Temple Aaron and the Pioneer Jews of Trinidad, Colorado
The beautiful Temple Aaron, in Trinidad, Colorado, has been home to a small but passionate congregation since its founding in 1883.
The congregation has been led by an unbroken chain of descendants of its early members.
Trinidad, founded in 1876, is located at the foot of the Raton Pass in Southern Colorado, about 20 miles from the New Mexico border.
It grew with the trade along the Santa Fe Trail and eventually became a coal town.
In 1902 the state’s worst mine explosion cost 13 miners their lives there, and in the 1960s Trinidad was known briefly as the sex-change capital of the world. Today it is a town of approximately 9,000 citizens and a very active Historical Society.
During its establishment in the late 19th century Trinidad had many Jews among its prominent and active citizens.
Also at this time, several legendary Western characters, such as Mother Jones, Kit Carson and Wyatt Earp and later Will Rogers spent time in Trinidad.
During the 1880s Bat Masterson and his brother were successive Marshals.
The first Jews arrived in Trinidad in 1867, trading along Santa Fe Trail.
Maurice Wise, the first Jewish settler, and his brother Isaac opened a store on Main Street .
In 1872 Henry and Sol Jaffa came to town to manage a general store for their friend, Henry Biernbaum. Eventually they opened their own Jaffa Brothers Trading Company. Their brother Sam soon followed.
Trinity’s first Rosh Hashanah was observed in a local store.
Sam Jaffa was elected chairman of the Trinadad Town Council when the city was incorporated in 1876.
Also on that original board were Isaac Levy and Abe Mansbach.
In 1878 or 1879, a B’nai B’rith chapter was founded with 29 members, half of whom traveled from New Mexico.
Sam Jaffa was its first president.
During 1883, Congregation Aaron was founded with 24 members and named after the Jaffas’ father Aaron, a rabbi in the Old Country.
Henry Biernbaum was its first President. .
Services were first held in the International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF Hall), with Sam Jaffa and his brother Sol leading prayers.
Later they moved to the Jaffa Opera House (now the Trinidad Opera House) which was Trinidad’s multi-purpose venue for many community activities.
By 1888 a religious school had been established.
Rabbi Gluck was engaged as Spiritual Leader, and stayed 2 years.
In 1889, Temple Aaron’s new building was dedicated.
Architect Isaac Hamilton Rapp designed it in a Moorish Revival style, with stained-glass windows and an onion dome.
Rapp designed many other buildings in Trinidad, and was later a founder of the “Santa Fe” style.
On the day Temple Aaron’s cornerstone was laid, the congregation consisted of 46 men and their families.
It served Jewish communities several small towns in Colorado and New Mexico, as well as Trinidad.
That same year the Hebrew Ladies Aid Society was founded.
The ladies supported Jewish life in Trinidad and raised funds for Jewish charities and for Temple Aaron with activities often open to the whole town.
For example, they held a Halloween Fair (1889), a Strawberry Festival (1890), Harvest Fair (1896). There was reciprocity between the Catholic and Jewish fundraising.
Rabbi Leopold Frendenthal from Heidelberg University and Hebrew Union College, arrived and stayed 27 years, until his death in 1916.
Temple Aaron was a reform congregation whose services were conducted in both German and English.
Rabbi Frendenthal’s sons, Samuel and Alfred, set up the Alfred Freudenthal Memorial Trust Fund, which maintains the synagogue building, helps the needy in Trinidad regardless of race or religion, and has set up the Trinidad Health Center and various scholarships.
The directors of the fund, sons of the original founders of Temple Aaron, insured the congregation’s survival for many years.
They were Leopold Gottlieb, Gilbert Sanders and Albert Moses.
According to the U.S. Census, starting in the 1900s, many Jewish families moved on when other opportunities presented themselves.
Leopold Sanders, President of the Chamber of Commerce, led the congregation until his death in 1935.
Gilbert Sanders, who, like his brother, served as lay rabbi, died in 1952.
In 1952 Bernice Sanders, Gilbert’s widow, took over Presidency of Temple Aaron. Like her late husband and her late brother-in-law, she was the shul’s lay rabbi.
As of 1967 seven families belonged to the congregation: 15 people, including two families from New Mexico.
Mrs. Sanders passed her mantle to Kathryn Rubin in 1987. Ms. Rubin is part a family of merchants from Raton, New Mexico who joined the congregation in 1916. She has been caretaker of the shul.
She and her family have insured that Temple Aaron remains a synagogue, even importing circuit rabbis for High Holiday services, which have been celebrated every year since it was built in 1889.
Since 1940, Temple Aaron has hosted an interfaith service open to the entire community between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
For more information see Western States Jewish History:
- Synagogue for Trinidad, Colorado, 1889; American Israelite, July 5, 1889. Western States Jewish History, Vol. 11/1
- Have You Ever Heard of Trinidad, Colorado? 19th and 20th Century Reports. Western States Jewish History Vol. 28/2
- Hornbein, Marjorie, Jewish Brothers of Trinidad, Colorado; Western States Jewish History; Vol. 28/2.
Other Sources of Information about Temple Aaron of Trinadad
- Niederman, Sharon, Temple Aaron – http://www.sharonniederman.com/temple.html
- Niederman, Sharon , Trinidad’s Temple Aaron Celebrated at NM Jewish Historical Society Meeting. October 25, 2010 http://embracingthenorth.wordpress.com/author/sherites/
- Trinidad Colorado, A Brief History – http://www.historictrinidad.com/history.html
Regina Merwin is the Curator for this Temple Aaron and the Jews of Trinidad, Colorado Exhibit