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Our History

The year was 1876.  The United States was 100 years old, the State of Texas had been a member of the Union for 30 years, the American Civil War ended 11 years prior. In Europe, many of the governments were abolishing the civil liberties that had been guaranteed to their Jewish communities only a short time before, leading to Jews emigrating from countries all over the world to America.

Austin was a dusty capital city, almost 40 years old.  The city's population was made up of people with European, Hispanic, and African-American backgrounds.  Out of 11,000 residents, 188 claimed to be Jewish.  Along with the influx of new citizens came more commerce and more hope Austin would prosper.  The first elevated bridge across the Colorado River was opened for use, a second rail line was built connecting Austin to new points in Texas and beyond.  Gas lighting was added to the city streets and a trolley car service began to run on Congress Avenue.  There was even talk about the construction of a new state capitol building and a state university would be built.

The Austin Jewish community grouped itself generally into three ethnic traditions: the German & Western Europeans, the Russian & Eastern Europeans, and the Spanish Jews, known as the Sephardim.

The German and Western European Jews came to Texas in the mid 1800's. Their names, Sanger, Strauss, Neiman, and Marcus, became associated with an era of Jewish entrepreneurialism in small and large towns across the state.  Anti-Semitism had long been a way of life in the orthodoxy of Eastern Europe, by the 1800's, life was getting progressively harder for the Jews in Eastern Europe.  By 1876, Austin was one of the places in the New World where Eastern European Jews made their way to live.

The smallest group, the Sephardim, preceded both the western and the eastern European Jews. The Sephardim and their families left Spain and Portugal in the late 1400's with the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition. Many settled in Spain’s lands in the Americas. Some made their way to Texas and a few fought in its war for independence. 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.  Their interest in land development and journalism prompted Texas Governor Peter Bell to invite them to come to Austin.  The de Cordova's are credited with being the first Jews to settle in Austin upon their arrival in 1849.

On the morning of September 24, 1876, the Sunday between Rosh Hashanah 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,” said: 

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.

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 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 committees 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 bad for a Jewish community with only 35 families. And, it was certainly no surprise 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, 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 after, completed a site survey so construction could begin.

But, the economics of the mid and late 1870's 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 stopped flowing. The economic downturn postponed the Congregation’s building project.

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 (without a building) managed to develop a congregational life. In 1877, the Trustees sponsored High Holiday services at the Odd Fellows Hall.  In 1880, they held a “Grand Masquerade Ball” for the "Israelites of Austin." Each of these events included fund-raising for the new building. The masquerade 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 Bremond.

At some point, the Trustees concluded they had sufficient funds to begin construction, but the money quickly ran out. More funds were raised, the work would begin, the money would run out, and the work would stop until more money could be found. In 1882, a visiting Rabbi from New Orleans managed to help the Austin Jewish Community 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.

In 1884, the first Rabbi (or near-Rabbi) to conduct services in the new building was a rabbinic student, Tobia Schanfarber, of Hebrew Union College. In 1885, the Congregation funded the purchase of pews by auctioning the right to buy the seats, the Hebrew Ladies Aid Society donated an ark, and the Congregation published an advertisement in the American Israelite magazine of Cincinnati to hire “an American Hebrew Minister who can deliver English sermons.” In 1886, the Congregation hired 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. However, 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. In 1892, Rabbi Aaron Levy was hired as the full time Rabbi, and the Congregation 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 not relinquish his Presidency until his death in 1944. It was said Mr. Koen would open the Annual Election of Officers by declaring, “The Chair now will entertain nominations for Vice-President.”  Two years after Joe Koen’s death, his son William was elected President of the Congregation and served for two years.

On July 9, 1907, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (today the Union for Reform Judaism) admitted Congregation Beth Israel as a member. As 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. The Congregation also helped form a Hebrew Benevolent Aid Society, whose purpose was to  “aid worthy Hebrews stranded in Austin in going on their way.”

In 1908, the Congregation hired Rabbi G. Grad, who was skilled as a Rabbi and 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. It was later 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 this did not take place until 1911. In 1912, the Congregation celebrated its first Bar Mitzvah, for William Koen, the son of president Joe Koen. In the early 1920's, the practice of wearing yarmulkes was abandoned. In 1925, the Congregation adopted the practice of standing during the recitation of the Mourners Kaddish. In 1948, the Congregation celebrated its second Bar Mitzvah, for Melvin Lebo, changing the tradition of Reform Jewish practice of discouraging Bar Mitzvah at Congregation 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 local Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson:

. . . 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.'

When World War II ended in 1945, the passage of the G.I. Bill allowed returning veterans to attend the University of Texas in unprecedented numbers. 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. During this time, an unsubstantiated story is told about a city building inspector who visited the Synagogue during Friday night services. As the story goes, he later made a presentation to the Board of Trustees where he recommended the Congregation avoid standing up and sitting down so frequently during services, as it was affecting 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 the search for a new location.

In the mid 1950's, the Board of Trustees purchased a property in North Austin for $13,500. The new property was near the intersection of Shoal Creek Boulevard and 38th Street. Since Shoal Creek Boulevard was not yet completed, to enter the property, you had to take a roundabout path through a small residential street. In 1962, the Congregation sold a small part of its property to the city to complete Shoal Creek Boulevard.  On September 23, 1956, the Congregation held a groundbreaking ceremony to begin construction. Just eight months later, the new building was completed and ready for use. It consisted of the present-day social hall, Smith Auditorium, a central administrative wing, and the Chapel. As part of the Congregation’s strategic building plan, construction of a new sanctuary began. In 1967, a new 650-seat sanctuary was opened.

The period of 1930 through 1970 was particularly rich and encompassing. Life at Congregation Beth Israel was marked by annual picnics, events sponsored by 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 1960's, 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 25 year tenure, Congregation Beth Israel began holding Shabbat morning services.  In a tradition that still stands today, Shabbat morning services, not celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, are led by one of Beth Israel’s many capable lay leaders. 

The late 1960's and 1970's 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 bimah during High Holy Days for the first time. In 1976, Paulina Stark became the first female music director.  This same year, the Mayor of the City of Austin, Jeffrey Friedman, who was raised as a member of CBI, issued a commemorative proclamation honoring Congregation Beth Israel’s 100th  Anniversary. The proclamation, which still hangs in the Board Room, recounts CBI’s history and reflects Mayor Friedman’s obvious affection for his city and his congregation.

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 own Child Development Center.  

By the early 1990's, under the leadership of a new Rabbi, Steven Folberg, the Congregation saw its membership numbers double and enrollment in religious school and Hebrew school more than triple. Much of this growth was fueled by Austin’s booming technology sector.

In 1996, the Congregation added its first Assistant Rabbi, Elizabeth Dunsker. She was also the first female Rabbi in Austin. The following year CBI's 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 not only included the rooms designated as classrooms, but also the bride 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 to completely remodel the Shoal Creek Boulevard location. Shortly after, the local Jewish Community Federation announced the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation had donated 40 acres to build 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 1990's, the Board of Trustees and the full membership voted to move to the Dell location. The Board of Trustees reconsidered and the Congregation voted again, this time to remain at the Shoal Creek Boulevard location. These 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 Dell campus. Congregation Beth Israel lost about a third of its membership, including many of its longtime members.

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 145-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 story Shirley Barish Learning Center and remodeled the Helen and Milton Smith Auditorium. 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 2021, Rabbi Steven Folberg's 30 years as Senior Rabbi make him the longest serving Rabbi in Congregation Beth Israel’s 145 year history. 

Sun, July 21 2024 15 Tammuz 5784