The Trinidad Yahrzeit Project
Eight years ago, when Marty Dubin’s mother asked her son to visit his grandfather’s grave in Trinidad, she could have no idea what would come of her simple request.
A good son, Dubin—who is a sixth generation Coloradan on his mother’s side—did as he had been asked. He traveled to Trinidad, Colo., found the house where his mother had grown up, visited his grandfather’s grave, and saw where the family store once thrived.
Dubin’s grandfather, Max Graber, had arrived in Trinidad in 1912. He married into the Gordon family, and the merger of the two families created a mini-empire of southwestern Colorado mercantile stores—The Gordon Stores in Trinidad, Alamosa, Montrose, Durango, and Grand Junction.
When Graber died in 1938, he was buried in the Temple Aaron cemetery above Trinidad in the shadow of some of Colorado’s most dramatic mountain peaks.
“It’s the first time I had seen my grandfather’s grave,” Dubin says. “It’s a quiet, beautiful little place.”
The peace and beauty of that mountain cemetery must have stayed with him. How else to explain that Dubin and his wife Barbara, who live in the Denver area, have now become Lifetime Members of Temple Aaron in Trinidad, the oldest continually operating synagogue in the Mountain West?
Dubin has also agreed to lead Temple Aaron in an ambitious project to restart the readings of Yahrzeits after more than a 50-year hiatus. But first, he is on a detective mission to find the descendants of the 167 Temple Aaron members and others buried at the Jewish cemetery.
“In a way, we are reversing the study of genealogy,” he says. “Instead of looking for ancestors, we are looking for the descendants of people who are buried in the cemetery to ask if they would like to join us to hear the Rabbi say Kaddish for their family member.”
Rescuing Temple Aaron
The Temple Aaron Yahrzeit project would never have come to pass had Neal Paul not been listening to Colorado Public Radio one morning in September 2016. He had a visceral reaction when he heard a report about a Trinidad temple with a long history that was up for sale.
“It was deflating, like a kick in the gut,” he says. “How can you sell a historic synagogue?”
With other like-minded people, Paul made a trip to Trinidad to see Temple Aaron—an elegant 11,000 square-foot red brick building with a sanctuary that holds 250 people, original stained glass windows, and a century old Estey pipe organ.
“I fell in love,” Paul recalls. “It seemed far too special and too important not to save.”
Collaborating with generous donors, Paul helped rescue Temple Aaron from being sold. Now, the Board of Directors has launched a campaign to renovate the building. They recently raised enough money for a new boiler which restored heat to the temple for the first time in 10 years. Next on the Board’s project list—a new roof with a hefty price tag.
Paul has been both a catalyst and a convener, bringing together people who share his love for a temple rich in history and his vision for its vibrant future. The Temple Aaron community is now growing once again with more than 88 paid members, nearly 40 of whom are lifetime members and with about 2,000 on the mailing list.
Temple Aaron currently holds Torah studies on Zoom on the first Shabbat morning of each month and in-person services for high holidays and special cultural events. Under Paul’s leadership as president, the building is under consideration for a National Historic Landmark designation, recognized by the U.S. Department of Interior for its outstanding historical significance.
“Neal saved the building and now he is bringing life back into it,” Dubin says. “We are connecting to the energy and people of the past and bringing living members of the synagogue back.”
Congregation Aaron held its first service on July 23, 1883. Today’s congregation is already planning a celebration for the 140th anniversary of Temple Aaron in July 2023.
Launching the Yahrzeit project
The first person to be buried in the Temple Aaron cemetery died in 1883. The most recent person to be buried there was long-time lay leader and matriarch Kathryn Rubin, who died in 2018.
At a recent Zoom meeting of Temple Aaron Lifetime Members, Marty Dubin asked if the Rabbi read Yahrzeits for those buried in the cemetery, including his own grandfather.
“We just don’t have the staffing and manpower to organize it,” Paul told members at the time. “But now it’s been wonderful that Marty and others have made this their mission.”
Dubin saw the Yahrzeit Project as a way to connect with his roots. He has been joined by other dedicated volunteers who have also become fascinated by the history of Temple Aaron. The Jewish cemetery sits within a larger Masonic cemetery and that was helpful to the Temple Aaron volunteers as they created a complete database of everyone who is buried in the Jewish section.
Their next mission is to extend invitations to anyone from the Temple Aaron community to submit Yahrzeit information if they would like their loved ones added to the Yahrzeit calendar. They are including anyone buried in Temple Aaron cemetery as well as members of the community who are interred elsewhere. Information should be sent to email@example.com.
Not long ago, Marty Dubin took a DNA test at the urging of his wife who is interested in genealogy. He learned from the test that he is more than 99 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. The results were not a surprise but still, they gave him pause.
“For thousands of years, my family has been maintaining their heritage as Jews,” he says. “It struck me that perhaps I should not be so cavalier about being Jewish. It is a big part of my identity. By restoring the Yahrzeit readings, I am honoring my grandfather and my heritage.”