The First 75 Years of Temple Beth-El

Temple Beth-El, the oldest Jewish organization in San Antonio and South Texas, was founded in 1874. On May 31 of that year, 44 Subscribers officially met at Odd Fellows Hall to approve by-laws, elect officers, and establish a building committee. THe preamble to the 25 articles of the by-laws read:

"We, the Subscribers, for the purpose of perpetuating the cause of Judaism in all its essential purity; and that we may cherish and promote its great and fundamental princilpe - the upon which our undying faith is found - the belief in, and the worship of one God, have established this Congregation under the name and style of the Congregation 'Beth-El' and for our government have adopted these By-Laws."

These 44 gentlemen were: Louis S. Berg; Henry L. Berg; Solomon Deutsch; Abraham B. Frank; Henry Frank; Simon Frank; Max Goldfrank; Moses Haas; Alexander Halff; Henry Halff; Solomon Halff; Adam Joseph; Achille Kahn; Marcus Koenigheim; Samuel Koenigheim; Alexander Koenigheim; Leopold Mandelbaum; Daniel Marx; Ferdinand Mayer; Samuel Mayer; Max Mayer; Leopold M. Michael; Louis M. Michael; Henry Michel; Alexander Michel; Emmanuel Moke; Bernard Moke; A. Morris; Mark Morrison; Samuel Moritz; Daniel Oppenheimer; Barney Oppenheimer; Moses Oppenheimer; T.H. Philipson; Benedict Schwarz; Abraham Sichel; Sali Sulnon; Phillip Sulzbacher; Joseph Treuer; Louis Veith; Albert A. Wolff; Abraham Zork; and Louis Zork. They were prominent members pf the city's Jewish population, and most of them had already been residents for some time. They were largely part of a wave of immigration from Germany dating from the early 1850s and 60s, some arriving directly and others having first settled in other American cities.

In 1870, German-Americans were the majority group in San Antonio - more than 3,000 of a total population of 8,000. THe Temple's 44 founders made up an integral part of that group, joining such social organizations as the Beethoven Mannerchor, the Turnverein, the volunteer fire brigades and the Casino Club. Indeed, it was the German-Americans who brought culture to what had largely been a frontier town, isolated from the rest of the country due to the lack of railroads and more oriented toward trade with Mexico than the United States.

Many of the founders were related to one another, and many of them worked together. For example, Albert Wolff and Samuel Mayer had a dry goods store, at which Max Mayer clerked, while Abraham Frank and Max Goldfrank, proprietors of Goldfrank, Frank & Co.., wholesale dry goods, boots, shoes and hats, employed one of the Simon Franks and Phillip Sulzberger. Following a general American trend for German-Jewish immigrants, the majority ran dry goods stores, outfitting cowboys embraking on cattle drives, local farmers and traders who passed through the city. From often modest beginnings before or just after the Civil War, these men would prosper. Some, like Albert Wolff, eventually expanded their modest emporiums into major department stores. Others, like Dan Oppenheimer, extended into banking, with others, such as the Halffs, becoming cattlemen. Still others, like the Berg brothers, branched into many diverse enterprises, while Louis Zork held political office. 

Several Jewish organizations actually preceded the founding of the Temple: a Jewish cemetery had been established as early as 1855 and continued to be expanded through the century. The Hebrew Benevolent Society was started in the 1850s and was reorganized in 1`866 while Edar Lodge of B'nai B'rith was inaugurated just a few months after the charter meeting of Temple Beth-El. Many of the founders of the Temple were also officers in these organizations. Religious services had already begun in San Antonio a few years prior to the charter meeting, including modest services in private homes and subsequently in Ruellmann Hall from 1871. In the same year, the Hebrew Benevolent Society purchased the future site of the first Temple Beth-El, on the corner of Travis and Jefferson Streets, from Mrs. Mary Maverick, 3with an eye toward establishing a Jewish congregation. On June 5, 1875, the first officers of Temple Beth-El were elected: President: Sam Mayer; Vice President - Louis Zork; and Treasurer - Sol Deutsch. The first Board of Trustees elected consisted of M. Goldfarb, Marcus Koenigheim, Alexander Michel and Meyer Halff.

