He led a legendary Texas life: Jewish historian, author, recounter of midrashim
By Judy Bluestein Levin
Jewish Herald Voice
(Galveston) — Beloved Rabbi James Lee “Jimmy” Kessler, 76, who led Galveston’s Congregation B’nai Israel for 32 years before retiring in 2014, died Sept. 14, after a bout with cancer.
Born in Houston, Rabbi Kessler became a bar mitzvah and was confirmed at Congregation Emanu El. He graduated from San Jacinto High School as class president and valedictorian. While attending The University of Texas at Austin, earning a degree in zoology, he joined Tau Delta Phi, a Jewish social fraternity. He also met UT-Hillel Rabbi Mickey Sills, who saw the makings of a rabbi in this UT student.
To his delight, Rabbi Kessler was accepted to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, earning the first-ever doctorate in Texas Jewish history. He returned to Texas in 1972, and to his alma mater, to become the one and only Hillel rabbi serving in Texas.
Until Rabbi Kessler, native rabbinical students didn’t return to Texas. In 2014, he told the JHV that he was the “first kid to go off from Texas to be ordained as a rabbi, and who returned to Texas to rabbi.”
The relatable rabbi
When he arrived in Texas to take the reins of Hillel, the entire budget was $29,500; his salary was $9,500 of it. Traveling the state to visit other colleges came out of his meager earnings.
“Hillel was broken when he arrived,” Lee Wunsch, former CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, told the JHV. “It had an old building and there was not a lot of programming going on. He totally revitalized it.”
“He was the kind of rabbi and friend you expect and hope to get in a Hillel director,” Rabbi Emeritus David Rosen of Congregation Beth Yeshurun told the JHV. “Hillel rabbis are special. The good ones can make a real difference. And, Jimmy was one of those who really did.”
While at Hillel, Rabbi Kessler was president of the Campus Ministers Association, an umbrella organization that services many different religions. He established interfaith relations among the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faculty and students. In addition, he taught Bible courses for the university.
While he spent only three years with Hillel, this was where Rabbi Kessler saw his first real impact as a rabbi — helping students find their place in Jewish society.
Among those he touched were Rabbi Rosen and Wunsch. Both were UT undergrads involved in Jewish life, and both planned to follow their dads into the world of business. Then, they came into the rabbi’s circle of influence.
“I had never met a rabbi like him,” said Wunsch. “As a kid growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I was used to my rabbis being all buttoned up in suits, and Jimmy came to campus as a young rabbi. Jimmy just finished rabbinical school before he came to Austin, in jeans and T-shirts and going out for pizza with us,” said Wunsch. “So, he was a pretty different rabbi.”
Inspiring others toward
Jewish communal service
Rabbi Kessler steered many students toward careers in Jewish professional life, even intervening with parents when the situation called for it.
Rabbi Rosen was one of those students.
“He decided at the end of my undergraduate studies that I should perhaps consider going to rabbinical school — something I had never considered myself doing. He was gently encouraging,” Rabbi Rosen said. “When I told him my father had other plans for me, Jimmy called my father and he convinced my dad this would be a ‘wonderful thing for David,’ and my father relented. I had no idea Jimmy had made that call until many years later.
“Jimmy became a major influence on both of us. And because of Jimmy, we both ended up going into Jewish professional social work. I became a rabbi and Lee became a Federation director,” said Rabbi Rosen.
When Rabbi Rosen returned to Houston to take the pulpit of Congregation Beth Yeshurun, he, Wunsch and Rabbi Kessler began having lunch together several times a year, meeting midway between Galveston and Houston.
“The three of us shared a passion for Jewish life,” said Rabbi Rosen. “We loved each other.”
In 1976, the Galveston pulpit opened up when Congregation B’nai Israel’s Rabbi Sam Stahl left for San Antonio.
“He and I were friends, and he thought I’d make a good successor,” Rabbi Kessler told the JHV when he retired.
Making his mark in Galveston
Rabbi Kessler applied for the position and was hired in 1976. In 2014, he transitioned to rabbi emeritus, being only the second to do so at the Galveston synagogue. He remained at B’nai Israel for all but a year of his rabbinic life — when he went to serve at Congregation Gemiluth Chassodim in Alexandria, Louisiana. Rabbi Kessler returned to Galveston and remained there the rest of his life.
