History of largest conservative synagogue in US now housed at Rice

Houston Jewish History Archive is custodian of ‘one of the most important collections in the history of American Judaism’

Houston’s Congregation Beth Yeshurun is the largest conservative synagogue in the United States. And thanks to efforts to preserve its historical records after Hurricane Harvey, Rice’s Houston Jewish History Archive (HJHA) is now the caretaker of the congregation’s bulletins, board minutes and more.

“This is instantly our biggest and most important collection,” said Josh Furman, director HJHA, inside Fondren Library’s Woodson Research Center. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

“This is instantly our biggest and most important collection,” said Josh Furman, director of the HJHA, inside Fondren Library’s Woodson Research Center. (Photos by Jeff Fitlow)

“This is instantly our biggest and most important collection,” said Josh Furman, director of the HJHA, inside Fondren Library’s Woodson Research Center.

The size of Beth Yeshurun — a 2,300-family congregation that often sees crowds of over 5,000 people at Yom Kippur services — gives it national significance.

“We are now the custodians of one of the most important collections in the history of American Judaism,” Furman said.

The records, dating back to the 1910s, fill more than 20 boxes across two floors of the library and include everything from glossy black-and-white photographs from the ’40s to cassette tapes from the ’90s. Also included are the ballots cast in 1946 to officially reintegrate Beth Yeshurun’s two foundational synagogues after Congregation Beth El split in 1927 from the original Adath Yeshurun, established in 1891 in downtown Houston near what is now Discovery Green.

Tapes from Kol Nidre nights at the synagogue date to the 90s.

Tapes from Kol Nidre nights at the synagogue date to the 90s.

Beyond simply documenting the congregation’s history, the records also serve as a chronicle of Houston and Jewish social history across the decades.

Delicate vellum pages of one 1954 scrapbook, compiled by the Sisterhood of Congregation Beth Yeshurun, record such events as a ladies’ lunch at the now-demolished Shamrock Hotel. In a bound collection of synagogue bulletins, one article highlights the “fashions of ‘58 from tip to toe.” Another bulletin from 1958 holds a letter encouraging interfaith dialogue, which conservative congregations began to promote across the country early in the 20th century.

“It gives you a great sense of what they were doing — how they partied, what they ate, how they observed the holidays,” Furman said. “If you’re interested in the history of that large branch of American Judaism, you can’t really understand it without studying the largest institution of its kind.”

‘A ton of stories’

Although they just arrived Oct. 10, the new materials from Beth Yeshurun are already serving as the basis for undergraduate research projects. Lovett College junior Ariana Engles, president of Rice’s Student Association and one of Furman’s students, is mining them for information on the history of interfaith relations in Houston. Another Lovett College student, junior Max Murdoch, is using information gleaned from bulletins and membership directories in order to understand when and why Beth Yeshurun decided to relocate from Southmore Boulevard to a new property near Meyerland.

A sermon titled "The Synagogue in Wartime" is among the items in the Congregation Beth Yeshurun collection. (Photos by Jeff Fitlow)

A sermon titled “The Synagogue in Wartime” is among the items in the new Congregation Beth Yeshurun collection.

“There are a ton of stories that this collection can help us tell: the story of American Judaism, the story of Jewish migration within Houston, interfaith relations, civil rights, Zionism, women’s involvement,” Furman said. “It’s an endlessly rich collection of documents and photographs.”

Furman especially hopes to see greater focus on Texas included in future studies of American Judaism.

“Scholars have not really given Jewish life in the South and in Texas its due, partly because they haven’t had access to materials such as these because no one has ever really gathered or curated them before,” he said.

On the fifth floor of Fondren Library sits a cache of other materials awaiting archiving. Some were badly damaged during Hurricane Harvey, which flooded the synagogue with 8 inches of water.

A war banner from Congregation Beth Yeshurun was damaged during Hurricane Harvey.

A war banner from Congregation Beth Yeshurun was damaged during Hurricane Harvey.

Damaged items include a giant paper banner bearing the names and photos of the Beth Yeshurun members who fought and died in World War II. Many photos on the banner were lost to time and water before it arrived at Rice, a reminder of the importance of archival conservation efforts.

“The fact that we were able to preserve any of this stuff was really a miracle,” Furman said.

‘Puts us on the map’

Furman will soon begin digitizing the records in an effort to make the collection, which is already available to the public, even more widely accessible. And he’s always on the hunt for more.

“What we’re hoping ultimately is to have an archive of every congregation in South Texas,” he said. “We’re hoping this is the catalyst for more collections of a similar nature so that we can really document and preserve the history of Judaism in Texas.”

The collection contains scrapbooks, bulletins, ballots and photos among many more historic records.

The collection contains scrapbooks, bulletins, ballots and photos among many more historic records.

Beth Yeshurun was one of the first places Furman visited after Hurricane Harvey with fellow archivist Melissa Kean, Rice’s centennial historian. Together, the pair worked to rescue and salvage what they could for the congregation. Over the next year, Furman continued to work with Beth Yeshurun until all of the synagogue’s records were turned over to the HJHA.

“I hope this will be a model for how Rice can partner with other institutions not only to preserve their records, but also make them available to people,” Furman said. “If this stuff is sitting in a closet or an office somewhere, it’s not doing anyone any good.”

Now, he said, the collection will help establish the HJHA as a resource for both local scholars and those from farther afield.

“This really puts us on the map,” Furman said. “Now, if you’re interested in a national phenomenon, you have to think about Houston, too.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.