In 1976, a group of young professionals in Denver began to study Jewish texts together. Interestingly, this was inspired by the travels of Susan and Bruce Heitler, who were studying with a Sufi mystic in the mountains of Pakistan. When they asked him how to continue their studies once they got home, he pointed them back to their own roots, saying that this wisdom has been written down by only one tradition. He encouraged them to go home and study the Talmud and the Torah, and, upon their return, they gathered some friends to do just that.
Study sessions took place in people’s homes, including a class led by Rabbi Shloime B.Z. Twerski, and another led by his daughter Ruchel, descendants of one of the great rabbinic families of Europe. Eventually the group decided to begin organizing holiday services, also in people’s homes.
One Rosh Hashanah the group met for a discussion. One person suggested that the group should found a congregation. Another person suggested that it would be best to wait and see how things go. Then Pearl Wolfson, a charismatic woman, and the oldest of the group at the time, said, “Sometimes, opportunity does not knock twice.” And thus Kohelet was born.
Kohelet was chosen as the group’s name from the Hebrew name of the Book of Ecclesiastes that is read on Sukkot, and it is also the name of the book’s author, traditionally understood to be King Solomon. Kohelet means “gathering of wisdom.” Given that this group had come together to study the collection of Jewish wisdom, the name seemed like just the right fit.
Kohelet, as a congregation, continued to meet in people’s homes for some time, but eventually the schlepping of books and ritual items became too much. So the group found and purchased a small house at 9th and Jasmine in east Denver. The garage of the house had been a beauty salon, and this is what the congregation converted into their sanctuary. The kids’ area was in the living room, the bedrooms became Hebrew school classrooms, and the weekly Shabbat lunch was served out of the kitchen. It is no coincidence that Kohelet feels like a big family when our beginnings were in this house.
Eventually our congregation outgrew this small house, and we moved into our current location on South Forest. This location has an interesting history too, as it had been a night club and later an art studio. Through a large renovation project, we created the current Kohelet house, which has elements of a synagogue structure as well as the coziness of a family home.
Kohelet’s earlier days influence much of our culture. Originally, there were no membership dues. Participation was the only price of membership. Today we have modest dues, since we have a part-time administrator and a building, but member participation is still a big part of how we run.