By Ben Tinsley
TEXARKANA — Mt. Sinai Temple Congregation — training ground for numerous rabbis since the 1890s — has shut its doors for the last time. The board of directors announced they intend to sell the property.
The synagogue’s final gathering was in May 2014 — over a year ago — but the decision to sell the 6,000-foot property at 1300 Walnut St. was made May 31, confirmed Howard Glick, the board’s treasurer.
Glick said the main reason for the closing was a diminishing membership.
“We finally got to the financial point where it was clear it just wasn’t worthwhile to try to keep those congregation doors open,” he said.
The remaining Mt. Sinai congregants are reaching out to any family members who would like to have returned any personal artifacts or Jewish memorabilia given by their families to the congregation. Those who wish to inquire can email Diane Icenhower at email@example.com.
The earliest documented High Holiday services in Texarkana were held in 1885 in the local Masonic Hall. Mt. Sinai Congregation is thought to have formed around 1885. A synagogue, built at Fourth and Walnut streets in Arkansas, was dedicated to it in 1894 — after the original planned synagogue burned in a fire. In October 1893, the congregation’s 30 members adopted a constitution.
Rabbi Brian Zimmerman, former regional director for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Southwest region, said the dissolution of Mt. Sinai Temple Congregation is the same story of many small Jewish communities in the south.
“Young people just go on to bigger cities … to mix with others their own age,” he said.
Rabbi Neal Katz of Tyler’s Congregation Beth El, who performed a few weddings and funerals there, said dwindling congregations often grow weary of the burden of leadership.
“Running a synagogue may have been too much for them,” Katz said.
Rabbi Jordan M. Ottenstein, the assistant rabbi of Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth, spent a year at Mt. Sinai between 2010 and 2011.
“When I was there the number of people in attendance was not a lot,” he said. “It was a close-knit community that really came together and tried to make things work. Everyone put their full efforts in. It was a vibrant, although not large, community.”
‘First building block as a rabbi’
Rabbi Ottensein said he remains in contact with a number of members of the congregation. He describes the experience there as the “first building block I had for becoming rabbi.”
Since the synagogue first shut its doors last year, a flurry of goodbyes from rabbis, student rabbis and congregation members have been published in the form of a Mt. Sinai Temple Congregation memory book.
In the front of the memory book is stamped, “The Congregation That Helped Grow Rabbis.”
Student Rabbi Alli Cohen, in her closing benediction at the May 16, 2014 Shabbat service, cited in the memory book, took an emotional moment to express how much the congregation has meant to her.
“Each month, you welcomed me with open arms and each month, I became more comfortable and more confident,” she said. “You allowed me to enter into your lives, in both sad times and joyous celebrations. And together, we ate, laughed, asked questions, ate some more, sang and prayed. You have been the first congregation I have had the honor of learning from. … So, thank you for the opportunity to learn from all of you and be your student rabbi.”
In the book, Rabbi Matt Cohen elaborated on that point, saying the wealth of rabbis and student rabbis who have worked at Mt. Sinai Temple Congregation is the reason there are so many of them — and so well-prepared — in the field.
“This congregation helped form the foundation for our movement’s rabbis and you should be proud of the impact that you have had on so many of us, especially me,” Cohen said. “I am so grateful for the time I spent in Texarkana. Your actions have translated immeasurably into the world because so much of what I do has its foundations in my experiences with you. Y’all have a very special place in my heart and for that I am eternally grateful and blessed.”
Tough spot to build
Melvin “Mel” Kusin, 89, a former member of the congregation who retired and moved to Dallas with his family, said Texarkana never really had the kind of united population that appealed to the Jewish community. It was established in 1874 at the site of the junction of the Cairo and Fulton Railroad, which crossed through Arkansas, and the Texas and Pacific Railway, which ran east-west through Texas.
“Each individual’s side is too small and therefore it has not been a good business town,” Kusin said. “And when you have a town that’s not good for business you don’t have Jewish people moving in. They move out. Not a good place for earning and opportunities.”
