The mission of Temple Beth-El, the historic heart of Reform Judaism in San Antonio, is to provide a sacred framework that inspires people to cultivate their Jewish lives.
TEMPLE BETH-EL: AN INSIGHT INTO OUR CONGREGATION
There are Jews in San Antonio?
While Ellis Island accepted the lion’s share of Eastern European immigrants during the late 1800s, Galveston, Texas, less than 250 miles from San Antonio, became the nation’s second largest port of entry for Jewish refugees. Many of these pioneers made their way to San Antonio, developing a community of merchants, bankers and cattlemen. They put down Jewish roots by establishing a Jewish cemetery and inaugurating the Edar Lodge of B’nai Brith. But simply having a Jewish identity was not enough; our founders wanted a congregation.
Temple Beth-El, the oldest Jewish congregation in San Antonio, was founded in 1874 and immediately became a charter member of the Union for Reform Judaism. In so doing, we laid the foundation for Reform Judaism in San Antonio and in South Texas. Upon that foundation, Temple Beth-El has built an amazing House of God.
Our Magnificent and Strong “Beth-El”
After outgrowing our initial building in 1919 on the prominent corner of Travis and Jefferson in downtown San Antonio, the Congregation embarked on a plan to build the magnificent domed structure at Belknap and Ashby. In 2001, Temple Beth-El conducted a successful capital campaign that resulted in the modernization of the entire Temple, from the Wulfe Sanctuary where classical Reform style services are held, and the Barshop Auditorium where progressive Reform style services are held, to the Religious School, the conference center, the offices, the public spaces and the kitchen.
Our Clergy, Our Friends
Temple Beth-El has enjoyed stability in our rabbinic leadership, but most specifically over the last eight decades. Rabbi David Jacobson served for 38 years (1938-1976); Rabbi Samuel Stahl served for 26 (1976-2002); and Rabbi Barry H.D. Block, for 21 (1992-2013). Rabbi Mara Nathan, our current senior rabbi, began her tenure in July, 2014. Our distinguished Senior Rabbis have grown, strengthened, and inspired our congregation while participating prominently in Reform Judaism on the national and regional levels while also visibly serving our local community. Collectively, they have used their prestige and moral authority to work for the peaceful desegregation of San Antonio, the initiation and perpetuation of an interfaith dialogue and partnership, the ongoing quest for human rights and equality, and the advancement of Jewish ideals within our city and within our movement.
While our male Rabbis have been a key piece our congregation’s history, we’ve been blessed with other female clergy who have woven their threads into our congregation’s tapestry. As leaders in Reform Judaism, Temple Beth-El welcomed a Rabbinical Intern by the name of Melanie Aron in 1979; she was the first female Rabbi to serve in Texas. Rabbi Allison Bergman-Vann then joined our congregational family, serving first as an Assistant and then an Associate Rabbi from 1999-2011. Jewish music became part of our congregational life in a more official and integral capacity when Cantor Julie Berlin joined the team in 2008. With the current clergy consisting of Rabbi Mara Nathan, Rabbi Marina Yergin, and Cantor Julie Berlin, Temple Beth-El is one of the few large synagogues in North America with only female clergy.
Our Commitment to Social Justice
Under our rabbis’ leadership, Temple Beth-El has a longstanding track record of social action. Historically, Temple members and professional staff have had roles in advancing San Antonio’s fight for equal rights, pressing for women’s equality, and working on behalf of people who are underprivileged. In recent years, our congregation has been active in social programs such as Meals on Wheels and a program to provide school uniforms and supplies to a low-income neighboring public middle school. We have continued our historic commitment to Tikkun Olam by feeding people who are hungry and in need in our community through an award-winning summer camp for neighborhood children. Because of our strong tradition of social action, Temple Beth-El has twice received the Irving J. Fain Award for Social Action by the Religious Action Center, in 2009 for our “Darfur Calls” program and again in 2013 for our “Food & Fun Summer Day Camp.” Our congregation is committed to making a difference in our community, our state, our nation and our world.
Our Engaged Congregation
Temple Beth-El was founded on and remains committed to the Jewish education and engagement of our youth. We have an active Religious and Hebrew school, which results in strong participation in B’nai Mitzvah and Confirmation. Our teens are involved as Ma’aseh (assistant Religious School teachers), song leaders, and members of our various youth groups. They attend URJ Greene Family Camp and Israel programs, with over 50 children and teenagers from our Religious School participating -- the largest for any URJ congregation of comparable or larger size.
Life-long Jewish learning is a cornerstone of our congregation. This commitment is reflected in the strength of our adult education programs, which include adult B’nai Mitzvah and Confirmation classes, the popularity of the Mussar program and a strong and ever-growing corps of Shlichei Tzibbur (prayer leaders), who regularly help lead worship and participate in ongoing training.
Temple Beth-El has a vibrant Outreach program enriched by a conversion program and a tradition of welcoming non-Jews into Temple life. The Temple Beth-El program “Not All Jewish Heroes Are Jewish,” which honors non-Jewish parents raising Jewish children, received the URJ Belin Outreach Award.
Temple-Beth-El is fortunate to have compelling, effective, and storied auxiliaries in our Sisterhood and Brotherhood organizations. Both were founded in 1920, and each has its own responsibilities and areas of interest. The Sisterhood has made important contributions to fundraising, religious education, and youth activities, as well as the Temple Bulletin. The Brotherhood traditionally provides ushers for worship services and coordinates the annual Beth-Elders Shabbat Dinner and our Passover Community Seder as well as providing significant support to our youth groups.
There ARE Jews in San Antonio
While we may not have the Jewish population of New York or Los Angeles or even that of Dallas or Houston, we have something that the Jews of San Antonio find compelling: a unified mishpachah. The San Antonio Jewish community has long cherished a warm, sharing relationship in which members and clergy alike join together in prayer, celebration, and programming. And we do so in a town rich in beautiful landmarks of the Alamo, the Riverwalk and the Tower of the Americas (yes, it’s even taller than the Seattle Space Needle). We marry our Jewish traditions to the community as we celebrate Pesach and then Fiesta. We light the chanukkiah and then go cheer on the Spurs.
And while Temple Beth-El is certainly part of the Jewish community, we are also set apart in a unique way. Temple Beth-El is not simply one of the city's congregations; often, through our clergy, lay leadership and committed congregants, Temple Beth-El serves as the Jewish spokesperson of San Antonio and the media’s “go to” person for the Jewish community. Beyond that, Temple Beth-El partners with the Archdiocese and the city's largest Baptist congregation to be the public faces of the San Antonio religious and interfaith communities.
Yes, there are Jews in San Antonio, and Temple Beth-El, in all its beautiful history and amazing potential, has a sacred responsibility not only to the members of our congregation, but to our community as well.