Congregation Beth El Celebrates 36th Anniversary

Congregation Beth El Celebrates 36th Anniversary

Congregation Beth El is celebrating its double chai anniversary Sunday, Nov. 5, by honoring its founders and those who nurture it into the warm, welcoming house of worship it is today.

Beth El's founders had all they needed to help create a new shul in Austin 36 years ago: an abundance of affection and respect for one another as well, as a strong desire to create a caring religious community. Several of the founding members knew how to lead services, including Col. Barney Pusin, z’l (of blessed memory), who had served as a chaplain in the United States military and later, David Friedman and Freddie Grant, z’l, a cantor who trained in Europe.

Some of the founders were Orthodox Jews, and all were originally members of Congregation Agudas Achim. On March 25, 1981, they made the decision to leave and create their own congregation. Their reasons varied, and it was difficult for many to leave a congregation they had been part of for years.

Looking back, co-founder, Morris Shapiro, z’l, stated, “Starting a new congregation was the best thing we ever did.”   

Two days later, the Beth El founders held the congregation’s first Friday night services on March 27, 1981. Three days later, they formed a steering committee, and the next Friday night, held their second Shabbat service. By mid-April, 52 people attended services at Beth El. On April 30, 1981, Beth El held its first official organizational meeting. Later that year, when Beth El held its first high holidays services, more than 100 people attended.

None of the founders had a house big enough to meet in, so Beth El, originally Shomray Torah, began in a rented storefront in Highland Park Center on Hancock Drive. They gathered 50 folding chairs for $5 each, siddurim, and a few odds and ends needed to hold an oneg Shabbat, and put up portable partitions for a Sunday school. By Beth El’s second Shabbat service, Congregation Beth Israel loaned them a portable ark and two Torahs that they used until Sol and Ruth Stavchansky flew to New York to buy Torahs for the synagogue.

Congregation Beth El moved from the Hancock Drive storefront into Ira Shapiro’s OB-GYN offices, and later into their current location on 8902 Mesa Drive, where services, which now take place in the social hall, were first held in the living room. As the congregation grew, the founders added on a beautiful 96-seat sanctuary. The building now includes two kosher kitchens, a social hall, Sunday school classrooms, a playground and gardens.

Today, Congregation Beth El is an independent, traditional congregation that serves all of Austin’s Jewish community. Services – held weekly on Friday nights, twice a month on Shabbat morning, and on all holidays – are participatory, intimate and family-oriented. Programs include Friday night dinners, holiday parties, and many community events, such as a second night seder, traditional Morrocan Meymuna, sisterhood events and a thriving Sunday school for preschoolers through high schoolers. Other groups who have used Beth El’s facilities include the Jewish War Veterans and Shalom Austin.

Since it was founded, the congregation has been the site of numerous namings, britot, b’nai mitzvahs, and weddings. Now, some of the babies named at Beth El are married, with many still coming to Beth El with their own children.

Over the past 36 years, Beth El members have continuously welcomed new families into their circle. Beth El members serve in many ways as extended family, in a place where not everyone has extended family members. It is this demonstration of one for all, all for one, that has kept the congregation going, growing, thriving and ensuring its longevity as a vibrant house of worship.
The congregation has been led for the past eight years by Cantor Yitzhak Ben-Moshe and his wife Shereen. ■

The 36th Anniversary Celebration to honor Beth El’s founders will be held Nov. 5 at 6:15 p.m. at Congregation Beth El. To purchase tickets, contact Elaine Jacobs at 512- 261-0112 or info@bethelaustin.org.

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