Mark Oppenheimer on Colorado Jewish Life

Aug 3, 2022

Author, educator, journalist, and podcaster—Mark Oppenheimer wears many hats, all of them with style and expertise. When he speaks, the audience listens. At the recent JEWISHcolorado Rocky Mountain Chai presentation, Oppenheimer began his remarks, “Colorado and the Future of Judaism,” by going off script. 

He recalled the 18 months he had spent interviewing the residents of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh after the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018.

“One of the interesting things I learned,” he said, “was the value of Federations.”

He went on to describe one chapter in his book Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood which deals with a subject that does not interest him—”numbers.”

 In this case, the numbers were the millions of dollars that well-meaning people sent in the aftermath of the Tree of Life tragedy. It fell to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh to distribute the funds in a trustworthy fashion.

Oppenheimer told his audience that he had learned that Federations do not just raise money—they distribute it wisely, applying “philosophy and ethics to this delicate decision-making.” The committee charged with this task in Pittsburgh was, he said, “the most interesting group you could imagine.” This work, he pointed out, is also part of the mission of JEWISHcolorado.

A slice of Colorado Jewish history

JEWISHColorado also arranged for Oppenheimer to do a Western Slope tour, speak to groups in Vail and Aspen. The Denverites who had gathered to listen to him on a July evening came for differing reasons. Some were there because they know him as the religion columnist for the New York Times from 2010-2016. Others are fans of his podcast, “Unorthodox,” which brings news of Jewish life and culture with a substantial dose of humor. Still others were interested in what Oppenheimer—who has a PhD in religious studies from Yale and has taught at Stanford, NYU, and his alma mater—would have to say about the future of Judaism in Colorado. But before he looked to the future, he told a story about the past—the tale of the Cotopaxi Jews.

rocky mountain chai vail

In the early 1880s, the New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and Emanuel Saltiel, a prominent Jewish businessman from Cotopaxi, Colo., made a deal to bring more than 20 immigrant Jewish families to the banks of the Arkansas River in Colorado where they had been led to believe they would establish an agricultural colony. It was a five-day journey from New York to Cotopaxi, fueled by hopes of a better life than the one the settlers had fled in Tsarist Russia.

When they arrived, they did not find what they had been promised—the housing was flimsy, heat and food were limited, the rocky land mostly unfarmable. Desperate for money, some of the immigrants went to work for Saltiel in his mines and were paid with scrip they could redeem at the company store. It was, Oppenheimer said, “a case of indentured servitude perpetrated by a Jew on Jews.”

The agricultural community failed, but the colonists did not. Even when the Cotopaxi Jews must have known this was not going to end well, they sent for a Torah and a rabbi. The rabbi celebrated two weddings and Jewish culture and life were sustained in the midst of tragedy. Ultimately, the colonists left Cotopaxi and moved to other parts of Colorado, including the west side of Denver, founding Jewish communities that flourish to this day.

rocky mountain chai in vail with JEWISHcolorado

A look into Colorado’s future

Looking to the future, Oppenheimer listed three ways he believes Colorado Jewry is ahead of the curve.

He cited research that indicates that Colorado Jews are less likely to subscribe to a particular denomination or branch of Judaism. They identify as Jews, but they have an independent streak.

He also said that research shows that Colorado Jews tend to be interdenominational in their approach, comfortable working with groups without regard to denomination.

To him, this is an indication of collaboration and resilience among Colorado Jews.

Finally, he described Colorado as “diasporic.”

“Big cities have a lot to offer but they are not the only place to live,” Oppenheimer said. “In Colorado you find Jews coming here by choice because they find it appealing to be far from the larger cities.”

In the spirit of the Cotopaxi colonists, Oppenheimer theorized, Jews continue to come to Colorado looking for a place to explore and figure out Judaism for themselves.

At JEWISHcolorado, they find a community of kindred spirits, where Jews come together, no matter their denomination or affiliation, and where building and supporting Jewish community—in the many forms it can take—is part of its mission.