“The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on.”
It was said of Alexander the Great that, after he and his troops crossed the Indus River and fought their way into the Indian sub-continent, his troops finally wearied of the long campaign and forced him to retreat. Alexander wept because he had no more empires to conquer. However, human behavior is infinitely more complex than geography. As long as there is a grief-stricken congregant to console; a simcha at which to officiate; or a kvetch to confront, even great Rabbis have another river to cross. Were it otherwise, Temple Beth-El would have seen many tears in its history. We have, indeed, been blessed with many great Rabbis.
The first Rabbi called, E. Benjamin Jacobs, lasted barely a year, from 1877 through 1878. He was not replaced until November, 1879, when Rabbi Isidore Loewenthal was given the post, which he was to hold for ten years, until he was succeeded by Rabbi Moses P. Jacobson, who served through 1891. The salary of our Rabbis during these years appears to have been between $1500.00 and $2100,00 annually. The congregation then elected J. Hyman Elkin, of Hartford, Connecticut, as the new Rabbi. Though Rabbi Elkin was to remain at his post until 1897, even writing a patriotic editorial on San Jacinto Day for the Express in 1894 (which happened to coincide with the beginning of Pesach that year), his Saturday sermons proved unpalatable enough to the congregation to have the Board direct him to stop giving them in 1896.
Rabbi Samuel Marks, of Leavenworth, Kansas, was appointed Rabbi on September 8, 1897, a tenure that was to last thirty-seven years, including twelve years as Rabbi Emeritus. Son of a Rabbi, born in England, Rabbi Marks came to the United States at the age of eight, but returned to Europe for his education and ordination..By 1920 Rabbi Marks, by then 70 years of age and in poor health, retired. Rabbi Marks was succeeded by Rabbi Sidney Tedesche, who had served as Associate Rabbi since 1919. His brief leadership saw the organization of the Sisterhood, the Brotherhood, and the reorganization or the Religious School. He was succeeded by Rabbi Ephraim Frisch, who is credited with revitalization of our “Sunday School” and, along with the Sisterhood, the inauguration of the Temple Bulletin.
The history of our Rabbis in the last 60 years can be summarized in two names, David Jacobson and Samuel M. Stahl. Both men have many qualities in common, the respect of their colleagues, the adoration of their congregants, and the appreciation of the San Antonio community as a whole. Both men also share another quality, a reverence for the traditions both of Judaism and of the Reform movement, coupled with a willingness to make changes and innovate when necessary.
Rabbi David Jacobson has served this congregation, and continues to serve the congregation, since 1938. So many of the changes brought to Temple Beth-El by Rabbi Jacobson are now so tightly woven into congregational fabric that most of us are unaware that we are indebted to Rabbi Jacobson for them. When Rabbi Jacobson came to Temple Beth-El, Bar Mitzvahs were rare and Bat Mitzvahs were non-existent. The study of Hebrew was insignificant. The congregation lacked a youth program. The Brotherhood was moribund. Adult education was sparse. Weddings were rarely, if ever, held at the Temple. With his customary enthusiasm, David Jacobson invigorated the study of Hebrew and made Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah a common occurrence at Temple Beth-El. He crusaded for marriages to be performed at the Temple, a common occurrence today. He helped re-establish and re-invigorate the Brotherhood. He was one of the leaders in founding SAFTY, the San Antonio Federation of Temple Youth, and helped sponsor a number of youth activities at the Congregation, including a Sunday afternoon social hour, the Teen Canteen, the Temple School for Little Children, and BEST (Beth-El Super Teens).
His honors are truly too many to mention in a history of this size. He was the first lay-member of the Board of Our Lady of the Lake University, which in 1964 conferred upon him the L.L.D. He was President of the National Conference on Social Welfare (the first clergyman ever so elected); United Way of Texas; Goodwill Industries; and the Southwest Region of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He has been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the B’nai B’rith and the Keystone Award of the Boys Clubs of America.
