Chapter 1

Hebrew Congregation of the City of Houston  1844 – 1908

Ten years later establishing the cemetery, in 1854, 22 members gathered to found Hebrew Congregation Beth Israel – the first Jewish congregation in Texas. Today Beth Israel’s membership numbers more than 1700 families. Originally an Orthodox congregation, Beth Israel’s members first met in a small room in downtown Houston on Austin Street, between Texas and Prairie. The congregation then moved its meetings to a small frame building one block southwest on LaBranch. Congregational Minute Books from these early days reveal lively details about congregants’ daily lives, their grievances, quarrels, grudges, problems with children, as well as their concern about keeping up the cemetery and meeting places, and their children’s religious education, all indicators of a vital community.

By 1868, the congregation had begun its move towards Reform Judaism, a move that created numerous challenges over the ensuing years. Tired of the dilapidated condition of the LaBranch Street building, the decision was made raise money and build a fine new synagogue worthy of the growing congregation. In June of 1870, Texas’ first Jewish congregation announced to the public the building of an “Israelitish Church” on land purchased on Franklin Avenue that would become Beth Israel. The entire city turned out. More than 1000 participants marched down Houston’s Main Street to celebrate accompanied by a big brass band. With speeches and fanfare, a cornerstone was laid and Beth Israel’s first home opened its doors in 1874.