In September of 1977, led by Art Kleimer, the Kleimer and the Ast families and twelve additional families gathered to begin B’nai Vail. Attending the first years’ services were the local families of the Kittays, Montags, and Deitzs, and a professor emeritus from Yeshiva University, Dr. Joseph Dunner. It was as if God had determined this nucleus of B’Nai Vail to be successful. Dunner helped in organizing and running the first service. Dunner suggest that we first take a hike up the Booth Falls Hiking Trail to bring us closer to God.
Following in the tradition of the first B’nai Vail potluck, the community spirit of the families continued. Over the next few years, potluck meals were held at the Kleimers, Asts, Deitzs, Shapiros, Aarons and other families. The breaking of the fast was usually held at the Ast’s home. Initially it was at no charge. Then, as the number of congregants increased, a $10 donation was asked for to cover the cost of the lox, bagels and other delicacies. Some people came just to eat Marge Kleimer’s outstanding chopped liver.
After the group size reached 150 in our small house (people were stacked eating on every step and on every bed in the house), we started holding the breaking of the fast at local hotels, pavilions and restaurants.
From a first year gathering of approximately 30 attendees, our success spread far and wide. I remember arriving with our children 30 minutes before services were scheduled, to do the set up for our services. First down with the cross and up with the Star of David. Then place additional seating (bridge chairs) in the center aisle.
Every year Les and Maureen would build a sukkah at their home in Squaw Creek. In the early years it was an adventure to find their home. The roads weren’t paved from Highway 6 the 8 or 10 miles to their mountainside location, and signs were nonexistent. As the ritual grew each year the sukkah got bigger and bigger. Towards the end of this phase of B’nai Vail, Les and Mike Montag worked with backhoes to create this enormous outdoor home that must have accommodated 100 or 150 people. These were always loud and boisterous gatherings, often lighted by flashlight and dozens of car headlights. After the appropriate prayers, everyone retreated into the needed warmth of their home. At 9,000 feet, it was always cold, and sometimes snowy. If fact, one year it had to be cancelled as the snow started to fall in earnest a few hours before the scheduled time.
Celebrations were held over the years at congregants’ homes. Many of our unofficial sisterhood made 20 pounds of latkes each. As the community grew, we used some hotel facilities and had to give them the recipe to follow. Even Jim Cohen from the Wildflower Restaurant at the Lodge of Vail, contributed his secrets of making the perfect latke.
A member of the congregation, Henry Zeligman, had fabricated a six foot electric menorah for B’nai Vail for use during our holiday services, often surrounding latke parties. President Jerry Ford traditionally lit the Christmas Lights at Siebert Circle in Vail. As B’nai Vail became more “mainstream” in the community, he would also light the electric menorah and the program became known as lighting the “Holiday Lights”.
Passover often involved many congregants having multiple tables set up in their homes to handle the local singles (such as the many ski instructors) and the tourists that wanted to share in the holidays. We had US Senators, members of the Israeli consulate, and Fortune 500 CEO’s at our homes over the years.
Attempts were made over the years to hold community seders at the Vail hotels. One year we had so many last minute calls that we had to call another hotel to set up another ballroom for the overflow. Many of these, in later years were done in conjunction with Vail Resorts.
In the early years we had few cash demands. We’d get contributions of $25 to $100, a few dollars on the Yom Kippur breaking of the fast, but our cash requirements were low. In fact, when one of our congregants passed away, and his spouse contributed $500, we couldn’t figure out what we would do with all that money. Times change, the congregation matures and requires different services. Now we are a “big business” requiring bookkeepers, fund raisers, dues etc. But, the offset is we now have a rabbi, an office, an active and growing Hebrew School, and regular Friday night services. It’s a far cry from High Holidays only.
In the early years of B’nai Vail we had an ark that the Dietz family had made to hold the Torah for one of their son’s bar mitzvahs, but no Torah. Again, as fortune has shown on our congregation, a non-Jewish member of the community wanted to donate a Torah. This individual, who wishes to remain anonymous, had been befriended by a Jewish family during formative years, and wanted to repay his experiences by obtaining and contributing a Torah.
The Glaser family physically found our Torah and hand carried it from Israel. It’s a combination of two Torot that each partially survived the Holocaust. The Rosenberg family aided in supplying the original Torah antique rollers, cover, and ornamentation.
Removing the Cross
The Vail Interfaith Chapel had for years been known to many as the Vail Interfaith Church. Parking lot signs were “Church Parking”. Until the remodeling of the chapel in 2000, a large wooden cross hung from the tall sanctuary windows. True to the original concept of the Interfaith Chapel, the original structure was built, or at least funded, by a Jewish construction company out of Denver. The hanging cross was designed to be easily removed and replaced by icons of other religions. At the Dietz’s first bar mitzvah, the cross was removed and a Star of David hung in its place.
When Naomi Kleimer was approaching her Bat Mitzvah she did a project in her Minturn Middle School shop class that hadn’t been done before in the school’s history. She made her own Star of David. This star adorned our services for many years.
Over the years our first ark and our Star of David, had gotten tired. A most creative artist and congregant, Elmer Daniels, took it upon himself to turn these both into works of arts. His creativeness and craftsmanship were proudly displayed during our services in the Interfaith Chapel.
Now, after the upgrading of the chapel, no permanent religious symbols adorn the chapel. Each religion places their own for services, and afterwards, it becomes an Interfaith Chapel, and not an interdenominational structure. Even the parking signs are now “Chapel Parking”. With Jewish services, it is truly an interfaith structure.
Art Kleimer, our guiding light in the creation and organization of Jewish services in Vail, served as our lay rabbi. Services were on a personal basis, often with a feeling of one on one with each congregant. Interspersed with the religious aspects of the services, were personal and historical experiences. A richness permeated each service.
However, as Art will be the first to admit, he couldn’t carry a tune in an attache case, so, our Kol Nidre services were conducted with Jan Pierce’s taped singing.
After 16 years of being our lay rabbi Art announced his retirement. It was time for the community to step to the plate and take over. Art was a wonderful person to devote his time and expertise, and untold hours of listening to everyone’s problems. But, the congregation did survive and mature. Many thanks to Marty Weiss who volunteered to do the impossible, organize and run the 17th High Holiday services of B’nai Vail.
My Mom, Sylvia, started attending services in B’Nai Vail in 1986. She did two memorable things for the congregation. It bugged her that the bemah table was naked, so, out to the religious store she went and had our lovely cover fabricated. True to her nature, she didn’t want it embroidered to reflect the gift.
Charitable Status and the IRS
Early on B’nai Vail applied for a 501C3 status from the IRS to enable our financial supporters to obtain “tax deductions” for their contributions. On the first return out of the IRS, we were listed as “B’nai B’rith Organization.” It took incredible hours to get that governmental organization to give us our own identity.
Susan was frustrated by not being able to get challah in the Vail Valley. Like the great person that she is, she obtained a challah recipe and like so many things in Vail, found that a sea level formula wouldn’t work at 9000 feet, but she experimented and succeeded. Often Susan would hold challah baking classes in our home and during the many hour process, the attending members of the sisterhood would be planning how to do more and more for the community.