However, Rabbi Jacobson’s greatest contribution to the City of San Antonio is in the area of race relations. With Archbishop Robert E. Lucey and Episcopal Bishop Everett H. Jones, he was instrumental in avoiding any racial discord in San Antonio at a time when sit-ins and demonstrations were occurring all over the United States. Rabbi Jacobson used his prestige and moral authority to assure a peaceful desegregation of San Antonio. For his achievements in this area, Rabbi Jacobson received the Martin Luther King Distinguished Achievement Award, as well as being named Citizen of the Year by the Sembradores de Amistad.
During Rabbi Jacobson’s last decade as Senior Rabbi, he was joined by three Assistant Rabbis: Jonathan M. Brown, Bruce S. Block, and Leslie Freund. In 1973 Cantor Scott E. Colbert was selected to serve as Cantor-Educator and served until 1977.
Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl has been our Rabbi and our spiritual leader since 1976. During his tenure our congregation has grown from 900 to 1250 families. His additions and innovations are too numerous to discuss here and, in fact, form the last portion of this history. Rabbi Stahl has been tireless in his efforts in the community and with the Reform movement. It would be just as impossible to list all of the awards and positions of honor he has held, but a few would be illustrative.
He has headed several allocations panels of the United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County and was the Major Gifts Division Chairman of the 1982 United Jewish Appeal in San Antonio. In 1983, he was Chairman of the Clergy Division of the United Way Campaign. He is on the Pastoral Advisory Board of Hospice San Antonio. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the San Antonio Chapter of the National Conference of Community and Justice, the Peace Center, and the Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital Foundation. He founded the San Antonio Chapter of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
He was a member of the Martin Luther King Memorial City-County Commission and headed its Scholarship Committee. He was the Chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Antonio, an officer of the Family Services Association of San Antonio and the Ecumenical Center for Religion and Health, and a Vice-President of the Jewish Federation of San Antonio. He has been on the Executive Board of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He was the first Rabbi to serve as Co-Chairman of the Forum on Jewish-Christian Relations of the Texas Conference of Churches and to receive the Distinguished Religious Leadership Award from the San Antonio Community of Churches.
He was the Editor of the Journal of Reform Judaism, the official quarterly publication of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) from 1984-1990. He has been the Chairman of the Joint Commission on Continuing Rabbinic Education of the CCAR and HUC-JIR. He also served on the National Board of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
During Rabbi Stahl’s tenure, we have shared many memorable moments, and some heartbreak, with our Assistant and Associate Rabbis. In 1979 we, for the first time, had a female Rabbi at Temple Beth-El., Melanie Aron, who served as Rabbinical intern. She was the first female Rabbi to serve in Texas, although she served as a Rabbinical intern. Morley T. Feinstein was our Assistant Rabbi from 1981 to 1987. He will be remembered as a strong supporter of our youth programs and education and an innovator of our youth retreats. We then were blessed with our late Associate Rabbi Mark Goodman, may he rest in peace.
In 1992, Rabbi Barry H. Block became a part of our Congregation, first as our Assistant Rabbi, then as our Associate Rabbi. Our Board of Trustees has now been recommended by the Board of Trustees to become our Rabbi at such time as Rabbi Stahl chooses to retire. In just the short time that Rabbi Block has been part of our Congregation, he has followed the tradition of Rabbi Jacobson and Rabbi Stahl. He serves on the boards of the American Jewish Society for Service, the Jewish Federation of San Antonio, the San Antonio Association for Jewish Education, Methodist Healthcare Ministries, and Planned Parenthood of San Antonio and South Central Texas; and is a member of the Ethics Committee of the Bexar County Medical Society and the Steering Committee of Leadership San Antonio, a project of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of San Antonio. Rabbi Stahl and Rabbi Block have formed a seamless team to minister to the many needs of an ever-growing congregation.
As of the writing of this history, Temple Beth-El has two new firsts in its history, the engagement of a third full-time, Rabbi, B. Allison Bergman, who will be also be our first ordained female Rabbi.