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Temple Aaron in Trinidad, Colorado was built in 1889.


Temple Aaron

Text and Photos by
Sharon Niederman

Set on a steep hill on a shady side street in Trinidad, Colorado stands an imposing reminder of the endurance of the Jewish community in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Temple Aaron, two stories of red brick and pink sandstone, punctuated with Tiffany-style stained-glass windows of yellow, red and blue, capped with a crimson onion dome, has been the site of High Holiday services every year since it was built in 1889. It retains the honor of being the oldest synagogue in Colorado located on its original site, at 407 So. Maple St. In New Mexico, it is pre-dated by Temple Montefiore in Las Vegas, built in 1877.

The hybrid Victorian-Moorish building, designed by influential architect Isaac Hamilton Rapp, who went on to help develop “Santa Fe Style,” is a proud reminder of the tenacity of Jewish roots in the West. In 1872, this fledgling Jewish community celebrated its first Rosh Hashana in a Trinidad shop. German Jewish merchants settled in this coal-mining center on the Santa Fe Trail, then one of Colorado’s most prosperous cities. Congregants traveled across Raton Pass from Elizabethtown, the gold-mining boom town near Eagle Nest, NM.

Eventually, New Mexico pioneer families including the Herzsteins of Clayton, the Floersheims, the Rosenwalds of Las Vegas and the Gusdorfs of Taos would participate in and support Temple Aaron. Often they traveled great distances by wagon to attend services.

In 1879, 29 men formed the B’nai Brith Lodge in Trinidad. Then, on July 23, 1883, at the home of Sam Jaffa, who would go on to become Trinidad’s first mayor, 17 men formed the Israelites of Trinidad and decided to name their Reform house of worship Congregation Aaron, in honor of the Jaffa brothers’ father. The Ladies Auxliiary, also founded in 1889, got busy with dinners and bake sale to help raise the $12,500 needed to pay for the building before construction began.

A pipe organ arrived by wagon, to be electrified decades later. The crimson-carpeted interior and gold-stained pine woodwork of the second-story sanctuary continue to inspire awe. Schoolrooms, a kitchen and a spacious social hall are located on the first floor.

Kathryn Rubin lights the candles commencing the 2005 Passover Seder.

The continuity of Temple Aaron is due largely to the dedication of the Rubin family of Raton, NM. Their third-generation, 91 year-old clothing shop in Raton, 17 miles south on Raton Pass, was founded by Barney Rubin. As family legend goes, Barney arrived in New York from Minsk, Russia in 1916, “with only a gold piece and his patent-leather boots,” then made his way to Pueblo, CO sweeping Pullman cars. Like many others of his generation, he became a peddler with a team of horses before founding his store in Raton.

His daughter-in-law, Kathryn, with her husband, Leon, son, Randy, and daughter-in-law, Tamar, works with enthusiasm to insure that the lights of Temple Aaron continue to shine. “I’m just a newcomer,” she insists. “I only arrived in 1946.”

Kathryn is the “keeper of the keys” to the synagogue, the caretaker or “shamus,” a role she inherited in 1987 with the passing of Beatrice Sanders, who, for 34 years served as the community’s lay rabbi.

“She was the glue that kept us together,” says Rubin, who imports a “circuit-riding” rabbi each year to conduct High Holiday services. This year, Rabbi Howard Hirsch, who visits several congregations in Ohio, California, Florida and Colorado Springs, will officiate. Rabbi Hirsch is active in interfaith activities and a founder of the Center for Christian-Jewish Dialogue.

Thanks to an endowment created by the sons of Rabbi Leopold Freudenthal, who officiated from 1889 until his death in 1916, and the efforts of the congregation’s 18 member families who live scattered throughout the region from Ute Park, NM to Walsenberg, CO, Temple Aaron is much more than a monument to the past. All major holidays — the High Holidays, Simchas Torah, Purim, Passover and Hanukkah, continue to be celebrated here. The Colorado Historic Society is offering matching funds for the much-needed re-stabilization of the building.

And since 1940, on the Sunday between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, members of the surrounding communities fill the 250-seat sanctuary to enjoy the annual interfaith program. Following a program of Leonard Bernstein or George Gershwin, white-gloved ladies pour tea from silver tea services while members of the crowd socialize over fancy pastries, happy to be among friends of all faiths.

Directions

To visit Temple Aaron, take Interstate 25 to Trinidad and take exit 13-B. Take Main Street to Maple and make a right on Maple. Temple Aaron is on the corner of Third and Maple. To arrange a tour, contact Kathryn Rubin at 505-445-9026, who says visitors are welcome if they call ahead.


This article first appeared in a different form in the
Denver Post and the New Mexico Jewish Link.


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