While in Colorado for the summer, my husband Larry and I visited the town of Leadville during its Boom Day Festival, a celebration of the Old West. The streets were filled with gunslingers, burro races, mining skill contests, and over 100 food and craft booths. We got ice cream cones and wandered down West Fourth Street, past a mining skills contest, where brawny men and women competed to see how many pounds of rock one could pile into a truck. And just down the street, we found Temple Israel Foundation, a museum dedicated to a thriving Jewish community that existed in this Rocky Mountain city over one hundred and twenty years ago.
Leadville, located at 10,200 feet above sea level, the highest incorporated city and the second highest incorporated municipality in the United States, boomed in the late 1870s with the discovery of silver, resulting in an influx of migrants to this small mountain town. At its peak, the population of Leadville grew to approximately 30,000 residents.
Among the many groups of people attracted to the minefields in the high Rockies was a group of recent Jewish immigrants who migrated to the West and Colorado. Representing only 1% of Leadville’s population, the three to four hundred Jews came to Leadville for the same reasons as their non-Jewish counterparts: to improve their social and economic status, to find adventure, even to reinvent themselves. As early as 1879, Rosh Hashanah services were held in the local opera house, and Hebrew Benevolent Society acquired a cemetery for Leadville Jews in 1880. Soon after, the Jewish community built a synagogue and held its first service on September 19, 1884, the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5645.
For the next thirty-eight years, Temple Israel served a surprisingly large and active Jewish community. As a booming mining town, Leadville’s residents had amble opportunities to spend their earning on clothing and household goods, liquor, sex, and gambling. Leadville Jews provided services in all these areas in the forms of dry goods stores, wholesale liquor and tobacco businesses, saloons, gambling houses, opera houses, and even brothels.
More well-known members of Temple Israel included David May, the founder of May department stores; Benjamin Guggenheim, heir to the famous family’s fortune made in Colorado mines; and Leopold H. Guldman, philanthropist and founder of Denver’s Golden Eagle Dry Goods Company. Despite its seemingly remote location, Leadville was a very modern industrial city. Jewish dry goods merchants offered the latest European fashions to the ladies and the better off gentlemen often sported diamond studs to accent their wardrobe.
By the first decade of the twentieth century, the boom was over, and the town’s Jewish population began to decline. In 1912, the last recorded event, a wedding took place.
From 1914 through 1937, the synagogue sat shuttered and unused. The synagogue was converted into a single family residence, and the building took on several other non-religious functions, the last as four rental apartments.
In 1983, Bill Korn, a New York City native, relocated from Boulder to Leadville to take advantage of low real estate prices and proximity to great skiing. He purchased and was in the process of renovating several properties when he learned of the former synagogue and the now overgrown cemetery. Motivated by his own German Reform Judaism roots and his belief in Martin Buber’s command, “If not YOU…then WHO? If not NOW then WHEN?” he explored ways to obtain both properties.
In 1987, the Temple Israel Foundation was incorporated “to acquire, historically rehabilitate, and maintain” the building, which was purchased in 1992.
For the next several years, Korn used the four apartment rental incomes to pay off the mortgage. The Foundation obtained a grant from the Colorado Historic Fund. Finally, ninety years after the temple shut its doors, renovations to bring the building to its former glory began.
Meanwhile, the Denver chapter of B’nai Brith led volunteer efforts each June to maintain the cemetery grounds and replace markers, The cemetery was reconsecrated and began holding Jewish burials again in 2001.
In 2012, a permanent exhibition opened that documents pioneer Jewish life with a collection of artifacts about Leadville, its resident Jews, Temple Israel as a synagogue, and life in a mining town in the 1880s and 1890s.
While not providing regular services, the building, with its Torah and bima, is now open for special events. Today, there are, according to Korn, approximately 80 to 100 Jewish people in the entire county.
Bill Korn oversees the museum, and from May through October, two full-time staff members work as both guides and researchers.
Over 3200 people visit the museum each year, said Korn, They come not only surrounding Colorado towns but also from all over the United States and even Israel. Korn said his most special guest was the granddaughter of Leopold H. Guldman, whose emotional response to the museum brought tears to Korn’s eyes.
Larry and I will be celebrating Rosh Hoshanah this year in Kissimmee, Florida, elevation 49 feet above sea level. Throughout the High Holy Days, however, we will be remembering that lovely synagogue situated in the highest incorporated city in America. We will think about Bill Korn and his generous efforts to bring that synagogue to life for future generations. And we will think the long-ago Jewish congregation in Leadville celebrating Jewish life high in the Rocky Mountains.