May is Jewish American Heritage Month, a time to recognize the more than 350-year history of Jewish contributions to American life and culture. We’d also like to take time to remember the achievements of Jewish Americans right here in Colorado—and their history in our state.
You don’t have to search hard to learn about the many Jewish Americans who have helped form the fabric of our nation’s history, culture and society.
Prominent National Figures
- Emma Lazarus, poet and author of, “The New Colossus,” which is mounted on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty (…”Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”).
- Jonas Salk, a scientist physician who discovered the first successful polio vaccine.
- Abraham Joshua Heschel, an early leader in the Civil Rights battles of the 1960s.
- Bob Dylan, award-winning musician whose music inspired many during and after the Civil Rights movement.
- Dr. Gertrude Elion, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Medicine (1988), who helped develop drugs to treat major diseases, including malaria, AIDS and leukemia.
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg, U.S. Supreme Court Justice from 1993 until 2020, who argued tirelessly for women’s rights and gender equality.
- Alan Greenspan, five-term chairman of the US Federal Reserve.
- Jerry Seinfeld, a comedian and actor whose sitcom is credited with influencing modern culture.
We could go on and on. But what about here in Colorado? There are many Jewish Americans who have called Colorado home—and who have helped shape our state’s history. Some have even had national and international influence. Here are just a few names you might have heard before:
- Frances Wisebart Jacobs, who led efforts to found National Jewish Hospital for Treatment of Consumptives (now National Jewish Health) in 1899.
- Otto Mears, Colorado railroad builder who built hundreds of miles of roads and railroads throughout rough terrain of Colorado, including the Million Dollar Highway.
- Wolfe Londoner, Mayor of Denver from 1889 to 1891 and founding member of the Denver Press Club.
- Dr. Charles Spivak, who was one of the founders of the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society’s Sanatorium to treat advanced tuberculosis.
- Golda Meir, Israeli Prime Minister who lived in Denver as a teenager.
- Larry Mizel, founder of M.D.C. Holdings, parent company of Richmond American Homes, who has also been involved in many charitable causes, including the founding of the Mizel Museum that provides educational and artistic programs.
- Jared Polis, the 43rd and current Governor of Colorado who also served on the Colorado State Board of Education and in the US House of Representatives.
Jewish History in Colorado
The discovery of gold in Colorado in 1858 brought many people to Colorado, including at least 12 Jews of German descent. By 1860 Denver welcomed its first Jewish organization: the Hebrew Burial and Prayer Society.
That later became Colorado’s first synagogue, Temple Emanuel, which was formed in 1874—two years before Colorado became a state. The oldest synagogue in the Rocky Mountain region, Temple Emanuel is still a thriving Reform Jewish community today.
Providing Health Care
In the 1880s, almost three million Jews emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States. At the time,Tuberculosis was the country’s leading cause of death and was rampant among European immigrants.
A theory emerged that high altitudes and sunshine were the cure, and many people gravitated to the Rocky Mountains—including many Orthodox Jews, who settled in Denver. Francis Wisebart Jacobs, a Denver Jewish community member, led a movement to care for such people, leading to the opening of what is now National Jewish Health in 1899.
Colorado’s Jewish population grew, and eventually established the West Colfax area as a residential and commercial center.
The first traditional synagogue on Denver’s west side was founded in 1887 by Russian immigrant members of a failed Jewish agricultural colony in Cotopaxi, Colorado (just 25 miles southeast of Salida). That Orthodox synagogue, Congregation Zera Abraham, is still in existence today.
By the late 1960s, the Jewish population—estimated to be between 23,500 and 30,000 (out of a total population of around 500,000)—began to move beyond the west side of Denver. In 2017, that number was estimated to be around 102,000, with the majority of Colorado’s Jewish residents still living in and around Denver.
A Rich History
The history of Jewish people in Colorado is one that spans back more than 160 years. Some of the neighborhoods you’ve probably spent time in were once vibrant Orthodox Jewish communities.
One of our state’s modern world-class hospitals was once a haven for destitute individuals suffering from tuberculosis—making Denver a center for healing those with “consumption” (as the disease was known at the time) and giving Colorado the nickname “the world’s sanatorium.”
Maybe the best way to recognize Jewish American Heritage Month is to take a moment to learn something you didn’t know before. You’ll find yourself intrigued by this lesser-known part of our state’s history.