TRINIDAD • In the late summer of 2016, Neal Paul was on his way to work in the Denver suburbs when he heard the news on the radio.
Temple Aaron, one of the oldest synagogues in the Rocky Mountain West and the oldest in Colorado, was for sale.
It was just before the High Holidays. After almost 130 years, no services would be held in the old mining outpost on the state’s southern edge. Temple Aaron would be closed — that magnificent, towering, hilltop edifice of brick, stone and stained glass.
“It was just a kick in the gut,” Paul recalls. “How could we allow that? How could that be?”
The answer, he found, was kind of a long story. It was a simple matter of money, yes. But it was also a complicated matter of faith, duty and perseverance that was all finally met by desperation.
In a town where the number of Jewish residents could be counted on one or two hands throughout this century, how to explain Temple Aaron’s survival up to that point in 2016?
The faith’s local population is believed to have hovered around 250 in 1917. It sharply declined from there with decades of economic downturn locally. The last full-time rabbi left in 1916. Considering the dozen or so congregants seen in pews in the ’50s and ’60s, one might say Temple Aaron lasting up to that point was a miracle.
The miracle continues.
That’s thanks to Paul and a small group of other outsiders who have spent the past five years finding the money and building a nonprofit to save the synagogue. Now, Temple Aaron is being considered for National Historic Landmark designation — a move that advocates say would bring even more attention and support to the house of worship on these western fringes that has managed to captivate souls farther afield.
About 60 have formed a virtual congregation. From Albuquerque to Santa Fe to Colorado Springs to Denver and states beyond, people tune into twice-a-month sessions on Zoom led by Rabbi Rob Lennick, CEO of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico.
At rabbinical school back in the ’80s in Cincinnati, Lennick’s mentor happened to talk about Temple Aaron.
He “used to describe it as a small, saving remnant that God loves above all,” Lennick says. “And that feeling comes back. We’re just this tiny, little Jewish pilot light out there, and it still flames up into a strong, bright beacon of Judaism. Even from this tiny, little pinpoint of the world in Trinidad. It’s pretty amazing.”
It’s thanks as well to the ones who’ve been here all along.
Era almost ends
That’s brothers Ron and Randy Rubin, who grew up in the next town over, Raton. They were boys in the ’50s and ’60s, two of that dozen or so in the pews of Temple Aaron. They don’t remember many other kids around.
“We grew up with wonderful, old Jewish people,” Ron Rubin says. “We were in their homes and at the synagogue, and they were our very, very best friends.
“And then everyone sort of left or died. My family was the only one who stayed.”
The Rubins had been in Raton since the early 1900s, since Ron’s and Randy’s grandfather fled persecution in Russia. It was the boys’ mother, Kathryn, who fueled their faith. She married their father in 1946, on the heels of the war and atrocities of the Holocaust.
Kathryn’s devotion shined after 1987, when she took oversight of the fund that had long kept up the synagogue. She kept up holiday services and paid the bills and maintenance from what was left of the original $250,000 foundation established by Alfred Freudenthal four decades prior.
Freudenthal was among a line of influential Jews who took root in Trinidad in the 1860s. They followed a pioneer trail to an emerging city of promise, one that would boom with coal and the railroad.
An early store on Main Street was opened by Jews. The city’s first mayor, in 1876, was Sam Jaffa, whose father was Temple Aaron’s namesake. Sam and his brothers also built Trinidad’s opera house. That was in 1882, a year before the congregation formally organized and raised funds for the temple’s construction in 1889.
A later member was Dr. Stanley Biber, who became America’s most prominent sex change surgeon. He died in 2006 and was buried in Trinidad’s Jewish cemetery.
Alfred Freudenthal was the son of the temple’s first rabbi. It’s a name at least partly responsible for the local college and health care system — and a name almost entirely responsible for Temple Aaron’s longevity.
For generations, managers kept a tight budget with that endowment, the last being the Rubins.
“That sustained everything up until about 2010 or ’11,” says Randy Rubin. “Things got pretty dire then.”
It got to where he, Ron and their mother were paying costs out of their own pockets. Gas, water and electricity added up, while “the big bite was insuring the building,” Randy says. “That was many thousands.”
Local Jews weren’t around to help. “We just didn’t have the money. We didn’t know what to do,” Randy says. “We decided it has to be sold. There was no way to maintain it.”
It was an emotional time then in 2016. Kathryn Rubin was into her 90s. It seemed the synagogue would end on her watch.
“Heart-wrenching,” Ron says, fighting back tears at the thought now. “Then we had an angel of sorts.”
Carrying the beacon
Like Neal Paul, a real estate broker in Denver, a Jewish attorney in Boulder, David London, got word of the temple selling. The two arranged to meet the Rubins at the temple, where they pitched the family on an idea to work their networks and come up with cash. They pleaded for the “for sale” sign to be removed.
“Driving down three hours in the middle of nowhere,” Paul recalls, “and then eventually coming into this little town and seeing this special building on top of this hill. ... It just put a lump in my throat.”
The Rubins agreed to the strangers’ pitch. That launched conversations and developments, perhaps most significantly the $50,000-plus that was raised in a grant-matching challenge by Larry Mizel, the well-known Jewish philanthropist in Denver. That was in 2018, the year Kathryn Rubin died.
“My mother would be so happy,” Ron says. “She would think, ‘Oh my God, my sons saved the temple.’ Of course, it’s the board that’s really made it happen.”
The Rubin brothers sit on the nonprofit’s five-person board, which includes Paul. He says the temple raised more than $100,000 last year, continuing an upward trend that gives long-term hope for paying bills and eventually replacing the roof, expected to be a massive undertaking.
Just as Temple Aaron’s few worshippers saw a future against the odds, so Rabbi Lennick does today.
“How did it still continue?” Lennick asks. “I think because there’s a tenacity in Jewish life, especially when we find ourselves holding the beacon. Being Jewish, it can’t be taken for granted, so people try harder. It’s like with Judaism, if we don’t pay attention to it, no one will. There’s a sense of pride and desire to keep that light bright and burning.”
Paul sees the future depending on people, remote congregants and others. Strangers willing to step up, both in terms of funding and leading. Strangers like him.
Paul struggles to pinpoint what it was that struck him about that news from the radio in 2016, or that lump he felt in his throat upon seeing the temple.
Growing up, he never considered himself particularly religious. “It’s hard to explain,” he says. “Judaism was never out of me. It was never not a part of me.”
It occupied a place of hurt. A place of not-so-distant tragedy.
His parents were teenage prisoners of concentration camps. They survived, while most of their family was murdered.
It was a hard history for Paul to carry. Especially hard at moments in his life where he faced antisemitism.
“I kinda keep it hidden away,” Paul says. “But I think that’s part of the reason I’m probably involved in this. Because we have lost so much, and if I can have some control in saving one thing into the future ... yeah, I think I’d be pleased about that.”
Ron Rubin thinks his childhood friends would be pleased. Those wonderful, old Jewish people now buried at the cemetery in Trinidad.
“I go occasionally to talk to them,” he says. “See how they’re doing.”