Soon after taking the pulpit, in 1977, Rabbi Kessler married Galvestonian Shelley Nussenblatt in a ceremony with 1,000 friends and family looking on. The couple had two children, Andy and Jenny.
In 2018, to honor Rabbi Kessler’s service to the temple and Galveston, the city renamed a stretch of 30th Street at Avenue O, where B’nai Israel synagogue currently is located, as “Rabbi Jimmy Kessler Drive.” Galveston’s mayor joined B’nai Israel family members and friends, along with other civic and religious leaders on the island, as they officially unveiled the new street sign.
During the rabbi’s tenure at B’nai Israel, he was president of the Galveston Ministerial Alliance three times, chair of the Community of University Ministers at UTMB, taught for the Osher Life Long Learning Institute at UTMB and was an adjunct faculty member at Galveston Community College, having been selected as the college’s outstanding Teacher of the Year.
The rabbi edited the first major work on Texas Jewish history, wrote three other books and was a writer of midrash — Jewish folklore.
“I’ve been in the habit of telling midrashim — bubbe meises — for years, so I’m anecdotal in my soul,” Rabbi Kessler said in a 2018 interview with the JHV.
While in Galveston, Rabbi Kessler became the father of the Texas Jewish Historical Society in 1980.
Texas Jewish Historical Society
“When I got to rabbinical school, I went to the American Jewish Archives and discovered that there were only two index cards on the entire state of Texas. There were 30 boxes on the city of New York, alone. That disturbed me, as a chauvinistic Texan,” Rabbi Kessler said.
“When I became the Hillel director, I took every opportunity to complain that no one was writing about Jewish life in Texas. In 1979, Harris L. Kempner, a congregant in Galveston, put me on the spot and asked what would I do about it? He gave me a check, and we had the first meeting in San Antonio in 1980. 100-plus people showed up, and Rabbi Jacob Marcus — the father of American Jewish history — came as speaker. We got started.”
Today, the TJHS boasts a membership of nearly 1,000 from around the world. Its archives are housed in the Governor Dolph Briscoe Center for American Studies in Austin. Accessible to the public, they also are online.
“As I began to learn about and become interested in Texas Jewish history, I can’t even remember how many people told me to talk to Rabbi Kessler,” Josh Furman, associate director of the Program in Jewish Studies and the curator of the Houston Jewish History Archive at Rice University, told the JHV. “The first time that he and I spoke, I took a group of about 10 students to Galveston, and Jimmy was kind enough to tell our group the long and proud history of the Jewish community of Galveston and Rabbi Henry Cohen.
“He easily could have been dismissive about what I wanted to do, creating something that would be housed at Rice … but he encouraged it and he welcomed it. He even donated his own personal and professional papers to us. To have a small part in preserving Jimmy’s story is very special to me.”
“If we don’t preserve our history, there’s no way to know what it was,” said Rabbi Kessler in a 2018 JHV interview. “If you’re going to be a rabbi, part of your responsibility is to be sure the Jewish experience is remembered by Jews — to ensure that history is recorded, whether you record it or others do.”
A year-and-a-half ago, Furman recorded a Zoom interview with Rabbi Kessler and some of the students who went on to have careers in the Texas Jewish community, including Wunsch, Rabbi Rosen and Nancy Pryzant Picus.
“The stories that Jimmy knew, that he had heard and that he passed down — he was a fountain of memories and stories about Texas Jewish life,” said Furman.
During his 40-years in Galveston, Rabbi Kessler served on the boards of numerous charities, committees and funds. He was the first rabbi elected to serve as Master (president) of a Masonic Lodge (Harmony Lodge #6 in Galveston) in the history of Masonry in Texas, serving two terms. He was a 33 degree Scottish Rite Mason and, in 2015, he served as the Grand Chaplain of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Texas.
Rabbi Kessler is survived by his wife, Shelley Nussenblatt Kessler; his son, Andy Kessler, and wife, Brandie; his daughter, Jenny Kessler, and partner, Nick Buis; and his grandchildren, Samara, Ruthe and Jakxon Kessler.
A memorial service was held Sept. 18, 2022, at Congregation B’nai Israel in Galveston. The service was livestreamed at shorturl.at/jkqR4. Burial arrangements were private. Please consider contributions to Congregation B’nai Israel, P.O. Box 8060, Galveston, TX 77553.
“It’s just such a tremendous loss for all of us, who admire, who counted him as a friend and a mentor as I did,” said Furman. “There will never be another Jimmy Kessler. He’s a legend.”