Jefferson County's first synagogue ever is a ranch house located between a nursing home and a vet's office in Evergreen. "It was built in 1962," says congregation president David Froman, the man who galvanized members to raise enough money to buy the building. "At this point, we could turn it into a museum for its outrageous color scheme, which is expressed in shag carpeting. It's like the White House. It's got a Blue Room, a Red Room...you should see it."
But see it quickly, before Froman has the building rezoned as a religious school/ preschool/administrative facility and begins raising money for the rest of the congregation's grand plan: not only a new synagogue with shag carpeting banned for all eternity, but a social hall and exterior landscaping, too. This may well be the last year High Holy Day services are held at the Methodist church across the highway. Official family memberships have nearly doubled in the past two years--to 150 families. That's intense growth for a congregation that started 25 years ago with eight people meeting in a guy named Bernie's living room.
"We're growing, but it's never been our goal to be big," Froman says. "In fact, quite the opposite."
In fact, the word "unorthodox" could have been coined to describe Beth Evergreen. "For years, we had no overhead and were very anti-conformist," Froman says. "Dues were three dollars." Now they're $400 per family per year and due to rise, but Yom Kippur afternoon still consists of a hike up in the nearby Three Sisters open space; winter is marked by a popular "Torah 'n' Tubing" retreat near Winter Park; and the congregation has yet to affiliate with any of Judaism's five official branches.
"Yeah, we've purposely kept all that on the back burner," Froman explains. "It's a congregation of geographical convenience, not necessarily philosophical agreement. People come from all over the mountains. We have pretty much decided to just be Jewish."
This may have been the only kind of synagogue that would work for Froman, who grew up attending a liberal Reform temple in Northern California at a time, he says, "when assimilation was paramount." Despite staying close enough to his Jewish roots to meet his future wife at a community seder, the 41-year-old Froman did not consider himself an active Jew until his move to Colorado about four years ago. "It seemed with people my age, we're searching for a connection to our roots, or the spiritual quality we didn't have growing up," he says. "A lot are reaching out for religion. It turns out we may not be eternal after all."
Froman's spiritual quest was compounded by the fact that he and his wife, having started an Internet-based furniture business, were hungry for adult company. "We realized we were committed to the idea of a Jewish community," he remembers. "The way I see it, culturally, if you're Jewish, you're Jewish, no matter what you believe. It's like being Chinese. You have no choice. So when I came back here and looked at all the Jews scattered around the mountains, I decided to do what I could to make things happen, to stimulate community."
This is how Beth Evergreen ended up with a president who doesn't keep kosher, doesn't consider himself particularly religious--"Getting closer to God is a personal thing with me, a thing you don't necessarily do in a room full of people every week"--but, like any good Jew, enjoys sinking his teeth into a religious debate.
"Take the issue of chosen-ness, which comes right out of the Bible," he says. "The Reconstructionist view is that it's not so good. They decided to call themselves 'the choosing people' instead. Of course, about 10 percent of Jews believe every single word of the Bible and are extremely strict, but, you know, I don't. The Jewish religion has had the good sense to be flexible. To be rigid doesn't serve the needs of anyone up here."
The question is: What does? To find the answer, two years ago Froman formed a steering committee, which came up with a pair of action points. First: Get Beth Evergreen a building to call its own. Second: Get a rabbi, already.
Beth Evergreen had a strange package to offer a prospective rabbi, but Eliot Baskin, who also holds a nearly full-time job as the City of Denver's Jewish chaplain, seemed pre-ordained. A Toronto native who received much of his rabbinical education back East, he'd always wanted to settle in Colorado. His wife, a newly minted orthodontist, had found a suitable practice in Evergreen. His two young sons could grow up as "mountain Jews," a concept that continues to intrigue and delight him. And the mountain Jews who made up the Beth Evergreen congregation seemed to appreciate Baskin's iconoclastic brand of religion.
"We interviewed a lot of people," Froman remembers. "In retrospect, we were extremely lucky to have made the choice we did. We're about to celebrate Purim, which is a real jokester holiday that Eliot takes very seriously. He's already rented a Super Rabbi costume, and he wanted to do the service at the Little Bear, although it turned out it would be hard to do that with kids. It was too bad. Hey, we could have taken down all the bras for one night and put up yarmulkes."
Instead, Baskin has decided on a Disney-theme Purim, complete with songs and shtick. "One needs a sense of humor," he says, "and Judaism has it. The beginning of the Torah is full of puns."
Right now Baskin is enjoying a brief moment at home, in his study, which is lined with enough books to require actual rolling ladders. It also contains a seriously hyperactive computer.
"Well, I volunteer on AOL's 'Ask-a-Rabbi,'" Baskin explains, as he logs on. "People send questions--soul-searching questions. It's a challenge to help them answer."
The monitor screen blinks twice; a computerized voice says Shalom.
"Ha! See? Isn't that funny? Anyway, there is now such a thing as a cyber-synagogue. Because of the Internet, you can be Jewish anywhere. Why not live in a place that is spiritually perfect? What we are at Beth Evergreen is liberal, post-denominational, progressive--the old affiliations aren't as important to us. We come together trying to forge a new Judaism. We're just hanging around being Jews. Look at this--here's a question I had to answer: 'Dear Rabbi, can I be an atheist Jew?'"
Great question! What could be more Jewish, Rabbi Baskin likes to think, than a great question? He produces a book called Finding God: Ten Jewish Responses. "See? Not one response, ten responses. Anyway, my wife and I wanted to live up here not just because of the physical gloriousness--you know, 'I lift up mine eyes...,' but--"
The phone rings.
