartzman, and presently Ken Erlich, the Dean of Admissions at HUC.

Kathryn Rubin recalled a day decades ago when she and her husband Leon took Dr. Marcus on an outing. As Leon filled the car with gas Dr. Marcus said, “You know your children won’t marry Jews” (because they were the only Jews in Raton). Kathryn replied, “They will go away to college and hopefully they will meet someone nice”; nice being a synonym for Jewish. Her premonition was correct. All three of the Rubins’ babyboomer aged children are married to Jews. In fact, in 1993 her granddaughter celebrated Temple Aaron’s only Bat Mitzvah in its 119-year history. Her grandson followed with his Bar Mitzvah in 1995.

Today there are only 15 members and they come from a geographically wide-spread radius. The Temple is perfectly maintained as it always has been because they have the Freudenthal funds and most importantly, the upbeat spirit and care of the Rubins and other congregants to make sure Temple Aaron continues its traditions. Kathryn Rubin says the service is Reform only, as it is “our duty to carry it on as it was started – Reform”. She asked me to say that she invites all nice Jewish people who are interested, to come to Trinidad and visit, or better yet, join the congregation. So, if you are ever driving on I25 in southern Colorado, I can assure you it will be worth taking the time to stop. And now you have a personal invitation.

Sources for this article: Congregation Aaron brochure; Trinidad, Colorado Summer Guide; Pioneer Jews by Harriett and Fred Rochlin; American Jewish Landmarks by Postal and Koppman; phone interview with Kathryn Rubin.

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