Friday, July 10, 2020 -
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After 125 years, deliquescence, vision, paperwork — and a fire

Bill KornALTHOUGH it happened quietly and gradually, with no brass bands, fireworks or celebrations, a significant milestone was reached in Leadville — “the highest city in the nation” — this past summer.

The restoration project of Temple Israel, the 125-year-old home of Leadville’s once thriving and colorful Jewish community, reached completion at last.

Bill Corn, who has shepherded the project through an amazing 22-year gauntlet of bureaucratic details, funding sources and even a fire that nearly destroyed the modest wooden frame synagogue, isn’t even sure which job had the distinction of being the “last.”

It was either a handrail, the sign out front or the Star of David finials that were placed atop the rebuilt wooden towers that grace the building’s facade, he says.

But Corn is not worried about such formalities. The important thing is that it’s done.

“We have finished all the construction work on the building proper,” he says. “It is completely restored, as close as we could get it to the way it was in 1884. And we received our certificate of occupancy in February.”

Although not intended as a commemorative event, a June service in the building’s restored sanctuary served as a fitting coming out for the synagogue.

Rabbi Debrah Rappaport of B’nai Vail led what Corn believes were the first services to be held in Temple Israel since about 1912. She led an ad hoc congregation composed of a handful of local Jews and several dozen volunteers for the annual cleanup of Leadville’s Jewish cemetery.

Although structurally complete, and having received the imprimatur of the Colorado Historical Fund, which provided a large percentage of restoration costs, Corn says there are still a few details to be seen to.

He wants to install a bimah, and is talking with an Orthodox carpenter from Denver about those details. He is seeking additional funding for a stained glass window for the sanctuary, office furniture and display cases, in which he hopes to display artifacts relating to the colorful history of Leadville Jewry.

ALTHOUGH no formal opening party has been held and nothing is planned for the upcoming High Holidays, Corn does have hopes for Temple Israel to actually function in its old role. 

He hopes that Jews in surrounding mountain communities will use the synagogue for marriages, Bar and Bat mitzvahs and brises, and would like to see the cemetery volunteers use it for services during their annual cleanup visit.

Beyond that, Corn is a realist. A part-time Leadville resident himself, he knows that although hundreds of Jews once lived here during the town’s boom days, very few live there today. He remains hopeful that a substantial Jewish community might eventually develop.

In the meantime, “this thing is going to function primarily as a museum,” Corn says.

He plans to display artifacts from Leadville and Colorado Jewish history, both from his own growing collection and other sources, including the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society.

An interesting addition might be a retelling of how Temple Israel came back from virtual oblivion, and more than once.

day’s Life  Good as new — the restored Temple Israel exterior, 2009. When Corn first brought the property some two decades ago, it was being used for apartments. Hardly anyone in Leadville knew that it had once been a synagogue.

After exhaustive research, Corn reassembled the fascinating story of the Jews who lived in Leadville during its boisterous silver days, as well as a great deal of information about Temple Israel, both the congregation and the building.

He used this information as a guide as he patiently cleaned up, fixed up and then restored the building, a gradual effort that received a serious setback in 2006 when an electrical fire seriously damaged the former shul.

Corn was undeterred by the fire. In fact, he used it as an excuse to initiate an even more comprehensive restoration than previously planned.

In all, the project has cost over $700,000 since Corn began. Just under half of that money came in the form of grants from the Colorado Historical Fund, with the balance coming from an insurance settlement in the wake of the 2006 fire, individual donations and Corn’s own funds.

NOW, more than two decades after he started the project, Corn says the primary emotion he feels is relief.

“I’m happy about it, and very proud, but it’s also an enormous relief,” he says.

“It was a big burden, a ton of work.

I did a lot of the construction myself. I don’t have any particular construction skills, but anybody can do demolition or paint trim or clean. I’m glad to be done with that. It comes at a nice point in my life in general.”

His is gratified that his original goal — to preserve the legacy of Leadville’s once thriving Jewish community — has finally been fulfilled, and more.

“It does commemorate these people from 120 years ago, and there aren’t that many frontier synagogues around. They’re usually in urban places like Denver. And this is a pretty old one, going back to 1884, so in that sense it’s unique. I don’t know how many small town synagogues you could find spread around in the West.”

It comforts Corn to know that the building will survive into the future, the result of binding arrangements between his own Temple Israel Foundation and the Colorado Historical Fund that provide for the synagogue’s survival into perpetuity.

“It was made to survive me, and all of us,” Corn says. “In the future the building will still be protected.”

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor |

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