GALVESTON – An island of hope emerged in a largely devastated city of Galveston this past Tuesday morning, Sept. 30, as 110 local Jews congregated on the back patio of Temple B’nai Israel for a spirit-uplifting and community-rebuilding Rosh Hashanah morning service.
The state of Texas’ oldest extant Jewish congregation, formed in the 1850s, was forced to usher in the New Year 5769 outdoors, after Hurricane Ike caused flooding and power-outages to its synagogue building, back on Sept. 13. Like much of the island, both Galveston synagogues, Temple B’nai Israel and Beth Jacob synagogue, still were without electricity and plumbing more than two weeks after the storm.
B’nai Israel, a Reform synagogue, is home to 180 member households, serving two-thirds of Galveston’s Jewish community. Beth Jacob, a Conservative congregation, did not host High Holy Day services this year, after its building suffered heavy damage by the storm.
With sun blazing overhead, and mosquitoes feasting below, B’nai Israel Rabbi Jimmy Kessler held an abbreviated Rosh Hashanah worship service, which included Torah reading and the blowing of the shofar. Music was provided via battery-powered Karaoke machine, perched next to a folding card table, which supported a Torah scroll that had been protected in a watertight container during the hurricane. Narrow rows of chairs were laid out in partially shaded areas along the patio.
Some B’nai Israel congregants turned out for the service wearing slacks, neckties and dresses. Many, however, followed the rabbi’s lead and showed up in shirtsleeves and shorts. Most slathered on sunblock and insect repellent shortly before the service began at 10:30 a.m., and swapped kippot for broad-brimmed hats and dark sunglasses.
The shofar blowing, in particular, was a poignant part of the service. Rabbi Kessler sounded one shofar from the front, while simultaneously, congregant Steve Feldman sounded a second shofar from the back of the patio. The horns’ blasts echoed around the surrounding neighborhood, still largely devoid of life.
Read about the service, how both young families, newcomers, old timers and even visiting Red Cross workers have reconnected, and why they returned for this Rosh Hashanah service amid the destruction and devastation.
Husband and wife, Dr. Armond and Barbara Goldman, have lived on and near Galveston Island for the past 60 years. The couple was married by former B’nai Israel Rabbi Henry Cohen, of blessed memory. The Goldmans made the trip to the Rosh Hashanah service from the mainland to support Rabbi Kessler and to see his wife, Shelley, a former classmate of Barbara’s.
“We also thought it was important to show support for the community here – not just for the Jewish community, but for the Galveston community, at large,” Dr. Goldman said. “Having gatherings like this will help the island come back, we hope.”
Immediately after the storm, Debbie Shabot said she was planning to ignore Rosh Hashanah and not celebrate the Jewish New Year, given all the hardships she and her family have endured after Hurricane Ike. “But then, at the last minute, I decided that it would be good to be part of the community. And, I’m glad that I changed my mind, because you can see how much community there is here today – people who have lived on the island their whole lives, and newcomers, as well,” she observed.
A family living in a century-old home across from B'nai Israel have been living in their home despite the 6 feet of water in the basement and first floor during the storm. Michael and Carla Brandon and their son Josh, 14, are determined to stay on the island. Brandon said:
“I think it reinforces the fact that Galveston is a city of survivors, and that many people will come back and rebuild.
“And yet, the hardest part for us is seeing a lot of friends and neighbors not return. We’ve seen some friends return right after the storm, become overwhelmed, and move,” he pointed out.
B'nai Israel's president Barbara Crews also served as the island's third Jewish mayor and first female Jewish mayor, 1990-1996.
“There’s so much Jewish history in Galveston, that it really hasn’t been any different,” she observed. “Jewish life here has been very much a part of the city, especially since the Galveston Immigration Movement at the turn of the last century. And so, I think it’s safe to say that Galveston has always been a diverse community and an integrated community. Jews have been so much a part of the civic life and the secular community, in addition to the religious community here, that we suffer and we celebrate alongside our non-Jewish neighbors.
“Galveston will come back,” Crews promised, “and the Jewish community will be an important part of the rebuilding, as we have been in the past. Those of us who are staying on the island are hopeful – as Jews have been throughout our long history – as we begin the New Year.”
Rabbi Kessler said that B'nai Israel will hold an abbreviated Yom Kippur service at 10.30am Thursday, October 9.
Emergency funds have been set up to accept donations. There are links at the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston website.
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