With roots that extend more than 175 years into Galveston’s past, Congregation Beth Jacob has a rich history of Jewish worship, education and community involvement. While the synagogue has faced many challenges and trials, we have weathered every storm and look towards a bright future.
By the time Congregation Beth Jacob was chartered in 1931, Jews had been living in Galveston for nearly a century. Joseph Osterman, born in Amsterdam in 1799, is credited as Galveston’s first Jewish resident. He moved to the city—then part of the Republic of Texas—in 1839. His sister-in-law, Isadora Dyer, held Galveston’s first worship services in her home in the 1850’s, and during the same decade, Galveston elected its first Jewish mayor. Between 1868 and the turn of the 20th century, the island was home to two Orthodox Shuls and a Reform congregation.
The growth of Galveston’s Jewish population was largely due to its status as a major immigration port from 1865 to 1924. Between 1907 and 1914 The Galveston Plan brought an estimated 10,000 Jewish immigrants to the island. Although some settled in Galveston, The Plan’s goal was for Jewish movement into the interior of Texas and beyond.
By the turn of the 20th century, Galveston’s Orthodox population consisted of two congregations: The Hebrew Orthodox Benevolent Association and The Young Men’s Hebrew Association, one led by Russian immigrants, the other by Austro-Hungarian Jews. Despite their differences in worship practices and traditions, they ultimately unified to create Congregation Beth Jacob. In 1930, Yeshiva graduate Rabbi Louis Feigon began his 30 years tenure as the spiritual leader of the newly minted congregation.
The young congregation was undaunted by the Great Depression and, in 1931; construction began on a two-story brick synagogue at the corner of 24th Street and Avenue K. The building—which contained worship, social and education spaces, as well as a mikvah, cost $40,000 (the equivalent of more than $600,000 today)—was dedicated on April 10, 1932.
Beth Jacob’s membership grew to a peak of 230 member families and 125 religious school students. In 1959, Rabbi Feigon was succeeded by Rabbi Irving P. Glickman, and a year later, the congregation began developing plans to expand the original 1931 building with new religious, educational and social facilities, including a 242-seat sanctuary.. In 1965, Beth Jacob came under the leadership of Rabbi Marshall Berg. In 1971, the congregation elected to join the Conservative Movement.
By end of the 20st century, Congregation Beth Jacob had experienced dwindling membership due to the changing nature of Galveston itself. When the first Jews had settled in Galveston, the city was the largest in Texas, bolstered by an economy rich with trade, education, business, farming, ranching and manufacturing opportunities. Over time, as Galveston began to embrace a new identity as resort destination, many of the businesses founded by Jewish families closed or moved inland.
Contemporaneous with the decline in the city’s business climate, the sons and daughters of those families who had been a part of Beth Jacob’s congregation for generations moved from Galveston. New generations attended colleges and universities across the nation and found their spouses and career opportunities elsewhere. From 1999 through 2011, the synagogue was without a full-time rabbi.
In January 2004 , Congregation Beth Jacob put its historic building on the market and prepared to close. An outpouring of support and concern from the Galveston community—both Jews and non-Jews—led its membership to vote to remain open and weather this storm of uncertainty.
Four years later came a true storm, one that changed all of Galveston forever. On September 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike made landfall as a Category 2 storm. Considered the costliest hurricane in Texas history, Ike inundated Galveston. Beth Jacob was filled with three feet of seawater driven by 110 mile per hour winds, damaging and destroying furnishings, prayer books, religious articles and historical treasures. Beth Jacob was struck a double blow on that day, for it had no flood insurance. Rumors spread that the synagogue’s long stand had finally ended and that it could no longer hope to remain open.
Although Rosh Hashanah services were cancelled, the community did not sit by idly. Ike had devastated congregation members’ houses and lives, but even in its ruined state Beth Jacob represented home—a place of refuge and community. The loss of their beloved Shul was one the congregation and community refused to accept.
With its Torah scrolls safely out of the storm’s way in Austin, current and former members, Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, and supporters from across Texas and the United States banded together to flood Beth Jacob once again—not with water, but with resources and assistance.
Unexpected aid materialized in the person of Bill Begal of Begal Enterprises, Inc. of Rockville, Maryland. Mr. Begal, a disaster restoration specialist, had arrived specifically to assist with Galveston’s restoration efforts in the wake of Hurricane Ike. When Mr. Begal learned that CBJ was without flood insurance, he sent crews to work full time on the synagogue, making it habitable so that repairs could begin. When asked why he had helped, Mr. Begal replied, “It is my duty as a Jew to do this for you.” His selfless actions proved truly essential to the Shul’s recovery.
Through the determination and unyielding spirit of CBJ’s congregants, the synagogue resumed services, first on the sidewalk under the foyer’s entrance canopy and later inside the foyer itself once it was habitable. The next spring, Beth Jacob took the Shul ”on the road” to Houston with a service for members and friends who had moved inland after the hurricane.
With the continuous involvement of Rabbi Doctor, at the time a guest rabbi, and Beth Jacob’s many supporters, the congregation held High Holiday services in its sanctuary in September 2009, one year after the hurricane. During the following months, a Chanukah party filled Clark Hall, and Beth Jacob celebrated its first Bar Mitzvah in more than a decade.
In February 2011, Beth Jacob commemorated its 80th anniversary with a successful Homecoming Fundraiser, and Rabbi Todd Doctor was hired as the synagogue’s first full-time rabbi in twelve years. Excitement and hope had returned to Congregation Beth Jacob.