A History of Congregation Beth Israel

When Congregation Beth Israel formed in 1876, the United States was just 100 years old. The State of Texas had been a member of the Union for only thirty years. The American Civil War had ended only eleven years before. In Europe, many of the governments were abolishing the civil liberties that had been guaranteed to their Jewish communities only a short time before. Against that background, Jews were emigrating from countries all over the world to America.

Early city map

In 1876, Austin was a dusty state capital city, not quite 40 years old, with 11,000 residents. With the influx of new citizens had come more commerce and more hope that Austin might prosper. That year, the first elevated bridge across the Colorado River had been opened for use. A second rail line was built to connect Austin to new points in Texas and beyond. Gas lighting had been added to the city’s streets, and a trolley car service began to run on the main commercial street, Congress Avenue. There was talk about the construction of a new state capitol building just to the north of town, and there was hope that a state university might be built.

The city’s population was made up of persons with European, Hispanic, and African-American backgrounds. Those claiming to be Jews – from whatever part of the world they hailed – numbered only 188, about 1.5% of the city’s population.

The Austin Jewish community grouped itself generally into two ethnic traditions: the German and western Europeans, and the Russian and eastern Europeans. The German and western European Jews came to Texas in the mid-1800s. Their names, like Sanger, Strauss, Neiman, and Marcus, became associated with an era of Jewish entrepreneurialism in small and large towns across the state.

The eastern European Jews came to America later. Anti-Semitism had long been a way of life in the orthodoxy of eastern Europe, but life was getting progressively harder for the Jews in eastern Europe in the 1800s. By 1876, Austin was one of the places in the New World where eastern European Jews made their way to live.

A much smaller, third group of Jews, those of Spanish origin, known as the Sephardim, had preceded both the Germans and the eastern Europeans. The Sephardim and their families had left Spain and Portugal in the late 1400s with the beginning of the Inquisition. Many settled in Spain’s lands in the Americas. Some eventually made their way to Texas and a few fought in its war for independence. Perhaps the most prominent members of the Sephardic Jews to immigrate to Texas after it gained independence from Mexico in 1836, were a pair of half-brothers, Phineas and Jacob de Cordova.

Phineas de Cordova

Their interest in land development and journalism had prompted Texas Governor Peter Bell to invite them to come to Austin and to encourage others to join them. The de Cordovas are credited with being the first Jews to settle in Austin when they arrived in 1849.

On the morning of September 24, 1876, the Sunday between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Austinites woke up to read a notice on the front page of their daily newspaper, the Daily Democratic Statesman (the forerunner of the current Austin American Statesman). The notice, signed by a group identifying themselves as “Many Israelites,” invited their fellow Jews to a meeting to be held later that day at 2:00 p.m.:

The Israelites of Austin will hold a called meeting this evening at 2 o’clock at the Odd Fellows Hall for the purpose of forming a congregation. All are cordially invited to attend. All Israelites of this city are respectfully requested to meet at the Odd Fellows Hall, above Wheeler’s Store at 2 p.m.

The meeting site was well-known to most Austin residents and, by no accident, one of the owners of the building and a member of the Odd Fellows was a prominent member of the Austin Jewish community, Henry Hirshfeld.

Henry Hirshfield

Hirshfeld was known and respected as a former Alabaman who had moved to Texas to serve in the Confederate Army. He made Austin his home after the Civil War and quickly established himself as a successful businessman and banker. As Governor E.J. Davis’ recent appointee to the newly formed State Board of Trade, Hirshfeld was known throughout the city. So, it was no surprise to Austinites when the newspaper later reported that the Jewish community’s meeting on September 24 had been a success:

The Israelites of this city [met] in the Odd Fellows’ Hall, in Sampson’s building, on Sunday the twenty-fourth instant, and organized under the name of the “House of Israel,” for the purpose of building a Jewish synagogue… [Officers and trustees were elected, and two committee were appointed, one] to report on suitable lots [and another to] draft suitable by-laws. These officers were elected for one year. Nearly $1700 was subscribed at the meeting, twenty-five per cent. of which is to be paid in cash and the balance in monthly installments beginning November 1, 1876.

Thirty members of the Jewish community had attended the meeting, not a bad showing for a Jewish community that counted only 35 families. And, it was certainly no surprise that the president of the new congregation was Hirshfeld or that the congregation’s vice-president was Phineas de Cordova.