It would take more than a year for the Temple to be built. In the process, there was great effort to solicit donations, not only from the local community, but from other American cities. Funds were used to engage an architect, G. Trueleben, and a builder, A. Earhart, to erect the Temple on the site purchased by the Benevolent Society. Early on in the process (September 27, 1874), it was decided to join the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Two temporary Rabbis were engaged for the opening ceremonies on Friday, September 10th, 1875, Rabbi Gutheim of New Orleans and Rabbi Alexander Rosenspitz.  In addition, a committee composed of Leopold Mandelbaum, Henry Berg and A. Kern had been appointed to engage and organist to play the organ and instruct the choir for the occasion.  Both daily newspapers in the city, the San Antonio Herald and the San Antonio Express reported the ceremony.  The Freie Presse für San Antonio noted that the building’s interior was decorated with greenery and flowers, while the Herald proclaimed:

At the appointed hour, the beautiful edifice was filled by the most cultivated audience of ladies and gentlemen we have ever seen in San Antonio.  There seemed to be present representatives of every nationality and religious belief.  The audience paid close attention to the services, and appeared to appreciate fully the nature of the occasion.

Two days after the inauguration, thirty seven out of the sixty pews were auctioned to Temple members and yearly dues were fixed at $50.00 per family, and $25.00 for an individual. Action was also taken to engage a permanent Rabbi, but though numerous applications were received (including that of Alexander Rosenspitz), none was hired.  In consequence, Friday night services were discontinued in February 1876, and lay members Louis Veith, Ferdinand Mayer and Moses Oppenheimer officiated at High Holy Day celebrations that year.

The first School Board was appointed by the Board of Trustees on March 18, 1877. Interestingly, at that meeting, four trustees were absent and were fined for non-attendance.  In 1881 a resolution was passed requiring the attendance of children on Sabbath morning as well as on Sunday.  Thus the two-day religious school was established at Congregation Beth-El. 

On October 26, 1884, a grand service was held in the flower-festooned Temple to commemorate the 100th birthday of Moses Montefiore, following a trend in Jewish congregations throughout the world.  Just two years previously, on December 5th, 6th and 7th, 1882, the ladies of Temple Beth-El sponsored a fund raising fair at Casino Hall, which, according to the San Antonio Express,  featured, among other things, “fish ponds, Gipsey [sic] stands, flower stands, beggar at the well, cigar stand, Mother Hubbard in the show, raffle and fancy stands. The commemorative address was delivered by the Honorable Heno J. Labatt of Galveston. This was a large-scale event, and besides Temple members, many ladies of the greater San Antonio community staffed booths, a continuing attestation to the integration of San Antonio’s Jewish population within the general life of the city. But trouble was looming: in spite of the prosperity and growth of the city of San Antonio during the 1880's, pew holders and members were often in arrears in their dues, and attendance dwindled.  The sanctuary itself was in need of repairs.  Things got so bad that in a meeting held on March 6, 1892, a vote was taken as to whether “this Congregation [should] continue its organization?”  Galvanized by the threat of the dissolution of the congregation, members of the Board voted unanimously to carry on, and elected  J. Hyman Elkin of Hartford, Connecticut, as the new Rabbi.

The big turnaround came with the appointment of Rabbi Samuel Marks, of Leavenworth Kansas, in 1897.  It was a position which he would occupy for twenty three years, making him the congregation’s longest serving Rabbi to that point.  By the turn of the twentieth century, Temple Beth-El had become a mature and stable center for Jewish community and worship in San Antonio.

In the latter part of June 1901, the congregation met to re-incorporate.  At this meeting, Louis Veith was chosen President and S.C. Eldridge, Secretary.  The Treasurer, Jesse D. Oppenheimer, was also one of the members of this Board.  Thus began a span of nearly 50 years during which the name of Jesse D. Oppenheimer was linked with the Temple.  Mr. Oppenheimer served as Treasurer from 1901 to 1907; he was President of the Temple from 1908 to 1914, and was Treasurer and member of the Board of Trustees for more than fifty years.  During the early years of this century, The Temple was replaced by a larger building on the same site.

