Reid Armstrong: The Shul with Altitude
Grand County, CO Colorado
Thursday, Dec. 2, was the first day of Hanukkah, the Jewish “Festival of Lights.” While Hanukkah is not one of the most important holidays in the Jewish tradition (high holidays are Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur), Hanukkah tends to be the best-known among gentiles because it’s kind of like Christmas, with all the extravagant gift giving and food. Really, it’s more along the lines of the Jewish Fourth of July, a celebration of independence.
The mountain towns of Colorado are certainly no Brooklyn when it comes to religious diversity, but there is a surprisingly strong – albeit underground – Jewish community here in Winter Park.
It started about 14 years ago when Claude and Claudia Diamond moved from San Diego. They discovered Winter Park on a road trip through Colorado with their children one summer and fell in love with the friendly people.
The town reminded Claude of the legendary Scottish town “Brigadoon” (from the 1947 Broadway musical and 1954 film adaptation) that appears for only one day every 100 years. In the play, several lost hunters stumble on the magical town and must decide whether to stay.
For the Diamonds, there wasn’t much debate once they discovered Winter Park. They moved their young home-schooled children and their home-based business to the mountains.
Claude, who was schooled in the Orthodox tradition in New York City and later attended a conservative temple in New Jersey, soon met Ken Parker and together they decided to put on their own little impromptu Friday night Shabbat service outside Ken’s house.
Just as the service was starting, Claude recalls, “Two double rainbows appeared over Devil’s Thumb. We took that as a good sign.”
Today, the Grand County Jewish Community has more than 90 people on its roster. It still has no building, no dues and word of upcoming services is spread through email, the website and Facebook.
In summer, the group often holds its services outside in public parks. In the winter months, they rely on the generosity of the other churches and public entities in the area, which give the group use of their facilities for the Friday night services.
“This is a remarkably tolerant community,” Claude said. “The other church groups are wonderful in letting us use their facilities. We use Wolf Park in the summer and St. Bernard Catholic Church and other public facilities like Fraser Historic Church.”
Claude, who calls himself a “Faux Rabbi” and has become the group’s lay figurehead, said he has the formula for a perfect religious service: “The secret to success is a short and meaningful service with a lot of good food around,” he said.
“We’ve all gone to too many overbearing sermons,” he said. “I don’t like to sit for a long time. It should be about participation and providing something spiritually meaningful. For us, it’s a lot of social stuff. We welcome everyone – Jew, non-jew, mixed marriage, gay … everybody is welcome.”
Claude says his services are “freestyle, mountain casual” and that he prefers this type of “disorganized religion.”
It may seem disorganized but, still, some 50-60 people attend the weekly Shabbat services and already 40 people have RSVP’d for the group’s Hanukkah service, scheduled for 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5, at the Fraser Historic Church.
In advance of Hanukkah, Claude’s wife Claudia prepares hundreds of latkes (potato pancakes), which are traditionally fried in olive oil in honor of the holiday’s miracle – a day’s worth of olive oil is said to have burned for eight days.
“My house smells like a McDonald’s for the entire week,” Claude said. “It’s not exactly Jewish health food.”
Serving as testament to the group’s growing presence in the community, the lay rabbi has been conducting more special ceremonies in recent years, including a wedding, a memorial service and a handful of bar and bat mitzvahs – the Jewish coming of age ceremony for 13-year-olds.
“We are keeping Judaism alive in our own mountain way,” Claude said, adding that a mountain town is perhaps the most appropriate place for a Jewish enclave to take hold: “Most famous events in the Old Testament took place on the mountain,” he said. “The 10 Commandments happened on a mountain. Noah crashed into a mountain with his ark.”
For more information about the Shul with Altitude, go to thegcjc.com or call 726-7979.
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