In Austin, 19th-century Synagogue meets 21st-century Jewish Community
By Jacob Kamaras
Like its environs, the Jewish community of Austin, Texas, has a youthful feel. Situated in a city known for live music, the University of Texas (UT) campus, and the founding of Michael Dell’s computer technology giant in his UT dorm room, the 40-acre Dell Jewish Community Campus mirrors the relatively new infrastructure in the rest of Austin.
The Jewish Community Center of Austin opened its doors in 2000, in stark contrast with other Jewish communities in Texas (Houston, Dallas, San Antonio) and elsewhere that have had JCCs for more than a century. But what Jay Rubin refers to as a “21st-century city” just got outfitted with some 19th-century style.
Rubin – CEO of Shalom Austin, which operates the JCC as well as the local Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Service, and Jewish Foundation, in addition to managing the Dell campus – recently gave JNS.org a tour of the campus and its newest addition, B’nai Abraham Synagogue, whose building was divided into three pieces, transported from 90 miles away in Brenham, and pieced back together and renovated in Austin. On the campus, B’nai Abraham now serves as the sanctuary for Congregation Tiferet Israel (Orthodox) and joins two other synagogues on premises, Congregation Agudas Achim (Conservative) and Temple Beth Shalom (Reform).
“A lot of Jewish communities outside of the big cities, they’re aging, they’re shrinking, institutions are merging. This is a different reality,” Rubin said of Austin.
Why transport a synagogue building from another city rather than building a new one? B’nai Abraham Synagogue is no ordinary building. From 1894 through the mid-1960s, it served as Brenham’s lone Jewish house of worship. Its 121 years make it the oldest active synagogue building in Texas. Despite regular prayer services not being held there since the 1960s, Mimi and Leon Toubin of Brenham preserved the historic building and welcomed visits by individuals and groups during the last five decades. By relocating to the Dell campus, B’nai Abraham is once again home to daily, Shabbat, and holiday prayer services.
After its relocation, the building underwent major upgrades, including a new electrical wiring, insulation, restrooms, and handicapped accessibility – but retained its historic character. The Austin iteration of B’nai Abraham broke ground in October 2014 and was dedicated in August 2015, in time for the High Holidays.
“Although easily mistaken for a white-framed country church on the outside, B’nai Abraham radiates the warmth of an Eastern European synagogue on the inside with the bimah at the center of the main level facing the aron kodesh and a balcony reflecting the traditional separation of men and women during Orthodox worship,” Rubin has written.
Rubin recalled that after learning three years ago how B’nai Abraham was in disuse and that the Toubins feared it would one day be demolished, he “went out to see it and fell in love with it.” Now, Tiferet Israel has a new home and B’nai Abraham has a rejuvenated legacy.
“It was a long-term process, because you had to take a 19th-century building and make it usable for the 21st century,” Rubin told JNS.org.
A former executive vice president of Hillel International, Rubin likens his personal history in Austin to Rip Van Winkle. He initially lived in the Texas capital from 1978-81. At the time, Austin had 3,000 to 4,000 Jews, two synagogues, and no Jewish day school or preschool. In 1993, during Rubin’s 25-year hiatus from Austin (hence the Rip Van Winkle comparison), Michael and Susan Dell purchased the land that became the Dell campus from the Hart family. Rubin returned to Austin in 2006, and as head of Shalom Austin oversees much of the institutional framework of a Jewish community that has grown to between 18,000 and 20,000 people.
“We’re designing a Jewish community for the 21st century … [We thought], ‘Why don’t we start something like this?’” Rubin said, pointing to a blank piece of paper when referring to “this.”
Indeed, it was the ability to build from a blank slate that drew Rubin back to Austin.
“I was attracted by working for a community where you don’t get handed a playbook that says, ‘This is how we’ve been doing things for three generations,’” he said.
The Dell campus provides what Austin’s Jewish leaders describe as a model for denominational coexistence, given the presence of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform congregations onsite.
