The Jewish Traveler: Denver
Before Jews pioneered health and welfare agencies in this Rocky Mountain state capital, they pioneered the city itself—as shopkeepers, businessmen and politicians.
As bags come spilling out onto the carousel at the futuristic Denver International Airport, the traveler whose luggage is made by Samsonite is retrieving a piece of local Jewish history. In 1910, Jesse Shwayder, who grew up in downtown Denver in the late 1800s, founded the now well-known trunk-manufacturing company along with his four brothers.
Today, the Shwayder family and other Jewish pioneers would recognize the ageless peaks of the Rockies dominating Denver’s western skyline, but the city they knew has burgeoned into a metropolis nearly the size of Connecticut.
Downtown warehouses have been converted into art galleries, boutiques and upscale restaurants. Nearby are sleek office buildings, the new convention center and the Denver Performing Arts Complex, the largest area of its kind in the world. Sixteenth Street, long Denver’s main shopping street, is a pedestrian promenade lined with shops, hotels and cafés. The historic center is a walker’s delight with free shuttle buses for the footsore, but the Jewish traveler needs a car and good map to see the far-flung sights of the Mile High City.
“Pike’s Peak or Bust!” was the rallying cry of the 1859 Colorado gold seekers, a group that included 12 German Jews. Rather than prospect for gold, they set up businesses that supplied the miners; some of these Jews remained in Denver and neighboring Auraria (the two merged in 1860) while others fanned out across the state.
Among those original 12 were Fred Zadek Salomon, who opened a general store as well as Denver’s first brewery and was soon a city councilman; and Leopold Mayer, who founded a store on Larimer Street near 15th Street, today’s Larimer Square historic district. Grocer Julius Mitchell reputedly led the first High Holiday services in Denver on September 29, 1859. Businessman Abraham Jacobs had a store at 19th and Wazee Streets, moved to Central City in the 1860s, but returned to Denver in the 1870s. His wife, Frances Wisebart Jacobs, has been dubbed the “mother of charities” because of her involvement with the founding of United Way.
With this influx of Jewish settlers came Jewish institutions. The Hebrew Benevolent Society was formed in 1871, as was the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society; the Denver branch of B’nai B’rith opened in 1872. During the early years, laymen led religious services in buildings downtown. But in 1874, 22 men founded the Reform Congregation Emanuel and soon after built a temple downtown at 19th and Curtis Streets.
A second congregation—Orthodox Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol (BMH)—was formed in 1897 at 1447 Larimer Street by shoe merchant Henry Plonsky. In 1996, BMH merged with the Orthodox Beth Joseph Synagogue to become BMH-BJ. Although the shul is a member of the Orthodox Union, it has mixed-seating services in its main sanctuary on Saturdays as well as a separate-seating minyan with a mehitza in its Adelman Chapel.
Both synagogues had rabbis who guided their congregations for a half-century: Rabbi William S. Friedman at Emanuel and Rabbi Charles E. Hillel Kauvar at BMH.
By the 1880s, a new group of settlers had arrived in Denver: health seekers suffering from tuberculosis who had been living in urban slums and hoped the high altitude and sunshine would cure them. The Jewish community responded by opening the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives at the city’s eastern edge in 1899 and a second sanatorium, the Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society, in Denver’s far western outskirts in 1904. The JCRS, founded primarily by East European immigrants including local physicians Charles Spivak, Philip Hillkowitz and Adolph Zederbaum, became a mecca for poor TB-afflicted Orthodox Jews. While NJH insisted on serving milk and meat together for health reasons, the JCRS observed kashrut.
By the turn of the century, two distinct Jewish areas of settlement had developed. The assimilated population lived on the East Side after migrating from downtown and Capitol Hill. The more traditional community consisted of Yiddish-speaking Jews, many of whom started as peddlers and rag pickers, who lived on the west side of the Platte River under the 16th Street viaduct and then up West Colfax Avenue.
Before World War II, the West Side was dotted with small shuls and Jewish institutions, but these vanished or relocated as urban renewal wiped out housing and many Jews moved to the East Side and suburbs. Orthodox Congregation Zera Abraham (1560 Winona Court; 720-904-1721), formed in 1887 by Russian Jewish participants of the unsuccessful agricultural colony in Cotopaxi, Colorado, is the only synagogue still on the West Side.
By 1907, some 5,000 Jews were in Denver. It is believed that many of the cured TB patients stayed on. The population grew in the 20th century, reaching 18,000 by 1957 and, by 1981, over 38,000 Jews lived in the Denver-Boulder area.
The Jewish population of Denver today is estimated at more than 75,000. As the city’s Jews have moved south and east into neighborhoods such as Hilltop, Lowry, Southmoor and Stapleton, the community has also dispersed into suburban Aurora, Cherry Hills, Greenwood Village, Littleton and Westminster. But the majority of synagogues are still in the city.
