Taking this reporter on a recent tour of Galveston Island’s Congregation Beth Jacob, the synagogue’s staff and lay leaders show remarkable attention to detail. They point out the shifting locations of specific furniture and ritual items from the 1930s, to the ‘60s, to the present. The water line on the Torah ark, a reminder of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ike in 2008. Even the intricacies of the electrical work and the air conditioning system.
But why does all this detail matter? For this Texas city’s small Jewish community — an estimated 150 to 175 households — the Conservative synagogue’s facility is a kind of a national treasure. And so is the history of the entire island that surrounds it.
“We are our building, our building is us,” said Gary Druss, Beth Jacob’s gabbai and past president. “Our identities are tied to this building.”
The congregation’s 80 member families were all displaced from their homes by Hurricane Ike, not to mention the damage suffered by their spiritual home. But eight years later, the synagogue building is restored and the congregation is celebrating its 85th anniversary in style — organizing a March 26 concert by popular singer-songwriter and novelist Kinky Friedman, a former gubernatorial candidate in Texas. (For the record, he was born Richard Samet Friedman and his nickname derives from his curly hair, not anything sexual. Regardless, the concert isn’t taking place in the synagogue itself.)
Beth Jacob has an eye on not only appreciating its past, but also bringing it to life, through its ongoing development of a plan to turn part of the synagogue facility into a museum. Galveston in general has broader historical significance as one of America’s two major immigration ports in the 20th century. The casual history buff is likely to be more familiar with the other port, Ellis Island.
“Between 1906 and 1914 nearly 50,000 immigrants arrived at Galveston, including Bohemians, Moravians, Galicians, Austrians, Romanians, Swiss, English, Poles, Italians, Dutch, and some 10,000 Jews,” recounts an article on the Texas State Historical Association’s website. “By 1915, Galveston was considered a ‘second Ellis Island.’ The flow of immigration ceased in World War I, and the immigration center was demolished in 1972.”
Galveston’s rich history — and its preservation — isn’t lost on Friedman, who in the 1970s moved on from his second band, called Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, to a four-decade solo career that has included touring with Bob Dylan.
“Galveston is a special place,” he said. “With the big cities coming in to kind of homogenize and sanitize zones, Galveston still has a little bit of its old-time style going.
“It’s always great going there. I just feel kind of a bond with the place, one of the few places in America that I do.”
The outspoken musician has a difficult time answering a question without cracking a joke, saying of the opera house that will host his upcoming concert, “I don’t know whether that’s older than the synagogue, but they’re both older than I am. And that’s good because I’m 71, though I read at the 73-year-old level.” Fact check: The Grand 1894 Opera House, the concert’s venue, is older than Beth Jacob itself but younger than the synagogue’s roots.
Between 1868 and 1930, Galveston was home to two Orthodox synagogues. In the spring of 1930, those synagogues merged to create Congregation Beth Jacob, which was chartered in 1931. Beth Jacob’s current building was dedicated in 1932 and expanded in 1962. By 1970, the congregation took up egalitarian practices in the Conservative Jewish tradition.
In 2008, the same year when the synagogue nearly met its demise during the hurricane, part-time spiritual leader Rabbi Todd Doctor took on Beth Jacob’s pulpit as a full-time position. With the storm, Doctor was “informally knighted,” says Kathleen Sukiennik, the synagogue’s former executive director.
With about 50 to 60 member families today, the congregation no longer prays in the larger sanctuary that was created during its 1962 expansion. But David Rockoff, Beth Jacob’s president and executive director, hopes that Galveston’s historic significance, as well as its increasing appeal for beachgoers and cruise ships, will rejuvenate the synagogue community in the post-Ike era.
“Our congregation, although small, has a very large very usable facility,” Rockoff said. “What we’re looking to do in the future is to utilize our buildings to further strengthen Jewish identity and understanding of the congregation and of Galveston, and of the history of the immigration of Jews to the United States through Galveston.”
