“It is small, but despite its size, it has persisted — that's no small feat, at a time when many congregations are finding it very hard to pay the bills and make ends meet,” said Rabbi Steve Gold, who led the congregation from 1989 to 1998.
The congregation will celebrate its anniversary with events this weekend, including a celebration at 2 p.m. Sunday. The public is encouraged to attend, and the event will feature speakers from other faiths — a move in keeping with Beth El's tradition of reaching out to the community.
“For a congregation as small as it is, it's wonderful that we're able to focus not only on each other but also on the community,” board member Evelyn Muntz said. “That's one of the tenets of Judaism: one of the greatest gifts you can have is compassion. … We're always attempting to ‘mend the world.'”
The congregation began meeting in Odd Fellows Hall in downtown Tyler. Their first building was on the corner of College and what was then University, near where Caldwell Elementary is today. Then the congregation built a temple on the corner of Augusta and Shaw, near the Azalea District. About 20 years ago, the current temple was built, on Charleston Road.
The congregation is made up of about 85 families, Katz said.
Beth El has a history of rabbis who were active in the community and “universally loved,” Katz said.
Some of them even made history books, such as Rabbi Maurice Faber, who served from 1900 to 1934. As a member of the board of Regents for the University of Texas system, Faber stood up to then-Gov. James Ferguson when Ferguson was trying to oust faculty members who disagreed with him politically.
Beth El also made history as the first congregation in Texas to have a female president, and congregants have contributed heavily to business, medical, legal, political, organizational and educational life in Tyler.
“There's not anti-Semitism. There's actually philo-Semitism,” he said. “One of the first questions people ask is ‘where do you go to church?' If you answer that you go to synagogue, they leave you alone; as long as you're going to a place of worship.”
Gold also praised Beth El's congregants on their dedication to one another.
“In terms of the dedication of the lay leadership, they're really second to none,” he said. “They're wonderful to work with. You just have to call and ask for help … When my wife was on bed rest with her pregnancy, all the members came to the rescue, in shifts. They drove our first son around to preschool, they brought meals every night. It's just the kind of people they are and the kind of congregation they are. I loved my time there. It was no stepping stone.”
In a time when places of worship are struggling with retaining numbers, Ms. Muntz was confident Beth El would stick around.
“We've lost people, of course, but we're dedicated to continuing,” she said. “There are younger members coming up, and I know it will continue to thrive. We hope to raise them to be proud to be Jewish.”