Trinidad has a long distinguished history of acceptance. Regardless of color, race, creed, religion, philosophy, or orientation this Western town is notable for the encompassing sense, born of the people that found themselves here, that it has always been more important to ask what you do, rather then who you are, or what you might believe.
Following the unveiling of a historical marker, during the 130-year anniversary celebration of Temple Aaron — one of the longest continually operated Jewish synagogues west of the Mississippi River — Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation President Jerry Klinger rushed to share a story with a reporter after the unveiling ceremony for the new marker, before his own flight back to Florida.
“I think there’s something you should know about this little town,” begins Klinger, whose organization is one of those credited for the marker.
“So, I went up to the Trinidad History Museum and I asked them ‘if’ and ‘how’ they tell the story of the Jewish community here,” said Klinger. “They said, ‘Oh, yeah!’ and took me over to this panel and showed me the one that said ‘Jewish merchants’ and I read the panel and went, ‘Oh.’ You did something here that a lot of places won’t do: You put the word ‘Jewish’ in. And that’s a reflection of the inclusiveness, recognition of the mixed community, the commonality of building a community, as one from different elements.
“It will sound weird to you, but it’s true. There are places that refuse to have that sort of identifier in there. There are places that refuse to depict the Star of David. For example, when I asked them (the Temple Aaron Board) and they said they wanted to put the Star of David on it (the marker) and I said ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yeah! There won’t be any problem here,’ they said. And I said ‘OK.’ Because there are some places I go and it’s a ‘PC’ problem. They don’t do it. So, I just wanted to say, to reflect on Trinidad, this is probably a little more special then you guys are even realizing. I just wanted to share that little bit. Just a simple thing in your museum and you included the word ‘Jewish’ to identify the diversity and broad character of this community and what built it. And that’s something in other places that is forboden.”
The theme of inclusiveness rang out in many of the stories told at last weekend’s celebration of Temple Aaron. Pamela Nelson, representing Zion’s Lutheran Church (which was founded during roughly the same time period as Temple Aaron) shared stories of how the two congregations depended on one another in the early days even sharing and caring for each other’s clergy. When they laid the corner stone for Temple Aaron, Zion’s was there. And Zion’s congregation expected Temple Aaron to be at their own cornerstone ceremony. A short-time minister, new to Trinidad, objected to this. Yet when the women of Zion’s heard this they quickly remedied the situation, sent the minister packing and made sure their Jewish friends were beside them.
Another theme of the weekend’s celebration was “family.” The family of Temple Aaron was dispersed across the country near and far as the congregation dwindled over the years. The Rubin family has acted as the temple’s “keepers,” with Randy Rubin of Raton the most recent torchbearer. Yet, in 2016 Temple Aaron was closed and the possibility of the venerable Rapp building being sold was dangerously close. In 2017, the building was placed on Colorado’s list of most endangered places. Since then, a cadre of descendants and those in love with the building, many of whom live near Denver, has formed to preserve the temple, the history and the families it represents. Those descendants have found support nationwide and have begun to find more descendants and rejoin families that were once tied to the temple.
“Our mother passed away 12 years ago and she was a direct descendant and this was a very important thing to her, her history and where she came from,” said Susan Cohen the great granddaughter of Henry Jaffa, a founder of Trinidad, Temple Aaron and the with his brother, was one of the builders of the Jaffa Opera House. “There were a lot of early deaths along the way. So, she was the only person that really kept it alive. It means a great deal to see the building. I went to High Holidays last year and the feeling of ‘this is my past and this is where we came from’ is just an unbelievable feeling.”
Now it is up to a board of those descendants and lover’s of Temple Aaron to preserve first that feeling, then the stories and finally a beautiful building. They know there is work to do and much of it is just now getting underway. Even before a plan is laid out for Temple Aaron’s future, they have assured it will at least be preserved. Maybe for another 130 years… Hopefully, far beyond.