In addition to Emanuel and BMH-BJ, options range from the unaffiliated Kohelet (428 South Forest; 303-321-1078; www.kohelet.org), Conservative Rodef Shalom (450 South Kearney Street; 303-399-0035; www.rodef-shalom. org) and the Hebrew Educational Alliance (3600 South Ivanhoe Street; 303-758-9400; www.headenver.org) to the East Denver Orthodox Synagogue (198 South Holly Street; 303-322-7943; www.edosdenver.org). Chabad (400 South Holly Street; 303-329-0213; www.chabadcolora do.com) has several centers, including the Western Center for Russian Jewry (295 South Locust Street; 303-377-7673) that provides outreach to Russian Jews who have arrived over the past two decades. Sefardic Orthodox Bukharan Jews have moved to Aurora in the past 15 years and have two synagogues there.
The Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center (350 South Dahlia Street; 303-399-2660; www.jccdenver.org) offers several social, recreational and educational programs. The JCC also operates the J Bar CC Ranch Camp (303-316-6384; www.ranchcamp.org) in the Black Mountains, which features horseback riding and a kosher kitchen. In June, there is a family camp weekend, and you don’t have to be local to sign up.
The Mizel Center for the Arts (303-316-6360; www. mizelcenter.org), located on the JCC’s campus, runs cultural programs and classes such as pottery for adults. Its 300-seat Shwayder Theatre is named for the Samsonite Shwayders. The center is currently hosting through December 16 the Leah Cohen Festival of Jewish Books and Authors (www.mizelcenter.org/books).
The Center for Judaic Studies (2000 East Asbury Avenue; 303-871-3020; www.du.edu/cjs) at the University of Denver is home to the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society (www.du.edu/cjs/rmjhs). Housed at the society is the Beck Memorial Archives, which, in addition to its collection of old patient records of the JCRS, has posted online images of pioneer Jewish families, including one of the Shwayder brothers standing on a board balanced on a Samsonite suitcase to demonstrate its strength.
Metropolitan Denver claims two Hadassah chapters: The Denver Chapter of Hadassah (1780 South Bellaire Street; 303-321-7430; www.denver.hadassah.org) is downtown while the L.E.A. Chapter (303-329-9403; kjboscoe@ comcast.net) is in the suburbs.
Pick up a copy of the weekly Intermountain Jewish News (www.ijn.com) to learn about services and goings-on. Another excellent resource is www.jewishcolorado.org (sponsored by the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado), designed as a one-stop introduction to the community.
Visiting a hospital is not on most travelers’ itinerary, but you will want to make an exception and stop by the National Jewish Medical and Research Center (1400 Jackson Street; 303-388-4461; www.njc.org). A lobby exhibit chronicles its history: the efforts of Rabbi Friedman and philanthropist Frances Wisebart Jacobs, who is depicted in a bronze sculpture carrying a handbag as though she were walking in Denver’s streets, to create a hospital for indigent tuberculosis patients in the late 1800s; its opening in 1899 as the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives; the founding in 1907 of the Denver Sheltering Home to serve children orphaned by tuberculosis; and its expansion into the treatment of asthma and other pulmonary diseases in the 20th century. The historic B’nai B’rith Building’s doorway on Colorado Boulevard is engraved with the hospital’s motto: “None may enter who can pay, none can pay who enter.”
Among those who came to Denver seeking the cure for tuberculosis was Shayna Mabovitch Korngold, the elder sister of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. As a teenager, Meir ran away from her parents in Milwaukee in 1913 to live with her sister for two years in a modest brick duplex at 1606-1608 Julian Street on the West Side. The home has simple front steps, similar to other residences found in that neighborhood. The house has been restored to look as it might have in Meir’s youth.
Photos on the walls detail her career and involvement in Zionism and exhibit cases display personal artifacts, including a mezuza that once belonged to her as well as one of her dresses. The Golda Meir House was relocated to the downtown Auraria Higher Education Center where it sits in the historic Ninth Street Park (303-556-3292; www.mscd.edu/~golda).
Also located within the park are 13 restored Victorian cottages and the Groussman Store (906 Curtis Street), which was Albert B. and Belle Groussman’s mom-and-pop grocery. The tiny stone Emmanuel Art Gallery (10th and Lawrence Streets; 303-556-8337; www.emmanuelgallery.org) was once the Orthodox synagogue Shearith Israel—also known as the Tenth Street Shul—and was frequented by Jewish businessmen working downtown. Still visible above the entrance are Hebrew lettering and a Star of David.
At the Colorado State Capitol (200 East Colfax Avenue; 303-866-2604), with its gold-plated dome and its step on the outside west staircase exactly one mile above sea level, look for the charitable Jacobs among the 16 round stained-glass portraits of pioneers. A good view of Jacobs’ depiction, located at the base of the dome, is available on the Dome Tour (firstname.lastname@example.org). The window features a bust-size likeness of Jacobs surrounded by a tangle of flowers. She is also depicted in the Women’s Gold tapestry on the first floor.
Just blocks from the State Capitol is the Denver Art Museum on 13th Avenue between Broadway and Bannock Streets (www.denverartmuseum. org). Last year, the museum unveiled the Daniel Libeskind-designed Frederic C. Hamilton Building, an angular, geometric glass, steel and titanium wing that is supposed to evoke the peaks of the Rocky Mountains.
