Congregation Emanu El of Houston was organized as a Reform Jewish congregation. Its first formal meeting was held on June 8, 1944. The preamble to its constitution expresses the reform views of the founders: "believing that Judaism is a religion of perpetual growth and development, we hold that, while loyal to the fundamental teachings thereof, we are and by virtue of the genius of Israel, ought to be, free to interpret and restate the teachings of Israel of the past in light of the present, and that each succeeding generation in Israel is free to reformulate the truths entrusted in the Providence of the God of our fathers." The second meeting was held at Central Presbyterian Church on July 11, 1944. Temporary officers were elected: president, Nathan Klein; vice presidents, A. I. Lack and Mose M. Feld; secretary, William Nathan; and treasurer, Herman Cohen. Temporary board members were also elected. The name chosen means "God Be With Us," and Rabbi Robert I. Kahn, chaplain, United States Army, who was in the Pacific, was invited to the pulpit as soon as he would be discharged. Until then Rabbi Alan S. Green of Troy, New York, was chosen to lead Emanu El.
Negotiations were begun toward purchasing twenty-seven acres on Old Richmond Road (now called Bissonnet) for a cemetery. Emanu El Memorial Park was dedicated on September 29, 1946, and the oval in the center was preserved for a future chapel. The Kagan-Rudy Cemetery Chapel was dedicated in September 1983. The congregation held its first high holy day services at St. Paul's Methodist Church, religious school was held at MacGregor Elementary School, and Shabbat services were held at Central Presbyterian Church. On January 10, 1945, the congregation authorized Herman Cohen to purchase seven acres opposite Rice Institute (now Rice University) on Sunset Boulevard. By the time of the second annual meeting in 1946, the congregation had grown to 603 members. In 1947 the congregation voted to accept plans and proceed with building a permanent home. The cost of the land, furnishings, and building was estimated at $750,000, of which pledges had been secured in excess of $400,000. Mackie and Kamrath and Lenard Gabert were selected as architects. The Fretz Construction Company was awarded the building contract. The dedication of the building was held on September 9, 1949, when the congregation had 722 members. The original building comprised 65,000 square feet with a sanctuary seating 855 persons and Feld Hall seating an additional 1,800 persons for religious services. At that time these areas formed one of the largest spaces in the world under a cantilever roof, two-thirds of an acre without pillars. In 1975 the Freda and Jackie Proler Chapel and the Robert I. Kahn Gallery were added. In 1978 Rabbi Roy A. Walter became the senior rabbi, succeeding Rabbi Kahn, who was named rabbi emeritus. The membership in 1975 was 1,500 families; in 1988 it was 2,100 families. Two mottoes flank the pulpit: "to do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God" and "ye shall be a light unto the nations".