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Shearith Isreal Congregation
Wharton, Texas

Just 45 miles southwest of Houston, Wharton boasts no natural attractions. Established as the county seat of Wharton County in 1846, it grew to become the center of an especially warm, close knit Jewish community serving small towns in a 50-mile radius.

The first documented Jewish resident, Louis Peine, a native of Copenhagen, Denmark arrived in Wharton from Indianola, Texas in 1876. He and his son Ben operated a jewelry store in Wharton. According to Masonic Lodge records the two men were highly respected leaders of the Lodge at that time. During the 1880’s Aaron Caspar Finkelstein, another recent arrival, acted as lay leader of the small group of Jews.

A second group of Jewish immigrants, headed by Joe Blumberg of Germany, arrived in Wharton in 1897. This small wave of six families included Joe Schwartz, who was to bring dozens of his relatives to Wharton over the next 50 years.

A story has been told about how years later one of these relatives, Joe Denn, came to proudly show Joe Schwartz the new Ford he had just purchased in Bay City. Schwartz commended Denn on his having had such success in the one year he had been in the U.S. However, Schwartz asked “Why did you buy a Ford? Henry Ford was such an anti-Semite”. According to the story, Denn was so shaken by this response that he jammed the car’s gears. It would only go in reverse so Denn backed the car all the to Bay City, 18 miles away, where he promptly traded it in the very next day.

Around 1899 another 14 families came to Wharton. Members of these early families began to conduct religious services in various homes. One man, S.I. Ditch felt they needed a Torah and ordered a Sefer Torah from New York. When it arrived he invited others to come over to his home to see it and sold them “letters” in the new scroll to help defray the cost.

Ben Peine , of Masonic Lodge fame, took charge in the early 1900s and arranged to rent the Masonic Lodge for their services. Congregant Toby Gordon recalled wooden planks set on beer barrels as seating in this first “synagogue”. In 1909 the Lodge was destroyed in a storm. In 1910 on the same downtown street, South Rusk, the Jewish congregation purchased a lot on which to build the new synagogue.

In 1913 the congregation received its official charter and became registered as Shearith Israel Synagogue. After the charter was received another 17 families settled in the area; most were relatives of Wharton’s already settled Jewish families. It wasn’t until November 24, 1921 when the cornerstone was laid by the Masons of Wharton Lodge. Rabbi Abramson of Galveston conducted the service following the cornerstone installation.

This first building was built in the very modern Art Deco style of the time. Constructed of brick, it had a soaring two-story arched entryway, complemented by a barrel-vaulted ceiling. Though it was a substantial building, well-located close to the courthouse, the Wharton congregation grew so rapidly that it was soon to need extra room.

In anticipation of a larger synagogue the congregation bought an entire block on the outskirts of town in 1940. That summer they built the Social Hall which became the site of the reknowned Shearith Israel Barbecue. More on this later. The first religious school building was dedicated on this campus in November, 1952. In 1961 this wooden structure was sold and in its place a new brick complex was built consisting of several classrooms and the Maynard Smith Memorial Library. It was remarkable to see a Jewish campus of this nature in a town as small as Wharton. During this same era, a small Jewish center, the Beth David Center was built in neighboring Bay City to further meet the needs of the burgeoning Jewish community.

In August, 1956 the new synagogue, built in the very unique “Shield of David” was dedicated. Its contemporary roofline was created by the overlapping of two elongated, cantilevered triangles in opposition to each other. The design is the only one known to exist in the U.S. The modern, light sanctuary has a surprising 376 seats and a Kaddish Room where the original cornerstone is housed. The congregation had always drawn from a four-county, 50-mile radius, and at the dedication event the mayors of the cities of Wharton, Edna, Bay City, El Campo, and Palacios were on hand. Also there to extend greetings were five Protestant ministers, and Rabbi Y.H. Geller of Corpus Christi was guest speaker. The congregation at that time numbered 290 and affiliated itself as a Conservative synagogue.

In March 1960 Shearith Israel Synagogue built a residence for the rabbi and his family. It was referred to by Rabbi Israel Rosenberg, then current Wharton rabbi, as the “rabbinage”, a term originally coined by Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston many years earlier. Though Shearith Israel had had seven previous rabbis, Rabbi Rosenberg was to bring great enthusiasm to his congregation, traveling among his flock back and forth to Bay City and El Campo each week to teach Hebrew classes making possible Bar and Bat Mitzvot for dozens of local Jewish families. For High Holidays Rabbi Rosenberg wore an elegant white embroidered robe accompanied by a white satin hat reminiscent of a mitre. Shearith Israel Congregation was fortunate to have Rabbi Rosenberg serve them from 1955 through 1978.

In 1914 Henrietta Szold of Baltimore , founder of Hadassah, traveled to Texas to establish chapters to work toward helping underprivileged Jewish children in Palestine. When Mrs. Szold was unable to drum up support in Houston, an anti-Zionist stronghold, she was urged to try Wharton instead. She was warmly greeted in Wharton where Amy Gordon invited the Jewish women to a meeting in her home to hear Szold speak for her cause. The women established a Hadassah group, among the oldest in the Southwest region. Since a minimum number of members was required to charter a group, to ensure that they would fulfill the quota some women enrolled their infant daughters as charter members. In 1939 a cable was sent to Szold in Jerusalem, “SHALOM YOUR CHAPTER SILVER ANNIVERSARY, WHARTON,TX.” In reply Szold sent a handwritten letter to the Wharton chapter which they greatly prize and keep in a congregant’s safety deposit box.

This is kept along with the secret coleslaw recipe for the afore mentioned Shearith Israel Barbecue. The annual barbecue was the family and community reunion for all the Jewish people who lived in the area. The community looked forward to it all year long and people came from all over the U.S. who had a Wharton connection. It took place on a Sunday in June and was much anticipated by Jews and gentiles alike. I attended this heartwarming and popular event in 1995 and waited in line with the crowds for the unusually good barbecued chicken and coleslaw. I have since been told that it is believed that allowing the coleslaw to slightly ferment added to its zesty flavor!

Wharton today is a town of 9,000 people, while neighboring El Campo has 10,000 and Bay City has 18,000. Shearith Israel Congregation has become a declining group; the few remaining congregants are old time residents. The classroom building sits vacant and there hasn’t been a resident rabbi since the early 1980’s. In the 1990’s the largest gathering seen each year was not the High Holy Days but the Shearith Israel Barbecue. Sadly, that too is now an event of the past as there is no longer enough membership to put on this event. As of February, 2000, a lifelong resident wrote to me that the now little congregation is “in trouble”. They have the funds but not enough people to continue having regular services.

However, the legacy of this congregation lives on. A historic marker from the State of Texas stands proudly at the roadside in front of the Shearith Israel campus to remind all passersby of the respect and admiration garnered by the Jewish community of Wharton and the surrounding area.

Sources for this article:

The Jewish Herald Voice , 78th Anniversary , 1986 Passover Edition
75th Anniversary Diamond Jubilee Book, Shearith Israel Congregation, 1988
A History of the Wharton Community by T. Gordon, date unknown
History of Shearith Israel Congregation by Rabbi Israel Rosenberg
E-mail from Eileen Robinson of Wharton, TX, February 2000

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