Synagogue Stands as a Testament to Jewish Faith
Anyone who’s read about Leadville’s past can recount the hundreds of stories of lawlessness, revelry, and blatant debauchery. It was an old west mining town in the “worst” way, at times. So on the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people – Yom Kippur begins at sunset today – one can understand the need for recompense. And for the hundreds of Leadville pioneer Jews, that atonement was often met at the local synagogue.
Today, the Temple Israel building has been dedicated to those early residents and now stands fully restored as a testament to this unique part of Leadville history. Last Sunday, September 23, the Temple Israel Foundation hosted an open house to present the synagogue in all its former (and present) glory.
Thanks to the foundation and personal dedication of local resident Bill Korn, the site now adds to Leadville’s reputation as having the most museums per capita than any other city in the United States.
Temple Israel Synagogue and Museum is located at 201 W. 4th Street and provides visitors with a view of what life was like for Leadville’s pioneer Jews. According to the group’s brochure, in the early 1880s, people from all social strata flocked to Leadville in search of their fortunes. Among the town’s approximately 30,000 inhabitants in the 1880s, some 300 were Jews, including David May and the Guggenheims.
Jews were amongst the early settlers of the upper Arkansas Valley (ca. 1861) and while some worked in the mines, most worked as merchants. Wholesale liquor was an area of commerce that proved to be particularly lucrative. Leadville’s earliest Jewish settlers mainly had roots in Germany, held assimilationist attitudes, and practiced Reform Judaism. Later immigrants were more religiously rigorous.
Leadville’s Jewish population declined with the rest of the town when the U.S. silver standard was abandoned in 1893. Leadville’s current population is about 3,000, with fewer than 100 Jews.
It was during Leadville’s first “boom” on September 19, 1884, that the Temple Israel was dedicated, during Rosh Hashanah, reflecting the size and strength of Leadville’s Jewish community.
Today, while regular services are no longer held in the synagogue, the building houses a small artifact collection that documents the experience of Leadville’s Jewish pioneers. This past June, Lori Hall-Araujo was hired by the foundation as Curator of Collections to catalogue and display nearly 150 artifacts. The collection includes objects supporting the historic record that Jews found prosperity as merchants, trades people, and even one brothel owner. Those interested in seeing the collection may schedule a tour through the group’s website at www.jewishleadville.org.
While the Temple Israel Foundation was founded in 1987 to acquire, historically rehabilitate, and maintain the synagogue and cemetery, most locals will remember the tragic fire in 2006, that nearly brought the building to the ground when an electrical mishap had flames shooting high into the Leadville sky. But like a phoenix from the ashes, the tragedy gave added zeal to the restoration project, which was supported by private contributions and four grants from the Colorado State Historical Fund. Restoration was completed in 2008.
The Temple Israel Foundation’s dedication to preserving and upholding Leadville’s Jewish history does not stop here. While the synagogue is a testament to the life of faith for Jewish pioneers, the Hebrew Cemetery has also been restored to protect and honor the souls lovingly resting there.
According to their website, as Leadville grew explosively during the late 1870s, it quickly realized and satisfied a need for ample interment acreage. The Jewish community first required space with the passing of Gustave “Fred” Jelenko during June of 1879. He was settled into the southwest corner of the newly established Evergreen Cemetery by the following January, 1880, (he may first have been buried in and then moved from Kokomo on nearby Fremont Pass) at which time title to about 101,000 square feet of that southwest corner had been transferred to the Hebrew Benevolent Association to hold the mortal remains of the pioneer Jews of Leadville.
During the ensuing decades, the Hebrew Cemetery came to serve as the resting place for some 132 souls (now 138), including the last “old time” Jewish Leadville native-Minette Miller (born 1894, died 1981). Only 59 original markers remain and the locations of 12 people have been lost. This is the sad result of a long period of neglect which ended only in the late 1980s with the creation of the Temple Israel Foundation and its subsequent acquisition of the cemetery through a quiet title action during June, 1993.
Since taking control of the cemetery grounds very significant volunteer efforts, led by the Denver chapter of B’nai B’rith, have cleared much of the site from heavy overgrowth, constructed an encircling fence, contributed an entry arch and a monument, and culminated in the reconsecration of the cemetery in August, 1999. The replacement of missing markers was completed in 2004. The cemetery experienced its most recent interment during December, 2001, in an area devoted to renewed demand which now contains available plots. Current endeavors include a computer mapping of cemetery (beware: long download) and the continuation of annual volunteer cleanups every June.
So, on this holiest of days, this Yom Kippur, a heartfelt “Mazel Tov” to all of the dedicated volunteers and contributors who brought back The Temple Israel Synagogue and the Hebrew Cemetery to stand tall and proud.
To schedule a tour, reserve the synagogue for special events, make genealogical inquiries, or to make a contribution visit their website at www.jewishleadville.org.