The Denver Art Museum is part of the Civic Center Cultural Complex that includes the Libeskind-designed Museum Residences condominiums, Michael Graves-designed Denver Public Library, the Colorado History Museum, the Denver Mint, the Byers-Evans House and Civic Center Park. And next year, the Mizel Museum (303-394-9993; www.mizelmuseum. org) will open a new outpost in the complex: The Center for Empowered Living and Learning’s premiere exhibit, “Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere: Understanding the Threat of Terrorism,” will be an experiential and interactive look at global terrorism. The Mizel’s main site, at 400 South Kearney, houses a collection of Judaica and Israeli artifacts and plays hosts to numerous traveling exhibits.
The Mizel Museum also maintains the commemorative Babi Yar Park (corner of Havana Street and Yale Avenue) in southeast Denver, which was created as an outdoor memorial to the 200,000 victims who died at Kiev’s Babi Yar between 1941 and 1943. Walk through two imposing granite blocks and prairie grass to reach the box-like bridge over a ravine or sit in the grove of trees with its fountain at the center. Flanked by major intersections, the park is a quiet and underutilized space.
Congregation Emanuel, Denver’s largest synagogue, relocated in 1899 to a Moorish-styled edifice with two copper-topped minarets at 16th and Pearl Streets on Capitol Hill; in 1957, it moved to its current East Side home (51 Grape Street; 303-388-4013; www. congregationemanuel.com). The modernistic building boasts a dramatically vaulted sanctuary and stained-glass windows by the French artist Robert Pinart. The synagogue’s intimate Feiner Family Memorial Chapel blends pre-World War II artifacts—including the Torah, Ark and rabbinical chairs from a small synagogue in Kolin, Czechoslovakia—with furnishings from the Pearl Street sanctuary. BMH-BJ moved to Capitol Hill in 1919, and then, in 1969, went further east. Today, BMH-BJ congregation is located at 560 South Monaco Parkway (303-388-4203; www.bmh- bj.org).
Its sprawling complex, which also houses an afterschool Community Talmud Torah serving this congregation and that of nearby Conservative Rodef Shalom, features stained-glass windows from its former home that families had commissioned to commemorate deceased loved ones as well as newly designed windows. The Adelman Chapel features an Ark with nine-foot-high carved walnut doors.
Leadville Jewish merchant David May opened a department store at 16th and Larimer Streets in 1888 and quickly expanded his holdings into a national chain. The May Company, which included Lord & Taylor’s, Marshall Fields and other well-known chains, was acquired by Federated Department Stores in 2005.
Mattel cofounder and creator of the Barbie Doll, Ruth Handler, the daughter of Jewish Polish immigrants Jacob Joseph Mosko and Ida Rubenstein, was born in Denver in 1916.
The Yiddish writer Yehoash (Solomon Bloomgarden), who compiled the Yidish verterbukh (Yiddish dictionary) with Dr. Spivak, was treated in Denver at the JCRS as was poet and playwright H. Leivick. Tuberculosis also brought Yiddish poet David Edelstadt to Denver; he died in 1892 and is buried here.
Colorado’s only Jewish senator was Simon Guggenheim, who served from 1907 to 1913.
Roseanne Barr grew up in Salt Lake City but got her start as a stand-up comic in Denver’s comedy clubs in the early 1980s.
Jeanne Abrams’s Blazing the Tuberculosis Trail (Colorado Historical Society) focuses on the development of Colorado sanatoria. The American Jew: Voices from an American Jewish Community (Eerdmans) by Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Lavinia Cohn-Sherbok features more than 100 interviews of people in an unnamed Jewish metropolis—actually Denver—of the 1990s.
There are several kosher eateries on the East Side, including: the Bagel Store (942 South Monaco Street; 303-388-2648), East Side Kosher Deli (499 South Elm Street; 303-322-9862; www.eastsidekosherdeli.com), Pete’s Pizza (5600 East Cedar Avenue; 303-355-5777), Zaler’s Kosher Asian Café and Zaler’s Meats (3333-A South Tamarac Drive; 303-306-6328; www.zalerskoshermeats.com). Zaler’s also runs the Kosher Korner stand at Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium, home of the Denver Broncos.
The Staybridge Suites (4220 East Virginia Avenue; www.staybridge. com) is within walking distance of the East Denver Orthodox Synagogue as well as Chabad and offers a Shomer Shabbes package featuring manual keys, timers for lights and kosher food from the nearby East Side Kosher Deli.
Downtown, the historic and elegant Brown Palace Hotel (www.brown palace.com) with its tiered cast-iron balconies and stained-glass ceiling overlooking a central atrium is a four-star treat. The Westin Tabor Center (www.westin.com) is a modern luxury choice.
So it’s time to get that Samsonite suitcase out of the closet and pack for a trip to Denver. But even if you don’t have one, go anyway and soak up the city’s 300 days of sunshine.