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As Rosh Hashanah approached in the autumn of 1902, a dozen Jewish men gathered at the Knights of Pythias Hall and announced plans to hold “independent” religious “services for the coming High Holidays on the Reform plan.” Over the next month, a total of 43 men pledged monthly dues of 50-cents to launch a congregation named Beth-El. They rented a hall for services, borrowed a Torah and shofar from the Reform congregation in Dallas, and elected as president German-born Sam Levy, a liquor and cigar distributor. On October 11, 1902, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram announced in a one-column article, “Reformed Jews Are Organized.”
Among Beth-El’s founders were Civil War veterans from North and South, an ice manufacturer, a tailor, two attorneys, dry-goods merchants, haberdashers, a real estate developer, and the manager of Fort Worth’s vaudeville theater. Most of the men were already well acquainted through kinship and business ties. Most were American born, with roots in Memphis, Cincinnati, Little Rock, and New Orleans. A few were native Texans. Two were active in the city’s Orthodox congregation, founded in 1892, yet they wanted to raise their children at a synagogue where meetings were conducted in English rather than Yiddish and where their daughters would learn Jewish tradition on an equal footing with their sons. To these mainstream Americans, Reform Judaism was in sync with the mainstream lives they led. Several previous attempts to start a Reform congregation and religious school had faltered. This time, the effort seemed off to a strong start, with a state charter, bylaws, a treasury, and a roster of leading citizens. But three months after Yom Kippur of 1902, Beth-El was near collapse.
To the rescue came the women. Although excluded from Beth-El’s initial organizing meetings, the wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters of the charter members took the situation into their own hands. As members of the local section of the Council of Jewish Women, they had clout. They contacted the Reform movement’s headquarters in Cincinnati. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations dispatched a circuit-riding rabbi who revived the dormant congregation. 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 paid the rabbi’s salary. With the combined efforts of both women and men, Beth-El’s membership climbed to 60 families.
While the men were content to rent space inside a spiritualist temple for services and religious school, the women insisted that Beth-El should have a building of its own and a visible identity in the community. To that end, during the city’s biggest commercial event of the year—the annual Fort Worth Fat Stock Show—the women cooked brisket and strudel and sold potluck dinners to hungry out-of-towners. The profits went into a Beth-El building fund. When the High Holy Days rolled around in the fall of 1908, the congregation moved into a $6,000 wood-and-stucco building.
Throughout the next hundred years, the Temple continued these twin traditions of community involvement beyond the congregation and egalitarianism within. In 1907, when East European Jewish immigrants began arriving in Texas through the port of Galveston, local Reform Jews opened an Americanization School that helped Jewish and non-Jewish immigrants from Europe, Mexico, and elsewhere learn English and pass citizenship tests. The school was revived after World War II and during the era of Soviet Refusniks. During WWII, the Temple hosted Passover Seders for soldiers stationed throughout the region.
During the Civil Rights era, Beth-El’s Rabbi Robert Schur was Fort Worth’s first white clergyman to march for racial integration. His successor, Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger, continued this tradition of community involvement through his work with the Day Resource Center for the Homeless, the American Red Cross, and as Jewish co-chairman of the Texas Conference of Churches’ Jewish-Christian Forum. The rabbi’s interfaith and interethnic work earned him the city’s 2011 Multicultural Alliance Award.
Beth-El, during its first century, has had 14 rabbis and 3 houses of worship, providing stability and leadership in the Jewish and secular communities. Since 2000, when the congregation moved to a new building in the city’s busy Hulen Street corridor, membership has climbed from 375 to 450 families—including 175 students in the Religious School. The synagogue complex, located on 7 acres, is a beehive of activity, with Tot Shabbats, pre-teen and teenage youth groups, baby-boomer socials, senior functions, Shabbat morning Torah study, Brotherhood-catered lunches, and student talent shows. A Caring Congregation Committee of more than 100 people extends a warm, supportive hand to those at home with illness. Beth-El remains a congregation where every participant derives a sense of importance. Today, Beth-El prides itself on being warm and welcoming to our growing community.
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 WRJ Judaica Shop).
Take a Virtual Tour of Beth-El Temple. For a more detailed history, see the following pages: