Mark Felding has attended Temple Emanuel on Pueblo’s Northside for 18 years, going weekly to the family-style synagogue that serves about 35 families and seats 200.
But when a genetic health condition left the 54-year-old susceptible to pulmonary embolisms a few years ago, he had to stop working as a paralegal and go on disability. He uses oxygen from a tank and often uses a wheelchair to help him get around comfortably.
This is a problem for their ability to attend the 122-year-old Reformed Temple Emanuel.
“I can’t use my wheelchair there, because there’s no ramp … there are numerous steps,” Felding said. “You’d literally have to push it through the foliage somehow, and it just wouldn’t work.”
But solving this problem is complicated by the temple’s age, its unique design and its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
It’s all fixable, but it’s going to take a lot of money, and the iconic Southern Colorado temple has embarked on a fundraising campaign to help its disabled congregants.
Michael F. Atlas-Acuña, 72, chairman of the temple’s board of directors, has taken on the challenge of helping Felding, about 14 other regulars, and also guests.
“The reality is that most of the people who would need it would come during our high holidays, during Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashana, bat mitzvah, weddings, life cycle events,” he said.
That’s not something that was considered when the temple was built 122 years ago, he said with a laugh. “You know, in 1900, they don’t think about cramps!”
In April, while seriously trying to solve the problem, he realized that it was complicated by two factors. The building is on the Register of Historic Buildings and therefore wants to keep the same facade. The Victorian style would be compromised by something really visible, so his goal was to create a ramp that could be obscured by the landscape and made of concrete and metal, without materials that would need maintenance. Also, the ramp could not be too steep to comply with the regulations of the Persons with Disabilities Act. With the many stairs leading inside, this made it difficult.
So he contacted a few design engineers. The early ones could not come up with a plan that would meet all the different needs of the temple. Then he met Paul Zertuche, 48, a design engineer at Pueblo-based Pablo Engineering, where he is the sole employee.
Zertuche found he had a puzzle on his hands. He already knew the temple and had respect for the members, so he decided to donate his time and waive his fee, which would have been several thousand dollars.
“They have very little space,” Zertuche quickly discovered, and he had many factors to consider. “You’re limited in your leaning by the ADA rules. . . . They have regulations on how much leaning you can have.”
Taking into account the materials and the appearance, he spent a month taking measurements and testing different ideas until he arrived at a design that met all the needs of the building by accessing an entrance on the north side with a ramp of about 20 meters long. The only problem: the estimated price was around $160,000.
Atlas-Acuña was undeterred—he was used to turning temple-based challenges into blessings. In 2019, a white supremacist planned to attack Temple Emanuel with pipe bombs and dynamite. The FBI was tipped off when the then 27-year-old unknowingly communicated his plans on Facebook to an undercover FBI agent. He is now serving a 19-year sentence.
It was national news, and when a reporter asked about the absence of security cameras, the public found out and began to intervene.
“I never asked for money, but the money started coming in and we ended up raising $11,000,” Atlas-Acuña said with joy. “That guy who tried to blow us up ended up giving us a present!” Now, he said, the temple has a sophisticated camera system that he can access from his phone.
Atlas-Acuña has since retired from a nonprofit organization in Pueblo serving people with developmental disabilities, where she worked in various capacities for more than 40 years. While he continues to run a part-time window washing business, he is looking for a way to turn this problem into something positive, just as he did with the bomb scare, trying to shore up funding wherever he can get it.
Doing so will require some ingenuity, but the members of the temple have plenty of it. They have been working for years because of the lack of a ramp.
“If someone was trying to get into services and couldn’t walk, a group of people would come down and wheel their wheelchair up the stairs into the congregation so they could join us,” said Rabbi Emeritus Birdie Becker, who served from about 2000 until 2019 and still comes for special occasions. “I mean, people in the congregation helped each other.”
But they weren’t always able to help Felding, who uses a semi-motorized hybrid wheelchair, big enough for his 6’1” frame. The chair is too heavy and cumbersome to carry, even with a few members helping. So Felding, who lives alone, sometimes has to miss Friday Shabbat meals, and is stuck at home reading the Torah by himself. “I think of these people as my family, as all my friends, and I miss seeing them when I can’t attend in person,” he said.
Money is already on hand. The building needed some structural improvements—repairs of everything from bricks to paint to stained glass—and the temple did some fundraising, raising about $80,000 for the repairs, which congregants did with about $10,000 to spare. Additional fundraising by synagogue members brought the total to about $40,000, just a quarter of the amount needed. With inflation, Atlas-Acuña worries the cost could rise to $200,000 before it’s ready.
So next up is a fundraiser, one with a Temple Emanuel flair.
“On December 11, we will have a program with klezmer music,” at 3 p.m. at the temple, said Atlas-Acuña, who described this musical style as traditional to the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, with the temple style centered on accordion, piano, violin and conga drums. “We spice it up,” he mentioned in an e-mail.
He will play congas and other instruments as part of a trio. The event will also feature an actor playing the ghost of Abraham Goldsmith, a Jewish pioneer who arrived in Pueblo in 1864.
Not charging an entrance fee to the fundraiser is a strategic decision for Atlas-Acuña.
“We ask for donations, and what we’ve found is that people are more generous when you ask for donations instead of asking for an entry fee,” Atlas-Acuña said. “That’s how we’re handling it.” When asked if he would be going to the fundraiser, Felding said: “Health permitting, I will be there.
The temple has also applied for grants from the Jewish Federations of New Mexico and Colorado, with the help of Felding, who offered his expertise in writing grant applications.
And now while they wait to see if they receive it, Atlas-Acuña sees something good in the music and theater fundraiser.
“After the bombing, our Facebook page blew up with tons of people wanting to befriend us, and one of our friends in Texas said, ‘You’re the little shul that could.'” Atlas-Acuña recalled.
If the temple is able to raise enough money, design engineer Zertuche would hand over the plans to a subcontractor who would fabricate his ideas into a ramp that would allow Felding and other regulars, as well as guests, to enter. worship and socialize.
“We want the ramp to be available to everyone,” Atlas-Acuña said. “It’s a public place, like any public place, we want it to be so everyone can enter the building.”