Temple B'nai Israel, Galveston

By: Rabbi James L. Kessler

Type: General Entry

Published: January 1, 1996

Updated: May 24, 2018

Temple B'nai Israel is the oldest Reform Jewish congregation in Texas. Probably the first services of a Jewish congregation in Galveston were held in the home of Isadore Dyer in 1856. The earliest event to appear in extant records is found in the October 8, 1859, edition of the Galveston Weekly News. The earliest extant temple record, found in the oldest bound minutes book and dated August 16, 1868, records the normal meetings that led to the establishment of the congregation. Members were solicited, funds collected, and plans made for holy day services. On October 10, 1868, the executive board voted to purchase a suitable lot upon which to build a synagogue. On March 27, 1870, S. K. Labatt was asked to secure a charter for Congregation B'nai Israel from the next session of the Texas legislature. The first home for the temple was a Norman Gothic building designed by Fred Stewart in 1870. On June 9, 1870, Philip Crosby Tucker, Jr., the grand master of the Masonic Lodge of Texas, laid the cornerstone. Rabbi Jacobs of the New Orleans Portuguese Synagogue officiated. It is believed that this was the first time an ordained rabbi functioned in Texas. The first Temple B'nai Israel school was established on November 14, 1869, by Alexander Rosenspitz; Hebrew became a requirement in the curriculum of the school in 1877. On June 20, 1875, the congregation voted to become a charter member of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. A new building was planned, and in 1890 Nicholas J. Clayton submitted the unique design for which the temple would be known. In 1892 Leo N. Levi suggested that the temple acquire its own cemetery. Since 1852 the Hebrew Benevolent Society had maintained a cemetery for the Jewish community, so the temple had not established one. The Jewish Immigrant Information Bureau was established in 1907 with Henry Cohen as honorary secretary, a committee comprising Isaac H. Kempner, I. Lovenberg, R. I. Cohen, and Joseph Seinsheimer, and M. D. Waldman as the agent. The bureau was responsible for the Galveston Plan (see GALVESTON MOVEMENT), and was designed to shift immigrant entry from the Northeast to the Gulf Coast, thereby redirecting more settlement to the middle of the United States.

In 1928 it was decided to add a new facility and name it the Henry Cohen Community House. By 1952 the temple had outgrown the famous Clayton building. A location was found at Thirtieth and O, where the current congregation meets. At the turn of the century Mrs. Eliza Kempner donated a home to the temple for the rabbi. Henry Cohen was the first and only resident of that home. Over the years this house and its successors was called the "rabbinage," perhaps the only such label given to a rabbi's home anywhere in the world. Henry Cohen served on the committee to rebuild the city after the Galveston hurricane of 1900, served on the first prison board in Texas, fought prostitution in Galveston, served on the executive board of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and was the first rabbi elected to the Philosophical Society of Texas. Rabbis at Congregation B'nai Israel have been Alexander Rosenspitz (1868–70), Abraham Blum, MD (1871–85), Joseph Silverman (1885–88), Henry Cohen (1888–1949), Leo Stillpass (1950–55), Stanley Dreyfus (1956–65), Robert Blinder (1965–69), Samuel Stahl (1969–76), Jimmy Kessler (1976–81), Alan Greenbaum (1981–85), Martin Levy (1985–89), and again Jimmy Kessler (1989-). Kessler was the first native Texan to assume the leadership of the temple. He is also the founding president of the Texas Jewish Historical Society and the second rabbi of B'nai Israel to be elected to the Philosophical Society of Texas. See also JEWS.

James Lee Kessler, B.O.I.: A History of Congregation B'nai Israel, Galveston, Texas (Ph.D. dissertation, Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion, California School, 1988). Ruthe Winegarten and Cathy Schechter, Deep in the Heart: The Lives and Legends of Texas Jews (Austin: Eakin Press, 1990).

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Rabbi James L. Kessler, “Temple B'nai Israel, Galveston,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/temple-bnai-israel-galveston.

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January 1, 1996
May 24, 2018