Jewish History Rooted in Leadville
Jewish Celebrate Hanukkah in Leadville
Today marks the second night of Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights and Feast of Dedication. Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This year the Festival of Lights will be celebrated from Dec. 2 -10.
In honor of Hanukkah, Leadville Today brings readers the story of Leadville’s Temple Israel Museum and Synagogue. This beautiful building located on the corners of W. 4th and Pine Streets houses a meaningful and moving tribute to this special group of faithful. Their historic contributions to Leadville are many and can be discovered in this Leadville Today video presentation from last summer’s presentation “Jewish Life in Leadville in the 1880s.”
This two-part program presented by Rabbi Ruth Gelfarb and Leadville’s Bill Korn who is President of Temple Israel Foundation provides a rarely seen look into the life of Pioneer Jews in Leadville and their lasting contributions to America’s highest city. Here are those presentations in addition to some current news about the Temple and ongoing efforts at Leadville’s Hebrew Cemetery – enjoy and learn!
Happy Hanukkahs to all of our Jewish friends and neighbors living in Leadville Today!
Part One – “Jewish Life in Leadville in the 1880s.”
Temple Israel: A Testament of Jewish Faith
Anyone who has 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. But regardless of its reputation, 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, were 300 Jewish faithful, including David May and the Guggenheims. 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.
Fast forward 128 years and on September 2012, that same historic building was re-dedicated to those early pioneers. It now stands fully restored as a testament to this unique part of Leadville history. Thanks to efforts from the Temple Israel Foundation under the personal direction and dedication of local resident Bill Korn, the synagogue now adds to Leadville’s reputation as having the most museums per capita than any other city in the United States.
The Temple Israel Synagogue and Museum provides visitors with a view of what life was like for Leadville’s pioneer Jews. Jews were among 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.
Part Two – “Jewish Life in Leadville in the 1880s.”
Leadville’s Jewish population declined with the rest of the town when the U.S. silver standard was abandoned in 1893. Today, there are fewer than 100 Jews living in Leadville. 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. The foundation has cataloged and has on display nearly 150 artifacts. The collection includes objects supporting the historic record that Jews found prosperity as merchants, tradespeople, and even one brothel owner. Those interested in seeing the collection may schedule a tour through the group’s website at www.jewishleadville.org.
But none of these efforts may have ever seen the lights from a Hanukkah menorah after a tragic fire in 2006, nearly brought the building to the ground. 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 renovation project, which was supported by private contributions and four grants from the Colorado State Historical Fund. The 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 Jewish pioneers, the Hebrew Cemetery has also been restored to protect and honor the souls resting there.
Since taking control of the cemetery grounds, very significant volunteer efforts led by the Denver chapter of B’nai B’rith continue every June. They have cleared much of the site from heavy overgrowth, encircled the area with a decorative fence, added an entry arch and monument, all of which culminated in the reconsecration of the cemetery in August 1999. The replacement of missing markers was completed in 2004.
To schedule a tour, reserve the synagogue for special events, make genealogical inquiries call, 303-709-7050 or 719-293-1274 or visit their website at www.jewishleadville.org.
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