Meredith C. Carroll: Clearing up a misperception of the Aspen Chabad
“I’ve never seen a Jew before,” a girl named Leslie said, staring guardedly at me as if I might have horns hidden under my mosquito headnet. We were 16 years old and spending three weeks canoeing in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota as part of an Outward Bound course. Since I grew up in the culturally diverse suburbs of New York City, I’d never before been made to feel like a religious black sheep. As it turns out, it was hardly the last time, either, especially as I started venturing more frequently west of the East Coast.
On Wednesday, I was listening to National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” on Aspen Public Radio (where I once worked) when local news director Roger Adams presented a piece by reporter Elise Thatcher about the opening of the new Chabad synagogue on Main Street in Aspen.
“Aspen’s Jewish community is preparing for a major upgrade when it comes to events, classes and services,” Adams said. “The new Aspen Jewish Community Center and synagogue opens to the public tomorrow.”
Thatcher interviewed Rabbi Mendel Mintz, co-director of the Aspen Chabad synagogue. The piece was seemingly benign — really nothing more than a glorified rundown of the building’s shiny features — and the rabbi’s enthusiasm for the new space was compelling.
Mintz has a reputation for being warm and inclusive, and I, along with so many others, wish him and the Aspen Chabad all the best — along with much nachas — although hopefully not to the detriment of any other Jewish congregation.
The problem with Wednesday’s radio piece was that “Aspen’s Jewish community” is much larger than just the Chabad. By failing to use the words “(Part of) Aspen’s Jewish community” in the first sentence as well as omitting any mention of the word “Chabad” in the story or acknowledge Aspen’s two other separate and thriving Jewish congregations (the Aspen Jewish Congregation and Neshama Center), a legitimate news organization helped perpetuate a persistent yet incorrect and widely held perception: The building at Main and Fourth will be a comfortable place of worship for everyone who falls under the Jewish umbrella. (Aspen Public Radio has since corrected the piece’s introductory text on its website.)
The errors might seem insignificant, but imagine a church opening in Aspen and a news organization failing to identify its specific branch of Christianity. While the advent of any new church might be worthy of a feature report, it seems likely that Baptists, Catholics and Methodists would be less interested (or perhaps more) in the arrival of, say, a Pentecostal church in the neighborhood. One or two words — or the lack of them — have the power to make a world of difference.
However, it’s hard to blame Aspen Public Radio entirely for the exclusions. After all, a statement issued by the national Chabad organization on behalf of the Aspen branch touted how the “mega” Jewish center in Aspen is the “first Colorado synagogue … west of Denver,” not to mention “what is to be the largest Jewish center all the way to the Pacific Coast.”
There are Jewish communities in Grand Junction and Durango with their own buildings, although maybe not as grand. The Aspen Jewish Congregation, which is part of the Reform movement, was formed more than 40 years ago and is situated in the Aspen Chapel near the roundabout. The multiple synagogues in Reno, Las Vegas, Tahoe, Salt Lake City and Park City, to name just a few cities between here and the Pacific Coast, also might bristle at being overlooked.
But more challenging to many in the local Jewish community is the confusion about the name on the sign outside the Aspen Chabad building. By calling itself the Aspen Chabad Jewish Community Center, it inserts itself into a category of other Jewish community centers, which generally have no relation to the Chabad movement.
In most places in North America, Jewish community centers are owned, operated and governed by separate, nonprofit organizations not associated with any particular denomination of Judaism. They’re usually community gathering places open to people of any or no religion for athletic, not worship purposes, and they offer some type of cafe and meeting room.
One of the most distinct features of a Jewish community center is that it does not include a sanctuary, including an ark containing a Torah, even if some Jewish community centers occasionally allow congregations temporary use of a room to hold services.
By contrast, the Aspen Jewish community center is owned, operated and governed by Chabad, which is an Orthodox, largely very observant sect controlled locally by Mintz and his wife, Leiba. One of the principal rooms is a sanctuary housing a Torah, and it also contains a religious school, as do so many other synagogues around the world. The Aspen Chabad has no athletic facilities, although it does offer rooms for lectures, movies and celebrations, and it has a kosher commercial kitchen for takeout and in-house catering. A home for the Mintz family also is being built on the grounds.
The Aspen Chabad has little in common with a traditional Jewish community center but much with a synagogue — although, of course, not all synagogues are one-size-fits-all-Jews. Hopefully everyone who chooses to worship has somewhere to do it where they feel they’re in the right place, but of equal imperative is that there’s no misunderstanding about where that might be.
Meredith C. Carroll (email@example.com), of Aspen, writes a regular op-ed column for The Denver Post. More at http://www.meredithcarroll.com.