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The evolution of Aspen’s Jewish community

The Shabbat candles had been lit, the wine and challah were set and the group soon broke out into song, slapping the table and tambourines in rhythm as their melodious prayers filled the room.

Most of these people were family or close friends. But a few had just met and were welcomed to join in the weekly Jewish Sabbath, or Shabbat tradition carried out in Itzhak and Dalia Vardy’s home each Friday.

For the Vardys, it doesn’t matter who walks through the door — all are welcome to celebrate Shabbat and learn about the Jewish way of life.

“Every Friday night people come to our house. Our home is our center, our home is our temple,” Itzhak said. “All are welcome here.”

The fact that there are three different organizations doesn’t mean we’re competing, it just means there are three different offerings for everyone and anyone who comes to Aspen.

In the U.S., 4.4 million people religiously identify as Jewish, and 60,900 people identify in Colorado, according to the Steinhardt Social Research Institute’s 2019 American Jewish Population Project data. That’s about 1.8% of the U.S. population and 1.4% of the Colorado population.

Aspen’s vibrant Jewish community of today traces its roots to gatherings much like the scene at the Vardy home on Shabbat and has grown to include three separate Jewish organizations whose influences extend up and down the valley.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Although there were Jewish people who called Aspen home in the 1890s, the local Jewish community as known today dates back to 1973, when a group of residents started meeting first for the high Jewish holidays, then weekly for Shabbat.

Led by Gideon Kaufman, a lawyer who volunteered to serve as a layman rabbi and spiritual leader for 35 years, the gatherings grew to include a few dozen locals at the Aspen Community Church and various Aspen area homes, then to the over 200 individuals and families part of the Aspen Jewish Congregation that meets at the Aspen Chapel today.

“It’s extraordinary what Gideon did,” said Edward Sanditen, who has been a member of the Aspen Jewish Congregation for nearly 40 years. “Saying he was a part-time clergy understates the importance of what he did and the sincerity and integrity he did it with.”

In the early ’80s, Sanditen remembers assisting Kaufman every Shabbat and helping tutor young students studying for their bar or bat mitzvah, the coming-of-age ritual for boys and girls, at the old Shlomo’s restaurant.

Then known as the Aspen Jewish Center, it was run solely on volunteers, Sanditen explained, operating more like a family than anything else with lots of spontaneity and little structure.

By 1986, the center had moved into the downstairs space at the Aspen Chapel, still as the only organized Jewish congregation in the area. The congregation would join the Union for Reform Judaism — a progressive form of Judaism — in 2007 and three years later ordained clergy began leading services.

By that time in 2010, there also were two other distinct Jewish organizations in Aspen. There was even a fourth Jewish organization in Aspen for a short time, Sanditen said.

“For a long time the community was very happy as it was, but as it grew people began to want more from the congregation, so we moved to a professional rabbi and clergy,” Sanditen said. “It became bigger and more structured. The members of our congregation were always involved in the community as individuals, but what started to evolve was for the congregation as an entity to get involved in the community.”

Like Sanditen, Shereen Sarick, an ordained rabbi and former Hebrew School director for the Aspen Jewish Congregation, has also witnessed the evolution of the city’s longest running Jewish congregation.

Sarick first moved to Aspen from Washington, D.C., after high school, worked a variety of jobs including as an environmental educator for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, left for a few years, then came back to open up the congregation’s first formal Hebrew School at the Aspen Chapel in 1995.

“I thought, ‘Well, I’ve been teaching nature education for so long and here I am trying to help kids save the Earth, maybe if you take a step back and first help kids fall in love with themselves then that kid can fall in love with the birds and the water and the mountains and want to do something,’” Sarick said.

That first fall, Sarick said she had 30 to 40 kids at the Hebrew School. By May of 1996, that number more than doubled to 96 kids enrolled, and kids were even skipping hockey practice to attend classes, she said.

“They came out of the woodwork,” Sarick said. “I’m still close with many of the students. Some of the kids’ bar and bat mitzvahs I did, I’ve done their weddings and their baby namings and they’re still in my life. They’re the next generation now, which is really nice to see.”

