As Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur neared in the autumn of 1902, a dozen Jewish men gathered at the local Knights of Pythias Hall and announced plans to hold “independent” religious “services for the coming High Holidays on the Reform plan.” Over the next few weeks, a total of forty-three men pledged donations of up to $10 per month to launch a congregation named Beth-El, Hebrew for house of God. They rented a hall for services and elected as president German-born Sam Levy, one of the region’s leading liquor and cigar distributors. They also wrote to Dallas’s Temple Emanu-El, a sister Reform congregation, asking to borrow a Torah and a shofar. To retrieve the holy scroll and shofar, they dispatched Rabbi Solomon Philo, who had recently lost his pulpit in nearby Gainesville and agreed to serve at Beth-El on “approbation” for the princely wage of $100 a month.
Three weeks later, on October 11,1902 , the Fort Worth Star-Telegram announced in a one-column article, “Reformed Jews Are Organized.” The story noted that Beth-El’s charter members included twenty-five married men. Among the founders were Civil War veterans from north and south, an ice manufacturer, a tailor, two attorneys, merchants, haberdashers, a real estate developer, and the manager of the local opera house. Many of the men were interrelated through blood and marriage. Most were American born and some of were native Texans. Most had been living in Fort Worth for more than a decade. Several previous attempts to start a synagogue and a Sunday school had faltered. This time, the Reform congregation seemed off to a strong start. But three months after Yom Kippur of 1902, it was near collapse. Members bickered with the rabbi who moved on. Throughout 1903, there were no Reform worship services at all.
Fed up with the failure of the congregation, the charter members’ wives, mothers, and daughters took the situation into their own hands. As representatives of the local chapter of the Council of Jewish Women, they contacted the Reform movement’s headquarters in Cincinnati for help. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations dispatched a circuit-riding rabbi who made two visits to Fort Worth and revived the dormant congregation from its “state of lethargy.” He arranged for Hebrew Union College to place an energetic young rabbi, Joseph Jasin, in Fort Worth after his ordination in 1904. The Council of Jewish Women agreed to pay the rabbi’s salary. Soon, membership climbed to sixty families.
Not yet content, the women agitated for Beth-El to have a building of its own. The men wanted to continue renting space, but the women were determined to raise money as well as Beth-El’s profile. During the city’s biggest event of the year-the annual Fat Stock Show-Beth-El’s women cooked their best brisket and strudel and sold potluck dinners to hungry out-of-towners. The profits went into Beth-El’s first building fund. When the High Holy Days rolled around in the fall of 1904, the congregation moved into a $6,000 wood-and-stucco building.
Throughout the next one hundred years, the Temple continued this tradition of community involvement. Beth-El’s women started Texas’s first Sisterhood chapter in 1913. As part of the Council of Jewish Women, they launched an Americanization School that helped immigrants from Mexico, Europe, and elsewhere learn English and pass citizenship tests. During World War II, congregants organized Seders for servicemen and provided home hospitality for soldiers stationed nearby.
During the Civil Rights era, Beth-El’s rabbi, Robert Schur, was the first white clergyman in the city to march for racial integration. Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, it was Rabbi Schur who organized a citywide memorial service to help the community begin to heal. Former Congressman Martin Frost, Texas’s first practicing Jew to serve on Capitol Hill, got his start in politics at Beth-El, running for office in the Temple youth group.
The tradition of social action and community involvement continues in Fort Worth with an annual Mitzvah Day on which congregants, young and old, fan out to nonprofit organizations across the city to plant gardens, cradle infants, stock food pantries, and also spruce up the city’s pioneer Jewish Cemetery. Beth-El and its members continue to be involved in civic and philanthropic activities, and Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger has led us into numerous interfaith programs, including “trialogue” programs with Muslims as well as Christians.
Beth-El’s new building (dedicated in 2000), which has won architectural awards, likewise proclaims a proud Jewish presence to the community as it serves the spiritual needs of modern Jews. In recent years we have developed cutting edge Jewish cultural programming, a renewed awareness of the beauty of tradition in our worship, and a welcoming attitude to the great variety of Jewish households today, including the intermarried, families with children, and seniors.
For more on Beth-El’s history, we invite you to read some of Hollace Weiner’s centennial history of the congregation (or to purchase the entire volume in our Sisterhood Judaica Shop).
Take a Virtual Tour of Beth-El Temple. For a more detailed history, see the following pages: Modernity in Mind, The Founding Fathers, The Matriarchs, Beth-El's Dozen Rabbis, The Homes of Beth-El, A Tale of Two Cemeteries, Born-Again Brotherhood, Religious School, FWFTY is Nifty, Finances and Fundraising, Beyond the Temple Walls, The Music of Worship: Selective Return to Traditions.