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Toast of the Town 

Art exhibition celebrates Pueblo synagogues 100th birthday

In Hebrew, the word "L'Chaim" means "to life." So it makes perfect sense that the title of the latest exhibit running at Pueblo's Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in the Hoag Gallery is also called L'Chaim, celebrating 100 years in the life of Temple Emanuel, Pueblo's synagogue.

Reaching the century mark, Temple Emanuel is the second oldest synagogue in the state of Colorado. It has been in continuous use since September of 1900. According to synagogue president and historian Michael Atlas-Acua, the synagogue has a relatively uneventful but interesting background.

The first Jewish family landed in Pueblo in 1872. They were, as were many of the first Jewish people in that area, of German descent, having first come to New York before finally settling in Pueblo. At that time, according to Atlas-Acua, they established a small Orthodox synagogue.

In 1889, however, a group of women broke from the Orthodox (traditional) synagogue and formed the Women's Temple Association. They immediately began raising funds in hopes of building a new temple to coincide with the growing Reform movement, a less traditional and less European-rooted movement of Judaism, coinciding with the changing times.

On Sept. 7, 1900, Temple Emanuel was built for the mere price of $5,200. It was the first house of worship in Pueblo to have stained-glass windows, opera-style seating (as opposed to pews) and, unlike the Orthodox synagogue, was a place where both men and women could worship side by side. A century later, the synagogue still stands in its original spot, in its original structure, with its original windows and much of its original stonework and interior.

But for its birthday, the synagogue got what any 100-year-old might want: a huge party and some serious renovation. Through a grant from the city, roughly $300,000 worth of work went into restoration and renovation processes. Now prepared for its next 100 years, the congregation and the city of Pueblo staged a rededication ceremony.

To help celebrate and commemorate the synagogue's 100th anniversary, completion of renovations and the rededication, Atlas-Acua approached the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center.

"We had almost 200 people from the community for the rededication," said Atlas-Acua. "And for the last four years I've really been wanting to do something. So I approached the Arts Center; I brought them some artifacts from the temple and, from there, the idea for the show took off."

The "show" is an exhibit of unique and assorted works done by local and regional Jewish artists. The works include abstract oils, fabric art, collages, silver and natural gemstone jewelry and work representing traditional Jewish costumes. Like the costumes, most of the works also incorporate the many diverse aspects of Jewish culture, tradition and religion.

For example, Sara Novenson, a Santa Fe painter and printmaker who is known internationally for many of her Judaic images and for her beautiful landscapes, integrates Hebrew calligraphy into her work. Artist Marilyn Land is known for telling Jewish history in "miniature" and local artist Barbara Diamond, whose main medium is papier mch, has contributed decoupage torsos, honoring her heritage. She said the idea originally came to her about 10 years ago when she was part of the National Jewish Women in the Arts exhibit.

"Although I don't sew, I wanted to do some pieces carrying on a tradition in my family, tailoring," said Diamond. . "So I cast handmade paper non-wearable clothing, from paper, not cloth. There began a new body of work, and that's what inspired these pieces in L'Chaim.

Local Colorado Springs artists Laura Ben-Amots and Rebecca Yaffe have works on display as well.

Though the exhibit opened three weeks ago, it continues to draw a steady crowd. The show is attracting people not just from Pueblo, but from Colorado Springs and Denver as well.

"It's unique to most who live here," said Erin Hergert, press contact for the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center. "We have seen an increase in attendance to that gallery. The L'Chaim exhibit is definitely bringing people in."

At the opening of L'Chaim three weeks ago, Hergert said they stopped counting at 750 people. Buses from Colorado Springs and Denver helped to bolster that number, as did the fact that the show coincided with an overall fund-raiser for the Arts Center.

"The (Pueblo) community is great," said Atlas-Acua. "They've really embraced us. Pueblo is very democratic and our congregation also has a great deal of interaction with other clergy and churches in the area."

The congregation of Temple Emanuel comprises 50 families. "We don't have a huge community here," said Atlas-Acua. "But we are close. And for the past 100 years, the number of families in the congregation has, amazingly, stayed about the same -- right around 50."

Atlas-Acua is originally from California, but has lived in Pueblo since 1976. He is a Sephardic Jew, meaning he is of Spanish descent, rather than of Eastern European descent. While the bulk of the Jewish population in Pueblo is descended from Eastern Europe, there are a growing number of Spanish-speaking Jews migrating to the Pueblo area.

"Actually, a good portion of our congregation is Spanish speaking. We hold services in both English and Spanish."

Atlas-Acua is thrilled with the L'Chaim exhibit and the community support it has received thus far. Meanwhile, the exhibit continues to draw regional attention. All in all, it is a fitting way to round out the first year of the new century.

In the Hebrew language, many single words hold multiple meanings. L'Chaim is one of those words. But it is always used in the context of celebration and renewal or reaffirmation of life. Appropriately, this exhibit has lived up to its name.

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