Sarick recalled working alongside Kaufman, who she referred to as the patriarch of Judaism in the valley, singing at his Shabbat services and teaching with the Vardys for her first three years with the Hebrew School. She then left Aspen for New York and Toronto while her husband pursued business school and work.

As she returned, new Jewish institutions were launching in Aspen. The Vardys formed the Neshama Center, an educational nonprofit, and the Chabad community center, a more Orthodox sect of Judaism, was established in town.

“It’s not uncommon for there to be multiple synagogues,” Sarick said, emphasizing the wide array of Jewish sects and movements, namely Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Renewal. “For a tiny Jewish population like the Roaring Fork Valley? It’s a little surprising we have three but certainly not uncommon. … As far as ski towns go, I think we have the most diverse and vibrant and largest Jewish community.”

A SPECIAL PLACE

As Sarick noted, the Aspen Jewish Congregation may be the oldest but it isn’t the only Jewish organization in Aspen.

Locals and visitors also attend services and events at the Chabad Jewish Community Center, which opened its new $18 million building’s doors in 2014 but first came to Aspen in the early 2000s, and is one of roughly 2,500 Chabad branches worldwide. Locals and visitors are also welcomed by the Neshama Center, an educational nonprofit led by the Vardys that is not housed in one place but has aimed to bring Jewish traditions, history and life cycle celebrations to the Roaring Fork Valley in an open and inviting way since 2006.

Three Jewish congregations based in a town of roughly 7,000 people is unique, given that Jews make up less than 2% of the state’s population. But as many Jewish locals like Sarick and Alan Altman — who attends the Chabad Jewish Community Center — emphasized, Aspen is no typical small town and each Jewish circle helps meet the needs of the larger Aspen Jewish community as a whole.

“We have an international city here. Because it’s an international city, people come for all sorts of reasons from all over the world, and there’s a need for a diverse, faith-based community,” Altman said, emphasizing that religious needs don’t go on vacation. “The fact that there are three different organizations doesn’t mean we’re competing, it just means there are three different offerings for everyone and anyone who comes to Aspen.”

While Altman said he’d love to see the entire Aspen Jewish community unite under one roof, he doesn’t feel it’s necessary, as he feels each local congregation offers something unique.

In his case, Altman said he and his wife were drawn to the Chabad center about 14 years ago when it was what he referred to as a shack on West Main Street.

The two newly full-time residents spent their first Saturday morning in Aspen looking for a Shabbat service, Altman recalled, first trying the Aspen Jewish Congregation at the Aspen Chapel but quickly realizing the group held its services Friday nights.

As they drove their motorcycle down Main Street, Altman said they were surprised to see a building with a menorah on it. “We were just riding into town when we got to the corner and said, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s a Chabad here,’” Altman said. “It surprised me to find such a vibrant Jewish community here. We thought it was just a sleepy little ski town but the culture and the people make this a remarkably inclusive community, even though it’s thought to be exclusive from the outside.”

On a recent Saturday morning more than a decade later, Altman was at Shabbat service in the relatively new Chabad Jewish Community Center—a 19,000-square-foot facility among the most prominent buildings on Main Street.

As sunlight illuminated the upstairs synagogue space, Rabbi Mendel Mintz led Altman and roughly 30 others in attendance through hymn, prayer and the weekly Torah reading, which he followed with a short sermon.

“Here Moshe (Moses) comes out and says that real Jews and real Judaism only speak one language, and that is that we don’t have biases, that everyone is equal,” Mintz said in response to the reading.

Mintz and his wife are celebrating their 20th year in Aspen, where he said they’ve raised their six children and aimed to promote Jewish awareness, identity and pride through the Chabad center.

Over the past two decades, Mintz feels the Jewish community has built on the foundation people like Kaufman created in the early ’70s, and that the Chabad center in particular has grown to become a space for the entire valley community.

The center hosts art exhibitions and at least 30 guest lectures a year, not all related to Judaism, and has a Kosher kitchen, cycling studio, youth game and activity center, and more, Mintz said. He explained that there is no center membership, but that there can be anywhere from 30 to more than 100 people at Shabbat each week.

