Mark Felding has attended Temple Emanuel on Pueblo’s Northside for 18 years and attends weekly the family-style synagogue, which serves approximately 35 families and seats 200.
But when a genetic condition left the 54-year-old prone to pulmonary embolism a few years ago, he had to quit his job as a paralegal and become disabled. He uses oxygen from a tank and often uses a wheelchair to get around comfortably.
That poses a problem for his ability to visit the 122-year-old Temple of Reform Emanuel.
“I can’t use my wheelchair there because there’s no ramp … there are numerous steps,” Felding said. “You would have to literally push it through the foliage somehow, and it just wouldn’t work.”
However, solving this problem is complicated by the age of the temple, its unique design, and its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
It’s all solvable, but it will cost a lot of money, and the landmark southern Colorado temple has now started a fundraiser to help its disabled ward members.
Michael F. Atlas-Acuña, 72, president of the temple board of directors, accepted the challenge to help Felding, about 14 other regulars, and guests.
“The reality is that the majority of people who would need it would come during our High Holidays, during Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, life cycle events,” he said.
That was not taken into account when the temple was built 122 years ago, he says with a laugh. “You know, in 1900 you don’t think about ramps!”
When he seriously tried to solve the problem in April, he found that two factors complicated it. The building is on the Register of Historic Buildings, so he wants to keep the facade. The Victorian style would be marred by something really visible, so his goal was to develop a ramp that could be concealed by landscaping and be made of concrete and metal with no materials that required maintenance. In addition, the ramp could not be too steep to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was difficult with the many stairs leading inside.
So he turned to a couple of designers. The early ones could not develop a plan that met all the varied needs of the temple. Then he met Paul Zertuche, 48, a design engineer at Pablo Engineering in Pueblo, where he is the sole employee.
Zertuche found he had a jigsaw puzzle in 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 realized, and he had to take many factors into account. “You are limited by the ADA rules in how steep you can have them… They have regulations on how steep you can have them.”
Considering materials and appearance, he spent a month taking measurements and trying out the different ideas until he came up with a design that met all of the building’s requirements, reaching an entrance on the north side with a ramp about 20 feet long. The only problem: the estimated price was around $160,000.
Atlas Acuña wasn’t put off by this – he was used to turning temple-based challenges into blessings. In 2019, a white supremacist plotted to attack Temple Emanuel with pipe bombs and dynamite. The FBI was warned when the then 27-year-old unknowingly shared his plans via Facebook with an undercover FBI agent. He is now serving a 19-year sentence.
It made headlines across the country, and when a journalist inquired about the lack of cameras for security, the public found out and started chiming in.
“I never asked for money, but the money started coming in and we ended up raising $11,000,” Atlas-Acuña said happily. “The guy who tried to blow us up ended up giving us a gift!” Now, he said, the temple has a sophisticated camera system that he can access from his phone.
Since then, Atlas-Acuña has retired from a nonprofit organization in Pueblo that serves people with developmental disabilities, where he served in various capacities for more than 40 years. While continuing to run a window cleaning business part-time, he’s looking for a way to turn this problem into something positive, like he did with the bomb alert, by trying to shore up funding from anywhere he can get it.
This requires some ingenuity, but Temple members have plenty of that. They’ve spent years trying to work around the lack of a ramp.
“If someone tried to come into the service and couldn’t walk the steps, a group of people would go down and lift the wheelchair up the steps into the congregation so they could join us,” said Rabbi Emeritus Birdie Becker, who ministered from circa 2000 to 2019 and still comes out on special occasions. “I mean, people in the community helped each other out.”
But they couldn’t always help Felding, who uses a hybrid semi-motor wheelchair big enough for his 6’1-inch frame. The chair is too heavy and awkward to carry in, even with a few members helping. Felding, who lives alone, sometimes has to forego Shabbat meals on Fridays and ends up being stuck at home reading the Torah alone. “I consider these people my family, all my friends, and I miss seeing them when I can’t be there in person,” he said.
There’s already some money. The building was in need of some structural improvements — repairs to everything from brick to paint to stained glass — and the temple fundraised, raising about $80,000 for the repairs, which parishioners had about $10,000 to fund. Additional donations from synagogue members brought the total to about $40,000 – only a quarter of the amount needed. With inflation, Atlas-Acuña worries the cost could soar to $200,000 before it’s ready.
So next up is a fundraiser, one with a Temple Emanuel-esque twist.
“On December 11, we have a program with klezmer music,” Atlas-Acuña said at 3:00 p.m. in the temple, describing this style of music as traditional for the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, with a focus on the style of the temple Accordion, piano, violin and conga drums. “We’re beefing it up,” he said in an email.
He will play congas and other instruments in the trio. The event will also feature an actor playing the spirit of Abraham Goldsmith, a Jewish pioneer who came to Pueblo in 1864.
Not charging entry 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 rather than charging an entrance fee,” Atlas-Acuña said. “So that’s how we handle it.” When asked if he would go to the fundraiser, Felding said, “If health allows, 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 volunteered his knowledge of grant application writing.
And now, while they wait to see if they get it, Atlas-Acuña sees some good in the music and theater fundraiser.
“After the bombing, our Facebook page blew up with a bunch of people trying to befriend us, and one of our friends from Texas said to us, ‘You’re the little school that could,'” Atlas-Acuña recalled.
If the temple can raise enough money, designer Zertuche would then turn the plans over to a subcontractor, who would turn his ideas into a ramp that would allow Felding and other regulars, as well as guests, to come inside to 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 everyone to be able to enter the building.”