Hirshfeld, his officers, and board members did not disappoint the community. Within a few weeks, they selected a site for a synagogue to be built near the intersection of 11th and San Jacinto Streets, just north of downtown, near Hirshfeld’s home at 9th and Lavaca, and not far from the site of what would become the University of Texas in 1881 and the Texas Capitol building in 1883. On May 26, 1877, the congregation’s board of trustees acquired the deed to the San Jacinto Street property for $2,500 and, shortly thereafter, completed a site survey so construction could begin as soon as possible.

But, the economics of the mid- and late1870s slowed the trustees’ progress. The end of the Civil War had taken its toll on trade, and despite the state’s adoption of a new pro-local business constitution in 1876, the city’s growth was faltering. With the end of Reconstruction, federal money also stopped flowing. The economic downturn postponed the congregation’s building project.

Nonetheless, on October 20, 1879, Congregation Beth Israel applied to the state legislature for a charter as a non-profit organization. The application emphasized the Jewish community’s desire to erect, own, and maintain a private cemetery (despite the existence of a Jewish section in the Austin municipal city cemetery since 1866), school houses, and a building in the city “for the purpose of religious worship according to the Jewish faith.”

The legislature granted the charter, and the trustees (still without a building) managed to develop a congregational life. In 1877, the trustees sponsored High Holiday services at the Odd Fellows Hall, and in 1879, they held a “fancy dress ball” for the Jewish community. Each of these events included fund-raising for the new building. The fancy dress ball raised $320.65, and donations from Jewish congregations in other cities produced another $315.00. The trustees also solicited donations from local non-Jewish leaders, raising $640.00 from two prominent Austin businessmen, Walter Tips and John Bremon.

At some point, the trustees concluded that they had sufficient funds to begin construction, but the money quickly ran out. As more funds were raised, the work would begin and then stop until more money could be found. In 1882, a visiting rabbi from New Orleans managed to prompt the Austin Jewish community to raise more funds, and that spurt of good luck was followed by the congregation’s decision to borrow $2,500 from a local bank to finish the work. The building was finally finished in 1884, eight years after the Sunday afternoon meeting in the Odd Fellows’ Hall.

Original Beth Israel building

In 1884, the first rabbi (or near-rabbi) to conduct services in the new structure was a rabbinic student, Tobia Schanfarber, of Hebrew Union College.

Progress came quickly, albeit in small increments. In 1885, the congregation funded the purchase of pews by auctioning the right to buy seats. That same year, the Hebrew Ladies Aid Society donated an ark, and the congregation published an advertisement in the American Israelite magazine of Cincinnati for the hiring of “an American Hebrew Minister who can deliver English sermons.” In 1886, the congregation engaged its first rabbi, Dr. A.R. Levy from Cincinnati, who presided over the congregation’s first wedding (Golde Melasky and Elias Krohn) and its first confirmation class. But the same financial limitations that had slowed construction also prevented the congregation from renewing Dr. Levy’s contract. The congregation went without a rabbi from 1886 until 1891.

A full-time rabbi didn’t become common practice until Rabbi Aaron Levy was hired in 1892, the same year in which it gained another organizational mainstay, its Sisterhood organization, then known as the Ladies Auxiliary Society.

In 1899, the congregation gained a unique leader in its president, Joe Koen, who took control of Congregation Beth Israel and did 

Joe Koen

not relinquish the presidency until his death in 1944. It was said that Mr. Koen would open the annual election of officers by declaring, “The chair now will entertain nominations for vice-president.”

On July 9, 1907, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (today the Union for Reform Judaism) admitted Congregation Beth Israel as a member. By becoming a member of the UAHC, Congregation Beth Israel had access to a dependable source of rabbinic leadership and to its first Reform siddur, the Union Prayer Book, first published in 1895 by the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

In 1907, the congregation helped form a Hebrew benevolent aid society, the purpose of which was to “aid worthy Hebrews stranded in Austin in going on their way.” In 1908, the congregation hired a Rabbi G. Grad, whose skills were not only as a rabbi but also as a carpenter. He completed the synagogue’s basement floor to use as meeting rooms. After considerable debate, the trustees voted to allow the local Zionist society to use the space. The basement area later was used to house the joint religious school for Congregation Beth Israel and Austin’s then-Orthodox congregation, Agudas Achim.