“We follow the traditions of Judaism in an easy-going environment that’s all inclusive and gives people the opportunity to learn, connect and be a part of something greater than themselves,” Mintz said. “If you asked me 15 years ago about how I dreamed people would come together through the center, that dream is not as good as it actually is.”

When asked if there is something about the Aspen area that draws Jewish people or caters to the Jewish way of life more than other places, Mintz said he feels Jewish people don’t move to the valley for their religion; they’re drawn to the area for a multitude of reasons and the fact that there is a diverse Jewish community only adds to these reasons, maybe even contributing to why they try to stay.

The Vardys, who moved to Aspen from Israel more than 30 years ago, expressed similar thoughts.

“There’s something about this beautiful place that brings in people, they are chosen to be here,” Itzhak said. “There’s a lot of sharing of knowledge here and it’s a good place to share knowledge. People feel safe to come teach and to learn.”

For Itzhak, coming to Aspen and seeing Judaism practiced in a way rooted in openness and friendship was one of the best and most welcoming experiences of his life.

He and his family felt called to form the Neshama Center about 14 years ago, Itzhak said, aiming to meet what they saw as a need for an organization focused on education and Jewish tradition that supplements the existing Jewish community.

Since the Vardys formed the Neshama Center, they’ve focused mainly on Jewish traditional, cultural and historical education loosely aligned with Jewish Renewal ideals, traveling through the Roaring Fork Valley and across the world to help carry out life cycle rituals like weddings, baby namings and bat or bar mitzvahs, and have hosted an annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony to teach Aspen-area students and locals about the genocide as more than just a death toll for several years.

Itzhak said he and Dalia hope to grow their Holocaust education efforts and to continue facilitating Jewish life lessons, traditions and celebrations, keeping their focus on meeting the needs of all valley locals for years to come.

“We grew into teaching, people just started to ask us to do it more and more,” Itzhak said. “It’s not like we decided to do this, we organized this group due to the need of the people. … I don’t think our way is different, it’s whatever way people need it, traditional or not.”

KEEPING COMMUNITY

In the art gallery of the Aspen Chapel on a Friday evening after Shabbat service in January, roughly 30 locals held hands and grasped shoulders, all linking to connect with the people holding a plaited bread loaf, or Challah, by their fingers.

After a short blessing, the fingers pulled apart the Challah and each person helped himself or herself to a taste, followed by more food, drink and conversation.

“The goal for Jewish community is to connect Jewish people and those who love them to Jewish life and have it bring them meaning and purpose,” said Emily Segal, rabbi of the Aspen Jewish Congregation. “It’s all about that connection point.”

Segal, who has led Aspen’s long-standing Jewish organization for the past three years, said this is the premise she’s worked to build from as a local rabbi: helping people connect with the Jewish faith in whatever way works best for them.

With that mission at the forefront, Segal said the Aspen Jewish Congregation has aimed to do more for families up and down the Roaring Fork Valley, hosting Shabbat in Carbondale once a month, Shabbat just for kids, Jewish life educational series for all ages, leading social justice initiatives and putting on various other events that help Jewish people engage in their faith in new ways.

“As a rabbi, I view a major part of my role as helping people pave paths to find deeper meaning and in-roads into the Jewish faith,” Segal explained. “The ancient wisdom is timeless. It elevates lives and when people are elevated they can help make the world a better place.”

As all of the local rabbis and congregants highlighted, the Aspen Jewish community has and will continue to evolve. Families come and go, needs change, and all three organizations have goals to educate and together serve the larger valley community moving forward.

But even though the community isn’t the largest or most diverse in America, all of these Jewish people also feel their faith experiences in Aspen are unique for reasons not easily articulated — reasons many feel will keep Judaism and spirituality vibrant into the future here.

“What I knew growing up is that being a part of a minority is a special thing,” Segal said. “It’s a treasure to be Jewish and we are so lucky to live and benefit from ancient wisdom. The lesson I learned later in life is that sometimes when you are surrounded by folks in a larger Jewish community, it’s easier to take it for granted. But what I see here reminds me of what I saw growing up. There are special connections happening in so many ways.”

mvincent@aspentimes.com


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