From 1903 to 1907, the Religious School burgeoned.  By June 21, 1907, C. Pessels, S.C. Eldridge, Clara Moritz, and Sophie Bodenheimer were teachers in the Sunday School, each receiving $5.00 per month, C. Pessels receiving $10.00 per month as principal.  Sophie Bodenheimer continued her service to the Religious School for many years. 

By May 1919, the membership numbered 223, the income more than covered the expenditures, and the total indebtedness was reduced to $2,200.00. The congregation had sufficiently grown that $500.00 was allotted for expenses  in the selection of the Temple’s first Associate Rabbi, Sidney Tedesche, of Springfield, Ohio, who was elected the following month.

On December 29, 1924, the Menger Hotel was the scene of the Golden Jubilee Dinner, organized by Beth-El’s Sisterhood.  For that occasion Rabbi David Lefkowitz and Rabbi Henry Cohen (the father-in law of then Rabbi, Ephraim Frisch) were the guest speakers.  This fiftieth anniversary not only celebrated a historic landmark, but gave impetus to the drive for a new building, completed in 1927.  Present at this dinner were the only two surviving charter members, Ben Moke, of San Antonio, and Philip Sulzbacher, now of Houston.

In 1930 a new President, Joe Frost, was elected.  The following two years confronted the congregation with difficulties arising out of the Depression.  Many members were unable to pay their dues.  Expenditures exceeded income.  The Temple League and Sisterhood were unable to make their financial contributions.  The Religious School, functioned with greatly reduced budgets.  The choir was discharged and a volunteer choir took its place. 

Toward the end of 1935, conditions in general improved.  The indebtedness was reduced and the Temple membership showed an increase.

In March 1938, Rabbi Frisch was granted a leave of absence because of illness.  In the interim the Board examined the possibility of once again obtaining an Associate Rabbi.  On May 25, Dr. David Jacobson, of Indianapolis, was elected by the Board as an Associate Rabbi as of August 1, 1938.  Dr. Jacobson remained as an associate until June 1, 1942, when at a special meeting he was elected Rabbi of Temple Beth-El and Rabbi Frisch was elected as Rabbi Emeritus.

In 1940-1941, a full time Secretary, Vera Fischer, was employed, being the first to occupy that position.  Upon her resignation, Helen Fishback was appointed as Executive Secretary; and at her resignation, R.M. Blumberg, (later the Administrator). 

Thirty-four members of the Temple served in World War II  in the armed services including Rabbi Jacobson.  During his period of service, William Sajowitz, a senior at the Hebrew Union College, was appointed to officiate in Rabbi Jacobson’s place.

The immediate postwar years saw renewed vitality for Temple Beth El. Rabbi Jacobson returned from military service February 1946.  He resumed his duties immediately.

On  August 15, 1947, on recommendation of the  Religious School committee the Board appointed Mr. Milton Bendiner as Educational Director and Principal of Religious School, thus inaugurating new vitality to the Religious School.

In 1948, the State of Israel was born, an event that has impacted our congregation in many ways in the last 51 years.

In 1949, Temple Beth-El celebrated 75 years of service to San Antonio.  For this occasion, Dr. Max Blumer prepared a history of Temple Beth-El.  It was a time of hope and pride.  Temple Beth-El had a recently renovated synagogue; an energetic and beloved Rabbi; and a respected and highly competent Religious School Director.  Dr. Blumer inserted into his history the following message from the Religious School:

A Message From Temple Beth-El’s Religious School

     The Religious School of Temple Beth-El                                 A Staff of eleven teachers, five of whom

offers, to the more than two hundred children                         are professional teachers at the university and

enrolled, a comprehensive course of study in                          secondary schools levels, are afforded the bene-

Bible, Jewish History from the Biblical periods                       fits of a teachers’ extension course directly re-

to modern times, Ethics for Children, Customs                        lated to their class assignments.

and Ceremonies, and Modern Jewish Problems.                           The school’s curricula are further enhanced

     The curriculum of the week-day classes in-                        by weekly Junior Sabbath Services.

cludes the study of Hebrew and selected por-                              Adult studies in Jewish History and in Basic

tions from the Bible and the Prayer Book in                            Judaism have been established under the direc-

Hebrew.                                                                              tion of the rabbi and the educational director.