The forms of religious observance evolved during the early years of the congregation. In 1907, the congregation voted unanimously to adopt the use of the Union Prayer Book for all services although it did not go into use until 1911. In 1912, the congregation celebrated its first Bar Mitzvah, that of William Koen, the son of president Joe Koen. In the early 1920s, the practice of wearing yarmulkes was abandoned. In 1925, the congregation adopted the practice of everyone standing for the recitation of the Mourners Kaddish. Not until 1948 did the congregation celebrate its second Bar Mitzvah, for Melvin Lebo. Reform Jewish practice up to that time discouraged Bar Mitzvah. The celebration of the 1948 Lebo Bar Mitzvah changed that tradition at Beth Israel.

From 1899 to 1944, the congregation had fourteen rabbis. The shortest tenure of any during that period was two years, and the longest term was eleven years by Rabbi David Rosenbaum (1911-22). From 1929 to 1944, Congregation Beth Israel’s rabbi also served as the rabbi of the Hillel Foundation of the University of Texas. The last rabbi to serve in that capacity was Rabbi Newton J. Friedman (1941-45) who, in his autobiography, described his life in Austin. He counted as friends the president of the University of Texas, Dr. Homer Rainey, and the local congressman:

. . . Lyndon B. Johnson, [with whom he often went] boating . . . on Lake Austin, etc. My son Gary, and his daughter, Linda, were born at the same time in Seton Hospital. This sharing of parenthood became the basis of a long friendship. In 1942 at a picnic, I predicted to him, “Some day you will have the key to the White House.”

Two years after Joe Koen’s death, his son William was elected president of the congregation and served for two years

When the war ended in 1945, the passage of the G.I. Bill allowed returning veterans to attend the University of Texas in unprecedented numbers. As they did, many of the Jewish decided to remain in Austin and raise their families.

The result was a rise in membership at Congregation Beth Israel. In 1947, the trustees voted for the first time to expand the synagogue’s physical facilities. Five exterior classrooms were built to accommodate the increasing enrollment in the religious school. A few years later, the board voted to rent additional space for religious school from the adjacent savings and loan and from the Elks’ Hall, a few blocks away. An apocryphal story is told about a city building inspector who visited the synagogue during Friday night services. Later, he made an oral report to the board of trustees in which he recommended that the congregation avoid standing up and sitting down quite so often during worship as it affected the building’s structural stability. Taking into consideration the need for more classroom space, the lack of parking, the structural problems with the building, and the increased value of the land on San Jacinto Street, the board of trustees began to consider the possibility of finding a new location for the congregation.

After considerable debate in the mid-1950s, the board of trustees gave its approval to purchase a property in north Austin. The new location was to be near the intersection of Shoal Creek Boulevard and 38th Street. The problem with the location was that Shoal Creek Boulevard had not been completed to the property’s location north of 38th Street. So, to enter the property, one had to take a roundabout path through a small residential street. Shoal Creek Boulevard would not be completed until 1962 when the congregation sold a small part of its property to the city for that purpose.

Nonetheless, the congregation’s board of trustees voted to buy the site, paying $13,500, and on September 23, 1956, the congregation held a groundbreaking ceremony to begin construction. Just eight months later, the new building was completed and occupied for use. It consisted of the present-day social hall, Smith Auditorium, the central administrative wing, and the chapel. Then, as part of the congregation’s strategic building plan, the congregation voted to begin construction of a new sanctuary. In 1967, a new 650-seat sanctuary was opened.

The life of the congregation in the period of 1930 through 1970 was particularly rich and encompassing. Life at Congregation Beth Israel was marked by annual picnics, events sponsored by the Brotherhood and Sisterhood, fund raisers, and annual musical events such as “An Evening In…” These musical extravaganzas were led by Mrs. Louis Goldberg and written by Sander Shapiro. Each year, for $10 a couple, the congregation visited a different part of the world through food, music and, costumes: “An Evening in London,” “An Evening in Tokyo,” “An Evening in Arabia.”

 The membership of the congregation rose to about 300 families in the mid-1960s, and those numbers remained fairly constant for about the next fifteen years.

