The Aspen Jewish Congregation has a long and rich history. Since 1973, we have been a center for Judaism in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley.
The Early Years
The Aspen Jewish Congregation, originally the Aspen Jewish Center, was founded in December 1973. Several members of the community decided to gather for Chanukah at the Community Church. Although there had been some sporadic gatherings in the past, this celebration was different. Among those who gathered, there was a young attorney who had recently moved to town. He was the son of a rabbi and had served in New York City hospitals during the High Holidays. That day he stepped forward to tell the story of Chanukah. His name was Gideon Kaufman.
It was such a successful evening, one filled with the joy of new friendships, the laughter of children playing and the sense of purpose, spirituality and community, that they decided to gather again for Passover in April of 1974. Everyone pitched in and brought dishes for the Seder and Gideon officiated. There were about 45 people in attendance for our first community Seder.
After such a wonderful turnout, it was decided to get together at the Aspen Community Church once a month on Friday evenings for Shabbat. The first Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services were held that fall at the Aspen Community Church. Gideon read from a printed bible that year because a Torah had not yet been acquired. This began our tradition of hosting High Holiday services that are open to the entire Jewish community, free of charge.
The first B’nai Mitzvah class also started the fall of 1974, taught by Gideon. Classes met at his office, the Community Church, and various homes. That first year there were seven B’nai Mitzvah students.
The Aspen Chapel
In 1986, after over a decade of meeting in various locations, our congregation found our current home at the Aspen Chapel. This chapel was originally called the Prince of Peace Chapel and was built by Mennonites as a non-denominational interfaith chapel. At this time we began hosting weekly Shabbat services downstairs, in the space now known as the gallery. The main Sanctuary was only used for special services. Both communities recognized the beauty of sharing this space. As part of this transition the building was renamed the Aspen Chapel and the cross on the steeple was replaced with the dove, as a symbol of peace.
The joyous event of moving into our new home was marked with a celebration in the streets, including a parade in which our Torah was walked from the Community Church to the Aspen Chapel. In 1995 a fundraising and building effort was completed. Money was raised to build a classroom, a rabbi’s study and a vault to store the Torah. Additionally, needed repairs were made to the roof, windows and sanctuary.
In 2007, we joined the Union for Reform Judaism. In 2009 Gideon Kaufman retired as our spiritual leader and in 2010 Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons began with the congregation. Rabbi David and Cantor Rollin ushered in a new era at the AJC. Rabbi David helped our community find our true identity as a valley-wide congregation and brought us to the forefront of local social justice leadership. Cantor Rollin launched our annual Summer Concert program and was instrumental in revamping our Hebrew School. In 2017 the Segal-Simmons family found new opportunities and relocated outside of Colorado. Rabbi Emily Segal, formerly of Temple Jeremiah located in suburban Chicago, began her pulpit in June 2017. With her leadership the future promises to be incredibly bright for our community.
Our Torah Scrolls
The first Torah we received is a Holocaust survivor. During World War II the Nazis amassed Torah scrolls and ours was part of over 1,500 that became part of the Memorial Scrolls Trust (MST). After the war these Torah scrolls were rescued and the MST was established. The MST brought these Torah scrolls to the Westminster Synagogue in London where they were restored. The MST then shared the Torah scrolls, on permanent loan, to communities throughout the world. We received Torah scroll MST#444 originally from the Prauge Strasnice Synagogue. Two community members flew to London to arrange for this Torah to be shipped to Aspen. It was a historical and joyous event for the AJC. There was no ark, so the congregation got together and built one by hand, carving letters from the Ten Commandments on the doors. Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kolek was visiting Aspen during that time and he carved a letter too. We use this same ark, pictured above, today. Now we are fortunate to have three additional Torah scrolls, one from Israel and two from Philadelphia.