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No dues, no denomination, no building: Colorado’s ‘Shul with Altitude’ offers community – 9,000 feet up

Formed by glaciers and nestled into the Rocky Mountain range, the town of Winter Park, Colo. boasts 600 miles of mountain biking, an average 29 feet of seasonal snowfall and a population just over 2,000. In the highest incorporated town in the United States, where schools close on Fridays to take advantage of ripe ski conditions, lies a community of Jews not discouraged by lack of size or cold temperatures. They have dubbed themselves the “Shul with Altitude.”

“It definitely has given me a lot more of a connection with Judaism,” said congregant Andy Chasin. “I’ve been to more Shabbat dinners since I lived in Winter Park than I have my entire life growing up.”

At an altitude over 9,000 feet, the shul lives up to its name. In what they call their own breed of freestyle mountain Judaism, the group exists without a denomination, building or even fees. “We have no dues, no building funds, no pledge drives, no bake sales,” reads their website. With the nearest synagogue more than 50 miles away in Evergreen, the group formed out of necessity – but now has at least 100 members throughout Colorado’s Grand County, about two hours northwest of Denver.

Claude and Claudia Diamond, the synagogue’s founders, didn’t expect to find a Jewish community when they moved to the area in 1997 with their two young children, but were pleasantly surprised when they realized the owners of the local ski shop were Jewish. Soon after, the “Shul with Altitude” was born.

Today, they hold brief Shabbat services, high holiday events, Passover seders and their annual flame-thrower Chanukah lighting service – which involves lighting nearly 30 menorahs around a table and holding a fire extinguisher for prop. Often held outside at local parks, Shabbat dinners may have themes like Mexican or Italian night. Congregants range from interfaith, secular families to Orthodox Jews who walk to services.

“We’re the only shul in the area if you want to call us that; I think we’re a chavurah on steroids, actually,” Claude said, using the Hebrew term for a small group. “We wanted services to be spiritual. But why can’t it be social also? Why can’t it be fun? We wanted to have a balance, and it just felt right to bring people together.”

Congregants light candles at the annual flame-thrower Chanukah lighting service.

Congregants light candles at the annual flame-thrower Chanukah lighting service.

One of those at that first event was Doris Sedacca. Like many others in the group, Sedacca splits her time between Winter Park and a second home in another state. “There’s a sense of camaraderie at Shabbat. It’s very nice because everybody looks forward to it, and it’s usually at least two or two-and-a-half hours. Some of us have been here forever, and there’s always new people coming in. It’s such a neat group.”

Deep history of Jews in Colorado

Driving up I-70 West from the Denver airport amid peaks that are capped with ice even in the summer, it’s easy to see why the area was a prime choice for miners and trappers to settle in during the 1800s. The state’s earliest known Rosh Hashanah service was held in Denver the same year that the Pikes Peak gold rush ushered in more than 100,000 immigrants in 1859.

Starting small businesses in mining camps and towns throughout Colorado, Eastern European Jews established an economic presence in the area during the late 19th century. The Jewish community spearheaded the fight against tuberculosis with the founding of the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives in Denver in 1899, leading Golda Meir to the city as a teen in the early 1900s when her sister fell ill with the disease.

Today, most of Colorado’s Jews – which make up 1.8% of the general population – still reside in Denver, with some pockets spread out to Boulder, Colorado Springs and, more recently, Aspen, Vail, Steamboat Springs, Breckenridge and Durango.

While that spread doesn’t extend to Grand County, members of the Shul with Altitude emphasized that part of the synagogue’s appeal is its open nature for friends passing through, new neighbors and even those from other faiths. Claude, who acts as a lay rabbi, has helped with bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and naming ceremonies. He’s also worked together with other religious leaders in the area, hosting pastors and members of the local Presbyterian church at Shabbat dinners and holding a mountaintop memorial service for a Christian family.

“The uniqueness of the Fraser River Valley is how there’s a wonderful mutual respect by all the religious groups. We invite them to our services, and they come, we go to theirs,” Claude said. “We’re all dependent on each other because there’s not as many of us there.”

Claude’s own Jewish upbringing was more traditional – he recalled long services growing up as part of an Orthodox congregation in New York. His parents escaped Nazi Germany, and instilled in him the resiliency of Judaism against all odds. He and Claudia, who grew up Lutheran and converted to Judaism, have worked hard to imbue a love of Judaism with their children.

Chasin, who now splits his time between Denver and Winter Park, echoed that the community has become a way both to preserve and spread Judaism. “I remember growing up, sitting in temple you’re falling asleep or fidgeting or trying anytime you can go out to go to the bathroom. It’s boring,” said Chasin. “The interaction that my kids have is a fun social atmosphere. Without it, we probably would have zero connection to Judaism.”

Some of Chasin’s favorite memories from his time with the group include hosting 45 people for a Rosh Hashanah meal in their backyard and his daughter Tori’s bat mitzvah, which Claude officiated. Chasin said the low-responsibility, community-led nature of the Shul with Altitude is what makes it different from other synagogues.

“Claude and I put the service together, so I think it meant a lot more than just going through the motions,” Chasin said of the bat mitzvah. “I think it’s really cool that you’re not tied to funding a temple and buying tickets for the High Holidays – everybody just pitches in.”

Claude Diamond, left, and Andy Chasin at Tori's bat mitzvah

In Winter Park, a ‘breed of freestyle mountain Judaism’ brings together an eclectic mix of congregants. Courtesy of Andy Chasin

Despite the group’s resilience, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the community. The Diamonds had to leave Winter Park for periods of time to take care of Claude’s mother in North Carolina, though they kept up with the community via Zoom. On July 9, community members led the group’s first in-person event since March 2020.

“I think this is the future of Judaism and keeping it alive,” Claude said. “The best movies you’ve ever seen make you laugh and cry. The best services I’ve ever been to are where you meet friends, you get that kibbitz where you have good food and wine, and then you have a sentimental moment. I like to take people and make them laugh, make them cry, but make them pay attention.”

Congregants provide music accompaniment at an event.

Congregants provide music accompaniment at an event. Courtesy of Claude Diamond

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