Rabbi Louis Firestein, formerly of Temple Emanuel in Houston, was hired as Beth Israel’s rabbi in 1962. During Rabbi Firestein’s tenure, the congregation began holding Shabbat morning services every Saturday.

Rabbi Louis Firestein

In a tradition that still stands today, Shabbat morning services that are not celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzvah are led by one Beth Israel’s many capable lay leaders. Rabbi Firestein would serve as Beth Israel’s rabbi for 25 years.

In 1976, the mayor of the City of Austin, Jeffrey Friedman, who was raised as a member of the congregation, issued a commemorative proclamation honoring Congregation Beth Israel’s 100th anniversary. The proclamation, still hanging in the Board Room, recounts in a few paragraphs the congregation’s history and reflects Mayor Friedman’s obvious affection for his city and his congregation.

The 1970s saw more involvement in temple activities by groups who had not been included before. The youth group president became a voting member of the board of trustees in 1971. In 1972, women could sit on the

Carolyn Turner

bimah during High Holidays for the first time. In 1976, Paulina Stark became the first female music director. And in 1984, Congregation Beth Israel elected its first female president, Carolyn Turner, the granddaughter of Joe Koen. As she later reflected, “The women were let out of the kitchen.”

In 1987, an administrative wing was added onto the building. The addition included a new gift shop, offices for the rabbi, a boardroom, the Koen Foyer, and a new chapel. The chapel used the stained-glass and ark from the old 1880s era Sanctuary on 11th Street.

In 1989, CBI opened its pre-school, the Child Development Center.

By the early 1990s, the congregation faced a new set of challenges. Under the leadership of a new young rabbi, Steven Folberg, the congregation saw its member families double in number and the enrollment in religious school and Hebrew school more than treble. Much of this growth was fueled by Austin’s booming technology sector.

In 1996, for the first time, the congregation added an assistant rabbi, Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker. She was also the first female rabbi in Austin. And in 1997 our growing congregation welcomed its first vested cantor, Cantor Jaime Shpall.

With the strong growth in religious school enrollment, teaching space was difficult to find. The rooms used for religious school included not only those designed as classrooms but also the bride’s and groom’s dressing rooms, the foyer to the sanctuary, two sets of leased temporary buildings, and the Senior Rabbi’s study.

A strategic plan was prepared for the complete remodeling of the Shoal Creek Boulevard site. Shortly thereafter, the local Jewish Community Federation announced that the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation had donated 40 acres for the building of Austin’s first Jewish Community Center. The JCC site had sufficient room to include space for Austin’s two synagogues, Congregation Beth Israel and Congregation Agudas Achim, if they wanted to make the move.

In a series of votes in the late 1990s, the board of trustees and the full membership voted to move to the new location. However, in a series of reconsiderations, the board of trustees and the congregation voted again, this time to remain at the Shoal Creek Boulevard location. These series of votes were wrenching experiences that divided the congregation. A group of members who wanted to make the move formed a new Reform Jewish congregation, Beth Shalom, on the new campus. Congregation Beth Israel lost about a third of its membership, including many of the longtime members who had participated for decades in the life of the congregation.

Although the split was difficult, Congregation Beth Israel emerged with a clearer understanding of its needs and goals. Those goals included remaining in central Austin to serve a diverse group of Reform Jews who support the congregation’s over 140-year history of service. After only a few years, due to the strong growth of the Austin Jewish community, Beth Israel’s membership recovered to about the size it was prior to the split.  

In 2002, the congregation opened the three-storey Shirley Barish Learning Center and remodeled the Helen and Milton Smith Auditorium. At that time, to accommodate the growing membership, the congregation began holding parallel High Holiday services in Smith Auditorium. In 2008, the sanctuary interior was remodeled including an expanded bimah and modern sound system. In 2011, Brian Turner, the great-grandson of Joe Koen was elected president of the congregation. Solar panels, providing a sizable portion of the congregation’s electricity, were installed in 2013. As of 2018, Rabbi Steven Folberg’s 27 years as Senior Rabbi make him the longest serving rabbi in Beth Israel’s 140+ year history. Congregation Beth Israel continues to be proud of being the largest and oldest of Austin’s nine synagogues.

Beth Israel’s Sanctuary (left,) Smith Auditorium (right,) and Learning Center (right, background)