“Jews – we can’t figure out how to share the Kotel, but here we are in Austin, Texas, figuring out how to share the same campus,” said Rubin.
In order to further enhance Austin’s Jewish mosaic, attracting more Orthodox families is a growth priority, he said.
“To be a serious Jewish community, you need a number of things, and I think in this day and age you need to have an Orthodox community. Austin has never really been a hospitable place for that,” Rubin said.
Enter Rabbi Daniel Millner, leader of Congregation Tiferet Israel and a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school. The congregation had a membership of 35-40 family units when Millner assumed the pulpit in 2014, and has grown to 70 units as it now settles into the B’nai Abraham building.
Millner, 30, said the congregation’s growth comes from an “inreach-outreach model” – inreach meaning that every Jew in Austin should feel comfortable in Tiferet Israel’s congregation, and outreach meaning the development of a religious infrastructure that Orthodox Jews outside Austin deem a viable option for relocation.
At the heart of the Austin Orthodox community is an embrace of diversity, said Millner.
“People feel very connected to [Tiferet Israel] because of the community, not because of the denomination,” he said.
For example, Austin built an eruv this year to permit carrying on Shabbat – but it’s a “community eruv” and not just an “Orthodox eruv,” Millner explained, because the eruv’s inspectors come from every congregation on the Dell campus.
“It’s really an opportunity to engage members of the Austin Jewish community in an area of halacha that maybe people don’t know about unless they’re confronted with it,” he said.
Having the historic B’nai Abraham building as a new place of worship “was a great opportunity to be able to create our own identity within a historic space,” Millner said.
Millner’s hope is that as Tiferet Israel grows, Austin “will become a center for modern Orthodox families who want something beyond the East Coast or the more established cities.”
Rabbi Neil Blumofe, in his 18th year as leader of Congregation Agudas Achim, came to Austin to help build a community that he felt was “a ripening place for all sorts of possibilities.” As Blumofe is a jazz performer, Austin’s live music scene didn’t hurt, either.
Blumofe, 45, called the Dell campus a space that allows for the three denominations “not only to be in close physical proximity … but to share resources and build a community together.”
In his 680-family unit Conservative congregation, Blumofe said he eschews “the more national debates about institutional religion.”
“[I try to] instruct, inspire, and galvanize people from any walk of life … to be able to ask questions of purpose, meaning, and encounter God in a thoughtful way, bringing our whole selves to have a meaningful conversation about our lives steeped in traditional Jewish sources,” he said.
Rabbi Alan Freedman, rabbi of the 550-family unit Temple Beth Shalom, echoes the other rabbis’ sentiments on denominational coexistence.
“All of our members feel welcome in whichever congregation they wish to go to,” said the Reform synagogue’s leader.
Freedman singled out Austin’s community-wide nightlong Torah study program on the Shavuot holiday, which featured teachers from across denominations.
“I think Austin is innovative, I think Austin is optimistic, and we search for solutions,” said Freedman, 61. “We believe barriers can be overcome, and that’s reflective of how we work within the Jewish community.”
The youthfulness of Austin’s Jewish community also presents its challenges, Freedman said.
“In Austin,” he said, “most people are new, there are relatively few people who have lived here for generations, and that’s good and bad. It’s good in the way that people won’t say, ‘We tried that 20 years ago and that won’t work,’ so there’s room for innovation. But we’re really only beginning to become a mature Jewish community from a philanthropic point of view.”
Millner, whose 21st-century congregation is now equipped with a refreshed 19th-century building, is confident that there is “no reason why Orthodoxy can’t work in Austin.” The key to success, he said, is focusing on the people.
“Austin’s a very unique place,” said Millner. “It’s a lot of transplants, people coming from all over for all kinds of reasons, and you have to pay attention to the people who are here. You can’t just create something that would seem artificial. It needs to grow from within the community and become part of the landscape of the city.”