This just in from America: Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, Texas, the oldest synagogue in Texas (organized 1854), proudly acknowledges Israel’s 75th anniversary and commits itself to Israel education, support, and advocacy. To you it might sound like a trivial announcement or an unnecessary claim. But history tells all and the story of Beth Israel in Houston, Texas, is a testament to our people’s ability to learn and to lead.
As the State of Israel was born in 1948, Temple Beth Israel’s Rabbi Hyman Judah Schachtel (1943-1975), established that the Temple would adhere to an anti-Zionist position. With Basic Principles for all its members to sign and uphold, it prompted two swift responses. First, 200 families organized themselves and formed a new Reform congregation called Congregation Emanu El, dedicated to the new Jewish state. Second, Rabbi Robert Kahn, who was serving in Europe during WWII, sent a letter to Beth Israel leaders to resign from his role as its associate rabbi. He would not return to Houston, except to lead the new congregation that would embrace Zionism.
The schism was an historical moment that wouldn’t be overcome for decades. Though Beth Israel’s Basic Principles were rescinded in 1967, for obvious reasons, the results wouldn’t be addressed completely for decades. In 1990, when I arrived to be an assistant rabbi at Beth Israel, I wrote a Bulletin article for Yom Ha’atzmaut. In it, I suggested that a proper gift to Israel on its birthday would require us to know more about Israel, and to commit ourselves to its well-being. Within moments of the Bulletin’s arrival at members’ homes, the phone rang. I was verbally upbraided by a Temple member, and warned never to write such sentiments again. With the article in my hand, I went directly to my senior rabbi, Samuel E. Karff z’l, and apologized for what I thought was a fatal error. He assured me that it was not, but that the history of the issue was still burning hot for some.
In 2004, when I took the helm at Beth Israel as senior rabbi, there was no time to waste, in my opinion, to bring Beth Israel members to the table with others who had long sat among like-minded Israel advocates. It was time for a strong, unequivocal, and passionate plea to the congregation on Israel. In specific sermons on the High Holy Days and new goals for Jewish education, community observances, and a new committee on Israel Advocacy, Beth Israel revised its public position on Israel and Zionism. An older Temple member asked me after an Israel sermon, “Does this mean that I have to be a Zionist?” I replied, “Do you prefer to be an anti-Zionist?” She said, “No.” I smiled and offered, “Then you’re a Zionist, and I’m grateful.” The community applauded the new direction.
Today, Beth Israel enjoys the respect and gratitude of the congregation, the community, and national organizations that stand for Israel. Our place at the table doesn’t arouse applause anymore because our place and our voice are an integral part of the conversation, the debate, and the outcomes we all work to achieve for Israel’s present and future.
Beth Israel emerged stronger and more resolute on Israel. Even Israel, itself, has emerged as a sovereign nation and a stronger people. The “New Jew,” as Rabbi Daniel Gordis explained to us during his recent visit to Beth Israel in April 2023, is a person who is not passive or ashamed. The New Jew is strong and optimistic. The New Jew is everybody who sees that the “light of God” that burns within us is a light that should shine on everything beyond us, too: on the land of Israel, the people of Israel, and our children in America who can learn from their parents and grandparents about Israel. Those who hesitate or fail to support Israel are not lost forever; but those who understand that “all the things we love are flawed,” according to Rabbi Gordis, will understand that Israel is not a question. Israel is an answer to our prayers, our hopes, and our strength that “Am Yisrael Chai,” the people of Israel lives and thrives.