Here in Texas if the small city of Brenham is mentioned most people would probably think of Bluebell Ice Cream. For me, the name Brenham conjures up images of B’nai Abraham Synagogue.
Across the U.S.a few synagogues can still be found that evoke the little white churches that dot America’s landscape. These were built to assimilate architecturally with their surroundings, reflecting their congregants’ dream in their new lives – to fit in. With its rectangular shape and simple white clapboard siding, the outside of B’nai Abrahma Synagogue perfectly exemplifies this. It is the neighborhood shul disguised as a rural Baptist church. The paradox is that B’nai Abraham is an Orthodox shul, landed plunk in the Texas Hill Country. Looking nothing like a church, the inside design replicates the shuls of eastern Europe that the new Jewish settlers had left behind. Next to it stood a building that housed the mikvah and a small school, which is no longer standing.
Brenham, a beautiful and fertile agribusiness center
was designated as county seat of Washington County in 1836, the year
Texas became an independent republic. Brenham, which boasted Texas’
first public school system, first railroad, and first county-supported
junior college was the nineteenth century equivalent to modern day Dallas
as a market trade center.
Charles Wessolowsky, a B’nai Brith leader, journalist, and editor of the newspaper The Jewish South, visited in April, 1879 to report on the Jewish community. He “found no unity nor sociability among them”. Wessolowsky found Jewish children regularly attending Christian Sunday school.
By 1885 there were enough Jews to organize a congregation and B’nai Abraham was formally founded. They first met in the Hall of the Second Texas Infantry Band. In 1892 they built their first building on a lot just a few blocks from the downtown square. According to one lifelong resident, most of the Orthodox Jews had very little at this time so one affluent Brenham Jewish businessman, Alex Simon, purchased the lot and donated it for the construction of the synagogue. Simon, a Reform Jew, is said to have never stepped foot in it. It burned that first year and was rebuilt in 1893 replete with mikvah, not typical of most rural synagogues.
B’nai Abraham was founded as an Orthodox congregation. The sole cornerstone’s single line is engraved only in Hebrew. There is no complementary English translation or cornerstone. This is the only synagogue I have encountered in all my American synagogue travels that has only the Hebrew stone.
In contrast to all of this Orthodoxy is the “little white church” architecture. It is a very simple, classic structure with pointed arched windows, plain doors and a basic rosette window above. However, the inside is strictly Orthodox with an upstairs gallery for women and an elegant center bima with ark at the front.
An American Jewish yearbook of 1900 reports a membership of 25 and a Rabbi S. Rabbinowitz as their clergy. The rabbi of the time was the all-purpose clergyman they needed, leading morning minyans, acting as shochet , butchering chickens in the mid-morning, teaching Hebrew in the afternoon, and attending to all other Jewish life-cycle events and education.
Today Brenham is still a flourishing agribusiness center with an expanding population of 15,000. Its historic little synagogue sits quietly empty, its clean white clapboard decorated by a marker from the State of Texas noting its significance as the oldest Orthodox synagogue in the state. There are only a few Jews residing in Brenham today and the little shul is opened only occasionally for a tour. Its remarkable condition is due to the loving care it receives from one Brenham man, the grandson of one of the original founders. A few years ago he had air-conditioning installed followed by the purchase of 25 new seats and siddurs. His philosophy can be likened to the phrase from the movie Field of Dreams, “If I build it they will come.” There might be something to this. Not long afterward he had a request to reserve the shul for a Bar Mitzvah three years hence.
Sources for this article include: Deep In the Heart by Ruthe Winegarten and Cathy Schecter, Records of the Industrial Removal Office, American Jewish Yearbook, 1900,Texas Almanac 2000,and personal interviews in March 2000 and May 2001.