History of Temple Aaron
RENEWED OPTIMISM IN EFFORTS TO SAVE THE OLDEST SYNAGOGUE IN THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS
The most historic synagogue in the Mountain West (that portion of the United States between the Dakotas and the West Coast) sits not in any big city but on a quiet street in the small town of Trinidad, Colorado. Trinidad is about 200 miles south of Denver and 15 miles north of the New Mexico border. The town was founded in the 1860’s as a stop on the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail and there have been Jews there ever since. In fact, when the town incorporated in 1876, its first mayor, Sam Jaffa, was Jewish. The local Jewish community founded Congregation Aaron in 1883. Six years later in 1889, for the princely sum of approximately $12,000, the congregation built the magnificent red brick structure that still graces 407 South Maple Street today. They named it after Aaron Jaffa, the father of Henry, Sam, and Sol Jaffa. See an excerpt from Western States Jewish Historical Journal about the founding of the temple here.
Having celebrated its 130th birthday in June, 2019, Temple Aaron is one of less than two dozen original structures that have continuously been synagogues since the 19th century in the United States, and the third oldest such structure west of the Mississippi River.
This small 19th century community built their synagogue in anticipation of a long and prosperous tenure in Trinidad. The building was designed by the regionally famous architects the Rapp brothers. It features numerous beautiful stained-glass windows in a color scheme of red, blue and yellow, a 200 person second-floor sanctuary with an elevated wooden bimah, and an enormous pipe organ on a balcony above the sanctuary. The building has been recognized as being of tremendous historical importance to the state of Colorado by its two major historical preservation organizations.
That intended grandeur never quite came to pass. Trinidad’s last full-time rabbi left in 1916. However, one of his sons, Alfred Freudenthal, established a foundation in the 1940’s and endowed it with approximately $250,000, which was sufficient to cover the congregation’s expenses for over seventy years. For generations, a small but resilient Jewish community thrived in Trinidad and the surrounding areas of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. Temple Aaron’s most famous congregant is the late Dr. Stanley Biber, who was America’s most prominent sex reassignment surgeon for many decades. He was an active member and lay leader in the congregation and is buried in Trinidad’s Jewish cemetery (a section of a larger cemetery now owned and lovingly maintained by the Masonic order.)
As the Jewish population of the area gradually but inexorably decreased, the congregation and the building were taken care of by the Rubin family of Raton, New Mexico (located about twenty minutes to the south). Since the late 1980’s Kathryn, Leon, and sons Ron and Randy Rubin kept things going, holding regular high holiday services and other Jewish and secular events. However, as the Freudenthal Foundation’s funds dwindled and the building’s repair and maintenance needs became overwhelming, the Rubins, feeling that they had run out of options, decided to close Temple Aaron and put the building up for sale just before Rosh Hashanah 2016. For the first time since 1883, no shofar blew in Trinidad.
However, all hope was not lost. After reading of the Temple’s closure in the Denver Post, where it was front page news, David London, an attorney in Boulder, Colorado, called Randy Rubin and asked if there was anything that could be done to save Temple Aaron. By early 2017, enough interest had been generated to convince the Rubin family to take the building off the market and see if it could be preserved. A small Seder was held to prove that Temple Aaron remained a place of Jewish observance, if only sporadically. Other members of the community joined the effort, and by January 2018, a modest fundraising campaign was underway.
Larry A. Mizel, a well-known Denver Jewish philanthropist, issued a challenge grant toward this effort. Within three months, the challenge was met and over $50,000 has been raised as of the end of May, 2018.
These funds will enable Temple Aaron to meet its operating expenses for the next year (or more) and commission a historic building assessment which will detail the building’s repair and maintenance needs. A capital campaign to make these repairs and permanently endow the building will begin shortly. Together with other stakeholders, London, the Rubin family, and others hope to create a 21st century congregation with members from Boulder to Albuquerque and beyond, and hold monthly religious and secular events.
Those interested may contribute to the efforts to save Temple Aaron by donating online here.
After coming within a whisker of being sold and falling out of our people’s hands forever, there is now renewed hope for Temple Aaron to continue to serve as a monument to the Jewish history of the Rocky Mountain region. Temple Aaron celebrated its 130th Anniversary in June, 2019 with a three-day gala celebration; the next event will be High Holiday services in Trinidad once again in 2019, continuing a tradition that has endured for over 130 years in a small Colorado town.
In late 2019, the Freudenthal Foundation was officially closed. Temple Aaron of Trinidad Colorado has replaced the foundation as the legal entity governing the temple's operations.
Links to information about Temple Aaron's early history:
The American Israelite of Cincinnati OH published the following on June 27, 1889:
These issues of Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society, from 1979, 1982, and 1987 include more great history and photos of the temple’s early families:
And in June 1983, members of Temple Aaron commemorated the birth of Congregation Aaron with a special commemorative ceremony. Click the PDF icon to see the program they prepared:
Commemorating a Century: 1883 - 1983
Ruth Cohen (descendant of Henry Jaffa),
Valerie Shortman (descendant of Sol Jaffa),
Phyllis Francois (descendant of Sol Jaffa), and
Lisa May (descendant of Sam Jaffa) standing under Dor v'Dor.
The four recently discovered their fellow descendants of the Jaffa Brothers, who founded Temple Aaron in Trinidad, Colorado in 1889.