Jewish Faithful Light Up Leadville History
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. 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.
Temple Israel Stands as a Testament to Jewish Faith
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. 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.
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.
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 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. The cemetery experienced one of its most recent interments in December 2001, and with increased interest and demand, now contains available plots. Recent endeavors include a computer mapping of the cemetery (beware: long download) and the annual volunteer cleanups every June. In 2020, the dates have been set for June 27 and 28.
So, a heartfelt “Mazel Tov” to all of the dedicated volunteers and contributors who brought back The Temple Israel and the Hebrew Cemetery to stand tall and proud. 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. A Happy Hannukkah to all of our Jewish friends and neighbors living in Leadville Today!
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