By Kevin Strong
TRINIDAD, Colo. (CBS4) – Let’s set the stage. It’s 1865. Colorado is not yet a state. Settlers are beginning to stream in, following the railroads as they push east across the plains from the Mississippi Valley.
Settlements along centuries-old trade routes like the Santa Fe Trail find themselves at the center of this expansion. One such settlement, the suddenly-not-so-quiet ranching community of Trinidad, Colorado.
Among those looking to stake their fortunes in the new west, Jewish merchants from the east.
“The first Jewish merchant came in 1865 and set up a mercantile on main street,” said Mary Ellen Hadad, a local historian in Trinidad.
The Jewish community in Trinidad was off to a thriving start.
“During that time, there were more Jewish merchants than other types,” continues Hadad. “The Jewish community has always been part of the [Trinidad] community, not only as a congregation, but as part of city government and organizations, rotary, that sort of thing.”
Before long, this new, thriving community came together to form Temple Aaron, and began to look for suitable places to worship. Community halls sufficed until they raised enough money to buy a small plot of land on a hill near the courthouse.
It was on that plot of land that they built the red-brick building to house their new congregation.
“It cost about $12,000 to build the building. It was dedicated in 1889 and became a really important part of the community,” said Hadad.
The building itself has always been an iconic landmark. Architect Isaac Hamilton Rapp designed the two-story building, drawing inspiration from Turkish and Moorish architecture. Stained glass features prominently in the design as well. Inside, those red, blue, and yellow stained glass windows bathe the sanctuary in a warm, inviting light.
The sanctuary is unique in that it faces west, whereas most face east. With the exception of the modern light tan paneling covering the original plaster lath walls, the interior of the sanctuary remains unchanged. The original gas candelabras — now converted to electricity — still provide light. The pews are believed to have been brought in through the windows, as they are too long to have made their way up the stairs.
Up in the upper balcony, one of the few still-working Esty pipe organs provides instrumentation for the songs of the service.
Downstairs, a welcoming community center that in many ways feels more like walking into someone’s home than a synagogue.
“Welcoming,” perhaps may be the key word here. Throughout its history, Temple Aaron has prided itself on its openness to the community.
“It has a warmth feeling when you walk in here that makes you feel very, very homey,” said Kathryn Rubin.
She first came to Temple Aaron in 1946, and is the oldest living member of the congregation. She says Temple Aaron is not only an anchor for Trinidad’s Jewish community, but also for all of Trinidad.
The community center was always bustling. It played frequent host to dinners, concerts, and talks.
“It was used every night but Friday, Saturday, and Sunday,” with those three days being reserved for religious services. “As long as it’s been here, it’s been a community place.”
Rubin raised her two sons, Ron and Randy, in this synagogue. They — likewise — raised their children here.
“This is home,” said Randy Rubin, reciting the dates for numerous bar- and bat-mitzvahs his family has held here. “This has been my spiritual home for a long, long time. It’s near and dear to my heart.”
His brother Ron shares those sentiments, adding that growing up in the warm glow of such a small congregation strengthened his faith. Still, he says, he didn’t realize how unique Temple Aaron truly was.
“For me growing up, this was my temple and my congregation. I had no idea of its historic significance or what it meant to Judaism in the entire country. I’ve come to appreciate it as I’ve gotten older and time has progressed, and now it means more to me than it has at any other time.”
The progress of time, however, is not always a good thing. The roaring economy which supported Trinidad around the turn of the 20th century has faded with the turn of the 21st. Temple members have left the area. The endowment set up for the synagogue’s continued upkeep has not been able to keep up with the costs of maintaining an old building.
“There is very, very little money, and very few Jews,” quips Kathryn Rubin when asked to summarize the problems facing the congregation.
That shortfall led the congregation to do the unthinkable — close the doors. That ended 127 years of continuous operation; the longest in the state, some claim the longest east of the Mississippi.
Today, a For Sale sign sits in the front lawn of the temple. The congregation hopes a buyer will come along who is sympathetic to the history and significance of the building. They’d like to see it continue — at least in some respects — as a spiritual place for religious celebrations, but — they note — that’s up to the buyer.
A historic easement on the property will protect it from being torn down, but that doesn’t protect the interior form or function.
B’nai B’rith of Denver — a Jewish community organization — has taken an interest in helping the congregation find a buyer sympathetic to their goals.
“We’re always interested in seeing that Jewish history in Colorado, which pre-dates Colorado becoming a state, is maintained to the best ability we have,” said Bill Berger, with B’nai B’rith. “If there’s a good story and good vision of how this building can be preserved and help enrich the ongoing history here in Colorado, we may be able to bring in some funds.”
For now, the congregation of Temple Aaron prays for a positive outcome, and remains an active part of the community of Trinidad.
“Maybe it can be a museum, and we hope that we can reserve some days if someone takes this over that we can continue to have our high holy days services,” hopes Kathryn Rubin.
When asked why she’d like to see it continue, she says simply, “This is as close to heaven as I’ve been.”
Visit a special section of Colorado Preservation, Inc. to learn more about Temple Aaron. The organization has declared it one of their Most Endangered Places for 2017.
Learn more about Temple Aaron on the Jewish Museum of the American West’s website.