Texarkana had roughly 50 Jewish families around the 1960s and 1970s. By 2015, that number had steeply declined to six or seven active families, Glick said.
Jobs with the railroads or in the agricultural processing industries attracted individuals to the city until around the Great Depression. Around the late 19th century, some Jews — immigrant merchants, usually — began to settle here.
“In 1879, visiting Jewish newspaper editor Charles Wessolowsky found 10 Jewish families, roughly 75 people, who had little organization and a curious situation regarding their spiritual leadership,” according the text in the memory book. “Reverend Charles Goldberg, pastor of a local church, was trained as a rabbi in Germany but became an ordained minister after falling ill and being nursed back to health by a Presbyterian family in Missouri in the 1840s. Without a qualified leader for the 1876 high holiday services, Texarkana’s Jews asked Reverend Goldberg to officiate.”
Following World War II, the congregants of Mt. Sinai decided to construct a brand-new synagogue. It was finished in 1949.
After Goldberg and up until the late 1950s, Mt. Sinai saw a seeming parade of rabbis — the longest-serving being Joseph Bogen from 1900 to 1906, Rudolph Farber from 1915 to 1922, David Alpert from 1930 to 1935, and Moses Landau from 1946 to 1950.
But it was Rabbi Joseph Levine, a native of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, who broke that pattern and won the hearts of the congregation. He served there from 1958 until 1981.
“Rabbi Levine was such a lovely guy,” Kusin said. “Texarkana was his retirement pulpit and he retired there — for 20 years. When he passed away we were unable to have a full-time rabbi so we went to the Union Congregation in Cincinnati and they sent us a student rabbi once a month and on holidays and Passovers. But so many people have moved away since then.”
And the line of rabbis began again — all of them hardworking, strong and good, and thankful for the time they got to spend with the congregation of Mt. Sinai, members said.
Student Rabbi Elle Muhlbaum, who worked there between 2012 and 2013, said she will always cherish the visits she made to Texarkana her second year of rabbinical school.
“It was a transformative year for me,” she wrote. “The community brought me in, adopted me into your families for a weekend at a time, and taught me the warmth and joy that can come from building relationships with congregants. I really do feel as if I got to be a part of each family for a weekend, and I learned so much about how Jewish life works ‘in the real world’ beyond the walls of my classrooms.”
And the congregants seemed equally sad.
In the memory book Dianne Friedman Icenhower wrote that Mt. Sinai Synagogue has always been a big part of her life.
“I have fond memories of being at the temple both for Friday night services and for Sunday School,” Friedman wrote. “In my childhood years, we had a large temple membership which would fill up the sanctuary each Friday for Shabbat services and then fill the social hall for the tasty Oneg prepared by the temple ladies. Each family seemed to have their own particular row of seats and I remember the ‘Friedman row’ … 2 rows from the back, left hand side! Sunday School was attended by all ages, comprising several classes, all of which were taught by our parents.”
Friedman said she couldn’t help but notice the declining numbers at Mt. Sinai.
“It truly saddens me to see our temple doors closing,” Icenhower said. “I can only hope to one day see the Jewish population of Texarkana grow and Mt. Sinai Congregation bustling once again.”
Mel Kusin, who moved to the Metroplex in 1990 after he retired, spent years and years in Texarkana. He remembers the b’nai mitzvahs of all three of his children — two boys and a daughter — at the synagogue.
“The congregation always had great spirit,” Kusin said. “When you are in a small town with a small Jewish community you want to protect the integrity of it and hope your kids come along. “
Glick, 61, remembers 30 or 40 people coming at a time in its heyday.
“But I don’t think this decision was a surprise to anybody,” he said.
Glick said he believes those who want to go to Jewish services will go to Shreveport, Louisiana, an hour or so away.
“It’s certainly a sad chapter for the congregation of the city, but it’s the way things are,” he said.