Baytown synagogue celebrates 90 years, return after Harvey

Violinist David Cohen leads the Parade of Torahs while Torah bearers Jim Bernick and Ed Bauman, along with Chuppah bearers Jamie Alexander, Harrison Bright, Jennifer Havenar and Alex Karjeker follow.   

Under a blue and white Chuppah, accompanied by jubilant violin music, Torah scrolls were returned to the Congregation K’Nesseth Israel Synagogue Sunday marking its 90th anniversary in Baytown and the first day of worship in the sanctuary in nearly two years.  

After the Parade of Torahs, Mayor Brandon Capetillo issued a proclamation designating April 7 Congregation K’Nesseth Israel Day in Baytown and congratulated the members on the 90th anniversary. 

Rabbi Jimmy Kessler — the founder of the Texas Jewish Historical Society and the first native Texan to serve as rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Galveston — who grew up in Baytown and the Congregation K’Nesseth Israel Synagogue gave a celebratory blessing. 

“In modern-day Jewish communities when we use the ram’s horn for festivals and observances like Yom Kippur, it not only is a symbol of bringing us together, it’s also meant to be a reminder that God is present in this place,” Kessler said. “And we are in a building that represents that. But this ram’s horn is also a thank you to those of you that worked so hard to maintain the congregation.” 

Moments later, Leah Abbate blew the shofar (ram’s horn) in celebration of its anniversary and a newly renovated sanctuary. Sunday was the first time since before Hurricane Harvey the Baytown Jewish community was able to worship inside. 

“It felt wonderful,” CKI President Joan Linares said of worshiping inside the synagogue. “It really meant a lot to us to be back in there again.”   

Water damage to the synagogue, its Torah Scrolls and parts of the community center forced the congregation to worship elsewhere. 

Due to tremendous flooding throughout Baytown, contractors were scarce and congregation leaders felt it more important that individuals who lost their homes to flooding should have priority in getting the much-needed help. 

Because Congregation K’Nesseth Israel has a small membership, the restoration needs for the synagogue and neighboring community building were more than the membership could take on, so they launched a “Save Our Synagogue” fundraising campaign. 

Spearheading the campaign was Shana Bauman, CKI Treasurer, and Denise Havenar, project manager for the restoration project. 

“Both of these ladies spent the better part of [almost] two years volunteering their time and energy to the restoration project. Their families may get them back now,” Linares said. “Denise handled every aspect of the project and Shana was instrumental in fundraising and accounting for all money spent to the penny.” 

“If I went into to detail of everything they did we would be here another 90 years,” Linares jokingly added. “Suffice it to say, we are forever grateful to Denise and Shana for their dedication to CKI.”  

After a long road of fundraising, restoration began in the early part of last October and was recently completed in time for the 90th anniversary on Sunday. The Torah scrolls were also restored in Florida and were returned Sunday with the ceremonial Parade of Torahs. 

The history of the Congregation K’Nesseth Israel began at the start of the Goose Creek oil field boom in 1917. The population in the area, now known as Baytown, was about 2,000 people who had come from all parts of the country seeking work in the oil fields. Of these, only two families were of the Jewish faith. 

By 1920, there had been considerable growth in the area, Goose Creek and Pelly had been incorporated, and the Humble Oil and Refining Co. had begun operation of the Baytown refinery.

The Jewish population had expanded to 12 families. Realizing the necessity for a place of worship, they rented a building and began holding services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. On Nov. 3, 1928, the congregation was incorporated, with 20 incorporating members. Property was purchased for erection of a synagogue. The synagogue was completed in 1930 and was designated a Texas State Historical Landmark in 1992.

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