Conflict between Aspen Chapel, Jewish congregation deepens

Pending lawsuit, threat of filing for bankruptcy hurting relationship between entities

A walker passes the Aspen Chapel on a sunny day in town on Wednesday, March 23, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

A dispute between Aspen congregations who share the same place of worship deepened this week and may be poisoned beyond repair, those involved said Wednesday.

The entity that owns the Aspen Chapel building near the roundabout west of town issued a news release through a Vail-based public relations firm late Tuesday afternoon accusing the Aspen Jewish Congregation of forcing it into possible Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

“The long mediation process has led both groups to realize that issues of ownership and control of the Chapel building can’t be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction,” Barbara Owen, secretary of the Aspen Chapel board of trustees, said in the release. “We respect AJC’s decision to seek a new home and offered them a two-year transition period in which they could remain at the Chapel.”

The president of the Jewish Congregation said he was blindsided by the release, that it was factually inaccurate and that his congregation wants to stay in the building.

“I don’t believe anything is beyond repair,” Craig Navias said Wednesday. “But if we’re not there, we’re very close to that. I’m at a loss to explain the motivation.”

The discord first burst into the open in August, when the AJC filed its lawsuit in Pitkin County District Court asking a judge to validate a 1989 agreement between the congregations that defined how they would share the Aspen Chapel building at 77 Meadowood Drive. The agreement worked for 30 years until expensive repairs to the facility became necessary.

Each side disputed who would pay what, and the issues became even more complicated when no one could produce a signed copy of the 1989 agreement. The AJC said that led Aspen Chapel officials to disavow the agreement and demand the congregation vacate the building or face eviction.

Those demands prompted the lawsuit, which is still pending.

“We did file (the lawsuit) last year to prevent them from evicting us, which they kept threatening to do,” Navias said Wednesday. “We only wanted to validate the 1989 agreement.”

Contrary to the Aspen Chapel’s Tuesday news release, the AJC has never claimed ownership of the building, has offered to help pay for repairs and has done everything they can to amenably settle the differences between the entities, he said.

Owen said long months of negotiation and mediation failed and that the AJC’s rejection of a two-year use agreement that would have allowed the congregation time to find a new home speaks for itself.

“The Aspen Jewish Congregation wants to go away anyway,” Owen said Wednesday. “The lawsuit (filed by AJC last summer) was to keep (the 1989) agreement in place. But now, we’re like, ‘If you want to leave, why do you want to keep the agreement in place?'”

Navias said AJC rejected the two-year proposal because the congregation would likely need five years to figure out a new home. Further, AJC has never said it wants to leave the Chapel.

“It’s completely untrue that it doesn’t meet our needs, and I have no idea where our new home would be,” Navias said. “It’s been our home for 30 years, and it does meet our needs.”

Navias acknowledged his organization has submitted a detailed proposal to build a large, new facility adjacent to the Brush Creek park and ride lot at the intersection of Brush Creek Road and Highway 82. That, however, is the congregation “exploring our options” in light of the behavior exhibited by Aspen Chapel officials, he said. Further, the proposal is in the preliminary stage of seeking to find out if access would even be permitted through the Colorado Department of Transportation-owned parking lot.

The proposed plan, though, seems to have deepened the disconnect between the organizations.

Filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy would take precedence over the AJC lawsuit and “may be the only practical way to restructure in a financially sustainable way,” according to Owen’s statements in the release and an interview Wednesday.

“Chapter 11 would allow us a fresh start,” she said.

Repairs to the Chapel building are estimated to cost about $2 million, while defense of the AJC lawsuit will cost between $200,000 and $300,000, according to the Chapel release.

The Chapel “must fix our building, and our focus has to be on planning and funding that effort as soon as possible,” Owen said in the release. “The condition of the building is deteriorating every day, and costs are rising. Time is of the essence.”

Regardless of the complicated legal processes both threatened and pending, services for both congregations will continue uninterrupted, said Owen and Navias.

“We have a wonderful day-to-day relationship with the AJC in terms of working together with the Chapel building,” Nicholas Vesey, Aspen Chapel minister, said in the release.

Navias said he agreed with Vesey’s statement and that AJC has no plans to discontinue using the Chapel for Friday evening services.

“It’s hard to believe it can continue, but we are still there,” he said. “But can it continue like this indefinitely? No. What’s going on is terribly unhealthy.”


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