"Shalom?" Baskin answers, typing away. "Oh, hi! Hey, are we on for Purim? I'm gonna send you this wild service, and you can start to think up ditties. Like, the Aleynu sung to the tune of the Addams Family? And I'll put in my favorite knock-knock jokes."
"Anyway," he says, hanging up, "it's not just the physical beauty of Colorado but the warmth of the people. You're informal, I'm informal. On Yom Kippur, our Kol Nidre is played on a flugelhorn. These are things that would never happen back East."
Baskin's role as Beth Evergreen's first rabbi--after two dozen years in which congregants took turns leading services--ends up being a combination of diplomacy, inspiration and nuts-and-bolts instruction. At a recent service, he was heard to say: "I'm reading this part in English, because all of you don't read Hebrew. YET." His current projects include teaching a class in Jewish mysticism at his home and planting items in the local paper to raise awareness of what Jews do--"in an area that's largely ignorant," he admits. He's just finished hosting a lecture on the hereditary Ashkenazi breast-cancer gene and is about to turn down a rich Boulder woman who wants him to officiate at a private Passover seder. ("Where's the community in that?") In weeks to come, he will take heat for playing an orchestral work by John Denver at his mysticism class, sit in on rezoning meetings for the new property, and watch, delighted, as his Purim service leaves them rolling in the aisles.
"I consider myself a Jewish tour guide," he says. "When people tell me they don't believe in God, I say, 'So what kind of God don't you believe in?'"
Beth Evergreen's Torah usually reposes in an ark made by local woodworker Albert Greenberg from plans originally designed to produce a gun cabinet. Right now, however, the ark needs repairs, and the Torah itself is wrapped in a pile of quilts made by Albert's wife, the novelist Joanne Greenberg, author of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, among many other works, and one of Beth Evergreen's original eight members.
"Look at her," Joanne Greenberg says, unrolling the scrolls. "You're supposed to call her 'her,' by the way. She's a Holocaust survivor."
When Greenberg moved to the Colorado foothills in 1956--much to the dismay of her family back in New York City--she brought her Judaism with her, uncertain of the direction it was going to take.
"I grew up Jewish," she recalls. "We lit candles on Friday night and said the blessings. We made a rapid appearance in the synagogue on the High Holidays. But Judaism was old-country stuff, orthodox Judaism. All kinds of poverty and despair seemed to cling to it." In Colorado, as a new wife and mother of two, Greenberg embraced what she could. "I am a religious person," she explains. "Which doesn't mean 'better.' It's a flavor you either taste or don't taste. It was obvious to me all along, and I'm the only person in my family who tastes it. I used to go off to the quarry and read the High Holiday service."
Fascinated by the intricacies of the Torah, she taught herself Hebrew. ("It's also the only way you get all the jokes," she points out.) One day she received a call from a Kansas City rabbi, who told her his hobby was telephoning authors whose books he'd enjoyed.
"He said my book had done a lot for him," Greenberg recalls, "and asked if he could do anything for me. So I told him all my troubles. Two days later, a whole package of books arrived--how to do the bar mitzvah, how to teach my children. Then he said, 'Your sons don't have enough Jewish contact; send them to me for part of every summer.' And I did. This man was one of the diamond souls sprinkled throughout the world."
He made two of Greenberg's favorite memories possible: the days her sons stood up and "sang like birds" at their bar mitzvah celebrations, held back East. "My relatives were shot dead with shock," she says, displaying a certain amount of glee.
The next auspicious phone call started out with a man's voice saying, "Hello, are you Jewish?"
"I thought this was another one of those people who wanted a Jewish explanation," Greenberg remembers. "But it was a guy named Bernie Goldman. He said, 'Look, I live up here, and I wanna start a congregation. I'm on a Jew hunt. My kids want to be bar mitz-vahed. I said, 'Oh, I did that!' He said, 'Okay, can you help me do mine?' So eight of us met, in his living room, staring at each other, 25 years ago. We began by doing the High Holy Days in Bernie's house."
It was as far as it could be from a nice, expensive Long Island temple. "Oh, no, most of us were running hellbent from just that," Greenberg recalls, "and we're still like that. Half of us don't know what we're doing. Half of us are intermarried. If it's a choice between playing soccer and being Jewish, soccer always wins. And yet we still wanted to be serious and do what Jews do. The congregation was born to mature. We've had serious unpleasantnesses, lots of arguments, but we've always chosen to keep going."
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Through the years, Beth Evergreen has relied on a handful of spiritual leaders: some on loan from metro Denver synagogues, as well as one freelance religious scholar. Greenberg sometimes finds it hard to imagine that the congregation is now big enough to support a real rabbi, even if he devotes 75 percent of his time to his chaplaincy and only the remaining 25 percent to Beth Evergreen. The new building, she will sometimes say, seems excessive. What was wrong with the Methodist church, and won't all of this organized pomp get in the way of true mountain Judaism?
"You don't have to pretend anything here," she insists. "We are not a furrier's dream, and no one cares what you drive. Our early bar mitzvahs were celebrated in backyards, and it is never mandated that you beggar your family to have one. Belief is not an issue with us. Action is."
This, no doubt, is why Greenberg continues to train all the congregation's children for their bar mitzvahs, as she has for the past 25 years. "Every other week for a year, I teach them," she says. "What they have to learn is impossible. To master a strange script--I mean pages of it. To sing that in public, at the age of thirteen, when you wish you were dead? Impossible. And one by one, they break the code, move through and do the impossible.
"They are a joy," she concludes. "A blessing.