Along those lines, Rockoff said, synagogue leaders are now developing plans to turn part of Beth Jacob into a museum, “as a way of preserving the congregation in the long-run.”
Rockoff’s grandfather arrived in the U.S. from Russia — fittingly, through the Galveston port — in 1905, then moved to New York two years later. The family eventually found its way back to Texas, settling in Houston. David Rockoff, a career fundraiser for 45 years, completed the circle by moving to Galveston in 2013, when he started his job at Beth Jacob.
Rabbi Doctor’s grandfather also immigrated to the United States through Galveston, moving to Wharton, Texas. Doctor earned his rabbinical ordination in 2001 and spent 10 years working at Jewish high schools, but then got a call from Druss, the Beth Jacob gabbai. Doctor said he was drawn to the pulpit by his strong feeling that a synagogue shouldn’t close, as happened with his childhood synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel of Wharton, which shut down in 2002.
“We’re trying to maintain a presence of Conservative Judaism on the island…we’re trying to maintain that traditional perspective,” he said.
At the same time, in the decade after the hurricane, the congregation’s membership is transforming. Before Ike, almost all of the members grew up in the Beth Jacob community, but now it’s just the opposite. Many Galveston residents who were displaced by flooding left for Houston and never returned, and storm-induced stress led to a spike in local deaths among the older generation.
Seemingly on cue, while the synagogue leaders are explaining this demographic trend, a new young-looking couple walks through the door to check out the building.
“We’ll give them a membership application,” Druss quipped.
Indeed, the hurricane was a “galvanizing force” when it came to planning Beth Jacob’s future, Druss said, immediately realizing his unintended pun vis-à-vis the synagogue’s hometown.
“Nobody wanted to let it go,” he says. “Nobody was going to give up on the shul.”
Kathleen Sukiennik remembers going through the floodwater and the gunk, pulling apart the Torah ark. Doctor reconstructed part of the ark himself. With about 75 percent of the island flooded, Sukiennik recalls feeling “like kids” chasing an ice cream truck upon seeing Salvation Army trucks delivering food to Galveston residents in need.
“We were all homeless,” Sukiennik said. “This island was homeless.”
Yet tearing down the synagogue was not an option, Druss said, explaining that with the help of a disaster-recovery expert who performed $90,000 of work free of charge because of his “obligation as a Jew,” the synagogue was able to rebuild within the context of its historic home.
In a more recent stroke of good fortune, Rockoff ran into Kinky Friedman last year at a restaurant along Galveston’s boardwalk. He bought Friedman a cup of coffee, and the rest is history, culminating in Beth Jacob’s March 26 “Evening with Kinky Friedman” at the opera house.
Friedman — whose album titles have included “Old Testaments & New Revelations,” “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” and “The Last of the Jewish Cowboys,” among others — came out with his latest CD, “The Loneliest Man I Ever Met,” in October 2015. Friedman says the new album has been critically acclaimed “because it’s very sparse, it’s underproduced instead of overproduced. And you can bring your own imagination to the party. You can actually think as you’re listening to it.
“We’re not selling like Justin Bieber yet, but it is selling more every week,” he says.
Friedman, who as an independent candidate finished fourth in the six-person Texas governor’s race in 2006, receiving 12.6 percent of the vote, said that politics will have “very little place” — but still somewhat of a presence — in his concert for Beth Jacob.
“It’ll be the same show I do in Germany,” he said. “We’re doing a big tour of Europe in May, of 30 shows. I’m the new David Hasselhoff of Germany.” (He’s talking about the one-time “Baywatch” star, who became a pop music sensation in that country.”
His Hasselhoffian success in Germany aside, Galveston still is a place that has a special place in Friedman’s heart.
“Many of the people that have been through there are very colorful types, and there are a lot of misfits there, and I say that in a positive way, because anybody who lives with what we like to call a ‘normal existence’ is usually not worth a s••t anyway,” he said. “So Galveston is different.
“I would go down there anyway, I would use any excuse, but this looks like it’s shaping up to be quite a show.”