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Galveston’s oldest Jewish congregation marks 150 years

July 11, 2018

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — Galveston’s Congregation B’nai Israel is a lighthouse.

A cornerstone of the island’s faith community, the synagogue is —like other places of worship — a place of sanctuary and comfort. It’s solid and steadfast.

The Galveston County Daily News reports its members and leaders have included mayors and civic leaders. The names in Galveston’s history books, memorials and street names; also hang on the walls of the synagogue’s hallways. In some of Galveston’s darkest hours, those people led the way.

The synagogue has also, at times, acted as a beacon for weary people seeking shelter from pain and trouble, and for people looking for a place they can call home.

It is a light that’s been shining now for 150 years.

Galveston’s oldest Jewish congregation this year is celebrating its sesquicentennial anniversary. Established in 1868, the synagogue has played a central role not only in Galveston’s Jewish community but in the history of the island at large, said Marshal Klaven, the congregation’s rabbi since 2014.

“It’s something that will be celebrated not just in the city, or in the county or the region,” Klaven said. “It will be celebrated in a way throughout the United States.”

Congregation B’nai Israel is the oldest Jewish Reform congregation in Texas and the second Jewish congregation ever established in the state.

Reform Judaism is a more liberal denomination than Orthodox Judaism. About 38 percent of American Jews consider themselves Reform Jews, according to Georgetown University’s Berkley Center of Religion, Peace & World Affairs. It is the largest Jewish denomination in the United States.

The role of Jewish people in Galveston goes back further than the congregation. There’s evidence the first Jewish immigrant to Galveston arrived on the island in 1816 with the pirate Jean Laffite, 23 years before the city was officially established.

The city’s first Jewish cemetery was established in 1852, and Jewish religious services were held in the home of a doctor, Isadore Dyer, before the synagogue was established.

The synagogue’s first permanent home was a Nicholas Clayton-designed building on 22nd Street. The congregation outgrew that building in the 1950s. The Masonic Lodge bought the building, which is now a private home. The synagogue moved to a new building at 3008 Ave. O, where it is today.

The congregation is seen not only as a big part of Galveston’s identity, but as a key part of the history of many Americans Jews as well. From 1907 to 1914, the congregation was at the center of the Galveston Movement, a plan to help Jewish people fleeing oppression in Russia and eastern Europe to come to the United States.

Instead of going to more widely used immigration ports, some 10,000 Jewish immigrants came through Galveston in seven years. Those people would continue to move on to other parts of Texas and the middle and western United States.

Henry Cohen, the congregation’s rabbi at the time, met almost all of the ships coming into Galveston, according to some accounts. Cohen greeted those immigrants with a message of acceptance and tolerance, which is emblematic of the Galveston congregation’s ethos, Klaven said.

“He met every boatload of immigrants, both Jewish and non-Jewish,” Klaven said. “He made sure they were welcomed in, that they understood how to integrate into the American culture. He helped them find jobs and get situated.”

Cohen also is famous for opposing the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. On one famous occasion, he and the Rev. James Kirwin of Galveston’s St. Mary’s Cathedral used a truck to block the Klan from crossing the Galveston Causeway. Speaking to the men’s influence in the community, the Galveston sheriff and 50 other armed men joined them on the bridge to chase away the hate group.

The Klan was never successful in establishing a chapter on Galveston Island.

More than 100 years after the immigration program ended, people still go to the synagogue because they feel they have some connection to it, Klaven said. Many of those people hope to find historical documents or other records that might reveal their heritage.

Congregation B’nai Israel doesn’t have much by way of records, though its walls are lined with historical photos and mementos from its long history, Klaven said.

“This congregation kind of sits in a pivotal moment in American Jewish history,” Klaven said.

Today, the synagogue is in the beginning of a new era. Klaven is preparing to leave Galveston for a job across the country. A new rabbi, Matt Cohen, will soon replace Klaven at the synagogue.

Since Klaven arrived in 2014, membership at the congregation has grown by 70 families, he said. Most of them are younger families.

Klaven plays guitar and has tattoos. When he arrived, he helped lead a change in culture at the synagogue he thought was more welcoming to modern families, he said.

“The spirit of this congregation has always been strong,” he said.

The congregation is in a good place, said Jayson Levy, a past president of its board of trustees. Levy’s relatives have been members of Congregation B’nai Israel since just after the 1900 Storm.

“We believe that there’s certainly a place for faith in a modern life,” Levy said. “It’s an evolving role, and we’re excited to be part of that conversation.”

On July 27, the congregation will hold a Torah processional from its original building on 22nd Street to its current home. Members of the congregation will carry the synagogue’s holy scrolls while singing and dancing to celebrate the anniversary.

“It will be giving a signal of our strength as a united community,” Klaven said.

On July 28, there will be a concert featuring Jewish musician Matisyahu at The Grand 1894 Opera House. On the same say, the city will rename part of Avenue O after Rabbi Jimmy Kessler, who served as rabbi from 1989 to 2014 and is still the congregation’s rabbi emeritus.

The concert also will serve as a fundraiser for Congregation B’nai Israel, which still is trying to repair some water damage caused by Hurricane Harvey last August.

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Information from: The Galveston County Daily News, http://www.galvnews.com

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