By Vicki Samuels Levy
A final blow came to the Houston area’s beautiful Shearith Israel synagogue building on Sunday, Sept. 27, at 6 p.m., when it was engulfed in flames. The Wharton, Texas, congregation had held its final Shabbat service on April 27, 2002, later selling the building to Head Start.
Two juveniles were arrested following the devastating fire that destroyed the former Shearith Israel Synagogue building in Wharton, Texas, according to an Oct. 2 online report in the Wharton Journal-Spector. The boys, ages 13 and 15, had been arrested on warrants and were in custody of the Wharton County Juvenile Probation Department. Because they are minors, their names have not been released.
According to the Journal-Spector: “The boys claimed they went into the office, started something on fire (without using an accelerant) and then left.”
Larry Wadler, a second-generation Whartonian, said, “It looks like a bomb went off.” Wadler and his wife, Gerry, live 100 yards from the synagogue building.
“The tablets of the Ten Commandments were dedicated in memory of my father, Paul Wadler,” he said. “When the building was sold, we hired someone to take everything out, but removing the tablets would have damaged them.”
Wadler fondly described the setting of the sun in the sanctuary every Yom Kippur: “There was a beautiful golden window, it was gold and blue and white. As the sun would set, the light would move up the bimah. Only on Yom Kippur would you see it.”
Warren Sprung, originally from Edna, Texas, was the first bar mitzvah in the synagogue’s last sanctuary. On Monday, Sept. 28, Warren and his wife Gilda drove from Houston to Wharton and were devastated by the destruction. “It just caved in,” he said. “I saw the Ten Commandments and wanted to take them and just hold them.”
The stone tablets, on a wall that withstood the blaze, were behind police tape.
“It’s a sad day for all of us who grew up there,” said Fred Zeidman, who was the second bar mitzvah in that sanctuary. “What got created out of that community, all that came out of that building, another important piece of our history is now gone.
“It was a vibrant community,” Zeidman continued. “Look at how active so many of the kids became. What we learned from our past — we have maintained strong Jewish identities. Look at Lester Smith, a great philanthropist, and lots of people who have been active — Frank Kasman, Rabbi Wayne Franklin, Max Epstein.”
Zeidman reflected on a lifetime of memories. Only recently did he reminisce with friends at a football game, each recalling where their seats were in the sanctuary.
“In 1956, Shearith Israel moved to its new location at 1821 Old Lane City Road, a most beautiful modern synagogue, uniquely shaped in the form of a complete Shield of David; it is the only one of its kind in the whole United States,” Rabbi Israel Rosenberg wrote in the synagogue’s “Golden Jubilee Book,” which was reprinted in the 1968 Jewish Herald-Voice Passover magazine.
The congregation received its official charter in 1913. Rabbi J. Keilin was its first spiritual leader; Rabbi Rosenberg held the position from 1955 until his death in 1978.
“Though no written congregational records are available of Shearith Israel’s history, it has been established that a nucleus of this congregation settled in Wharton around the 1850s,” Rabbi Rosenberg wrote. “Ben Peine,” he continued, was “most likely this town’s first Jewish settler. Aaron Casper Finkelstein … acted as a lay-leader….”
Rabbi Rosenberg’s retelling of Shearith Israel’s story included a who’s who of the Jewish community: the families of Joe Blumberg, Joe Schwartz, Ben Leder, Herman Davis, the Oshmans, Joe Denn, Toby Gordon, to name only a few. Many would later move to Houston.
“Notwithstanding its fewness,” Rabbi Rosenberg continued, “the Jewish community excelled in quality: her members taking an active part. … They grew with the town, proud to have added their share in helping their city to grow and prosper.”
The numerous synagogue presidents over the years included Morris Zeidman, Mervin Franklin and Jake Kasman.
“Comparatively small in size and recruiting its membership from a radius of over 50 miles, Shearith Israel of Wharton functions like a closely knit family kinship,” Rabbi Rosenberg wrote. Members came from Bay City, Edna, El Campo, Newgulf, Palacios, Richmond and Rosenberg. In 1956, membership numbered some 290 men, women and children.
After Rabbi Rosenberg’s death, other rabbis included Phillip Fried, Ronnie Cahana, Ted Sanders, Aaron Weinberg and Howard Trusch. Its final service was led by Rabbi Jerome Cohen.
Peggy Testa, who lives in San Antonio, wrote “Memories of the Wharton synagogue” in the May 2, 2002, issue of the JH-V, following the synagogue’s final Shabbat service. Born in El Campo, Testa wrote, “Although the doors closed for the final time on that day, the congregation is eternal, for the congregation is actually the people that gave the edifice life.
“In our urban congregations, the ephemeral Hebrew prayers remind us of the place where we first heard them,” Testa continued.
A testament to the Wharton Jewish community’s enduring lure was an annual barbecue; the synagogue grounds included an enormous permanent barbecue pit. The townspeople of Wharton, people from surrounding counties and former Wharton residents and friends from Houston would make the annual trek to this beloved synagogue for a spontaneous reunion.
Like Jews around the world, we carry our early religious memories with us, in our hearts and in our heads, no matter where life takes us or if the seats we so vividly remember sitting in when the rabbi began reciting the “Aleinu” are no longer there.
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Herald-Voice of Houston and is reprinted with permission.