The Jewish people believe it is decided who will be inscribed in the “book of life” on Rosh Hashanah, the holiday that begins Friday night.
The metaphorical document — called sefer hachaim in Hebrew — holds the names of who will survive. “Who shall live and who shall die?” a Jewish poem this time of year ponders.
Four years ago, it seemed there was not room in the book of life for Temple Arron in Trinidad. One of the oldest synagogues in the West and the longest continuously operating Jewish house of worship in Colorado was destined to die after 127 years.
A “for sale” post was pounded in the yard in front of Temple Aaron and some of its beloved torah scrolls were sold. The family who served as its caretakers saw no future for the ornate building other than adaptive reuse. Trinidad’s once-booming Jewish population had dwindled to maybe one or two people, and the upkeep costs were simply too high.
But the fate of the synagogue and its Reform congregation dating back to the days of the Santa Fe Trail was never sealed. And on Friday night and Saturday morning, a few dozen Jews from across Colorado and the southwest will gather to pray in person at Temple Aaron, just as they have been doing for now 131 years. Even more are expected to join in via Zoom.
“This synagogue continues to continue its story,” said Rabbi Robert Lennick, who will travel from Santa Fe, New Mexico to lead the high holy day services this weekend.
The story of Temple Aaron and its revival is an unlikely one.
It’s not that Trinidad’s Jewish population rebounded in recent years, or that a wealthy benefactor stepped in to save the day. Instead, a group of strangers with no connection to the building simply felt compelled to help after it went up for sale and its story started to spread across the state, the country and the globe.
For years it was left to the Rubin family — brothers Ron and Randy and their mother, Kathryn — to keep Temple Aaron from crumbling. But by 2016, they had run out of money. The building needed tens of thousands of dollars in repairs and only a handful of loosely connected congregants remained.
In stepped members of the Jewish community in Colorado unwilling to watch the synagogue become something other than a sacred place. And so began their multi-year struggle to keep Temple Aaron’s doors open.
Now, there’s some money in the bank and a bonafide nonprofit board that consists of more than just the Rubins. It includes: Neal Paul and his wife, Sherry Knecht, of Denver; David London, an attorney; and Kim Grant, endangered places program director for Colorado Preservation Inc.
There are still major repairs needed, including a new boiler and a roof replacement, but at least there’s a path forward. Until the work is done, events — such as Shabbat services and social gatherings — can only be held in warm months.
“Long term, we really need to set up an endowment,” said Knecht, who serves as treasurer. “But, in the meantime, we’ll have our events. And even if a little plaster falls on somebody, or there’s a little leak here and there, we’ll make do.”
Ron and Randy Rubin are ecstatic that Temple Aaron has been able to live on. Their mother, Kathryn, took over leadership of the synagogue in 1985 along with her late husband, Leon. She died in 2018, two days after her 95th birthday, but was able to see a new generation of leadership take interest and take over.
“I keep thinking, and I pray every night,” Kathryn said in 2016, when it looked like Temple Aaron was done for. “Something is going to happen to that synagogue.”
Frankly, no one else saw a future for the synagogue as she did. Its rebound seems, to some, almost a religious miracle.
“When I saw that (for sale) sign out in front, when I had that done, I would cry thinking of this building, which had been built for the thriving Jewish community in the 1900s, was going to become a restaurant or bar,” said Ron, who lives in Colorado Springs. “Who knows what it could have become.”
Now, he’s able to see the synagogue’s social hall, decorated with pictures from decades past, bustling with activity whenever there’s an event.
“When we see that little social hall full of Jews and non-Jews — to see all the people around the tables, singing and eating — it’s so affirming,” Ron said. “I never would have believed it.”
Randy Rubin, who lives not far away, in Raton, New Mexico, said he visited the temple on Tuesday to prepare it for the upcoming Rosh Hashanah services. He sat in the sanctuary, bathed in light streaming through stained-glass windows, just marveling. A woman was practicing ahead of the holiday on the synagogue’s historic organ.
“This was built for the ages,” Randy said. “This was an edifice that was meant to be there, firmly planted in southeast Colorado.”
Why did strangers step in to save Temple Aaron?
“While Judaism hasn’t really fed my soul for most of my life, working with the temple feels like being at home somehow,” Knecht said. “I love the community that’s grown in the past few years. It gives me a lot of joy to see people being able to come to services and events, to connect with one another, and to know that the temple will continue to stand and be there for later generations.”
Temple Aaron’s board is now seeking National Historic Landmark status, which they hope will help them secure more funding. In 2017 it was added to Colorado’s list of most-endangered places.
Temple Aaron’s congregation dates to 1883, when Jews were a driving force in Trinidad and the southwest. There were synagogues in nearby towns in northern New Mexico as well.
In fact, the origin stories of Temple Aaron and Trinidad share a main character. The town’s first mayor, Samuel Jaffa, helped create the congregation. The temple once had 75 families and even a full-time rabbi.
However, Trinidad slowly emptied of Jews and they never really returned. Temple Aaron remained, but had only a few congregants. Its ranks included Dr. Stanley Biber, the surgeon who helped Trinidad become an early center for gender-confirmation surgery.
But even if it is no longer a Jewish center, like Brooklyn or Pittsburgh, visitors can sense the roots of the religion in Trinidad when they step inside Temple Aaron.
“When you go in that building, you can feel the presence of all the generations that were there before,” said Lennick, the rabbi who will be leading Rosh Hashanah services this weekend.
Lennick says leading services at Temple Aaron is especially meaningful to him. One of his mentors from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the late Rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus, once led the congregation from the same altar. It embodies the Hebrew phrase l’dor v’dor, which means “from generation to generation,” he said.
“What could be more inspiring,” he asked, “than a congregation on the verge of disappearing, finding its way back?”
Want to attend Temple Aaron’s Rosh Hashanah services virtually
Advance registration is required at https://www.templeaaron.org/events
Friday at 7 p.m.: https://zoom.us/j/96476401304?pwd=WDJGbEkrRjJmaEZ1SWcyRnZ2anVCUT09
Saturday at 9:30 a.m.: https://zoom.us/j/91869824072?pwd=eUJmelRPNkdhVzFMK2VyQitPckt3UT09
To learn more about Temple Aaron or to help keep its doors open, visit http://www.templeaaron.org/