Bryan’s Jewish community was born in the 1860’s as an outgrowth of earlier central European immigration that began after the widespread but short-lived revolution of 1848. Immigrant Jews were some of the first settlers in the newly built town of Bryan, a product of the Houston and Texas Central Railroad. The Sanger Brothers followed the railroad north, building stores in each town along the way. In 1867, they built a store in Bryan, which was run by Lehman Sanger. Later immigrants also opened businesses. In 1870, the small group founded the Hebrew Benevolent Society and bought a plot of land from the city to build a cemetery. By 1873, eight Jewish families and a few single Jewish men called Bryan home.
In 1890, a sufficient number of Jewish citizens lived in Bryan for them to organize an official congregation, which for several decades met in member’s homes for worship services, primarily on the High Holy Days such as Yom Kippur. Without ready access to an official rabbi, services were frequently sporadic and often lay-led. However, by 1912 the congregation was incorporated and chartered and decided to build a synagogue.
That same year, Mr. J. W. English, downtown Bryan businessman and a member of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, sold parts of lot 6 and 7 in block 117 of Bryan (a section fronting along Parker Street next to the railroad tracks) for the token sum of $10 to the Jewish community. His stipulation for the sale was that it must be used exclusively for “religious or benevolent purposes.” This site became the future home of the oldest Jewish institution in the Brazos Valley, Temple Freda Reform Congregation. The synagogue was named for Mrs. Ethel Freda Kaczer, late wife of the congregation’s president. It holds the distinction of being the only Texas synagogue, and one of only four synagogues world-wide, named for a woman. The other three synagogues are in Tripoli, Libya, and Hong Kong and Shanghai, China.
BUILDING THE SYNAGOGUE
Temple Freda was built out of many of the same building material as nearby St. Andrews, much of it donated by local citizens including many non-Jewish community members. In fact, Temple Freda and St. Andrew’s were built simultaneously, although St. Andrew’s was built along Gothic lines while Temple Freda was designed in the Greek Revival style. A third house of worship, nearby St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, is in the Italian Romanesque Style. A simple rectangular building, the front of the synagogue is finely detailed tan brick with a Classical entablature in pressed metal, a portico also of pressed metal, and two wooden Corinthian columns. The side and rear walls are red brick.
Inside, the equally simple design of the interior contains an entrance lobby, flanked by two bathrooms, which leads into the sanctuary whose floor slopes down toward the raised bema, with its ark (for storage of the Torah scroll) and furnishings. The center aisle is lined with wooden pews. The back opens into a small meeting room. This plain interior is enriched with beautiful stained glass windows along the front and the sides, many of them donated in memory of congregation members. The ceiling is of pressed metal.
Temple Freda History
The Jewish Community in Bryan and Birth of a Synagogue
An article in the Thursday, February 27, 1913 The Bryan Daily Eagle noted the laying of the synagogue’s cornerstone the previous day at 3 p.m. in a solemn, inter-faith ceremony conducted by leaders of the area’s local Masonic lodge. A follow-up article published on Wednesday, May 21, 1913 detailed the beauty of the dedication ceremony that had taken place a few days before. Once again, Jews and Christians from several communities came together in honor of the same God and with a strong degree of fellowship for the purpose of dedicating the new site for Jewish worship in the Brazos Valley.
For many years, Temple Freda was home to the activities for the small congregation, including a religious school with less than 20 students. Due to the limited size of the local Jewish community, the Temple never had a full-time rabbi, depending instead on visiting rabbis. Later Jewish immigrants, including at least one family from Russia, increased the population a little but it never grew to any sizable percentage of the overall Bryan demographic. Temple Freda struggled to remain active throughout the 1930s. One last burst of activity after World War II quickly dwindled as more and more of the area’s Jews began worshiping at the student-oriented Hillel synagogue in College Station, whose building was dedicated in 1958.
By the 1960’s, Temple Freda was no longer used regularly and ultimately was rented out to various Christian churches for worship space. Bryan’s once busy economic center near the synagogue also fell into disuse as Texas A&M University grew, pulling population and economic growth away from Bryan. In 1983, the temple was placed in the National Register of Historic Places. This historic plaque is still affixed next to the front doors. Dr. William Bassichis, physics professor at Texas A&M University, is the congregation’s current president and has looked after the structure for the past 30 years. Starting in the 1960s, explosive growth at Texas A&M attracted a number of Jewish professionals to the area, but they had no ties to Temple Freda and no interest in reviving the slowly decaying structure.
THE RESTORATION PROJECT
In 2013, concerned Bryan citizens banded together to save the endangered building. After discussions with Dr. Bassichis, it was placed under the interim ownership of a division of the City of Bryan who will be its custodian during the ongoing restoration process and until such time as it can either create its own non-profit foundation or is “adopted” by another non-profit entity. After its restoration, the building will not be used as a religious facility but instead will be put into service for the whole community, maintaining the “benevolent” intentions as originally designated by Mr. J. W. English back in 1912. Community uses will include such activities as small receptions, weddings, family reunions, educational activities, musical gatherings, etc.
SUPPORT THE RESTORATION PROJECT
To support the restoration project and to ensure the future of Temple Freda, please contact Lindsey Guindi, Director of Strategic Projects, City of Bryan at 979-209-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your donation is tax-deductive in compliance with IRS rules.
Brazos County History: Rich Past – Bright Future. 1986. Brundidge, G.F., Ed. Bryan, TX: Family History Foundation.
Corner-Stone Laying. (February 27, 1913). The Bryan Daily Eagle.
Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities – Bryan, Texas. 2011. Retrieved from http://www.isjl.org/encyclopedia-of-southern-jewish-communities.html
Guindi, L. (April, 2014). The Story of Temple Freda: A Hidden Bryan Treasure.
Temple Freda. (n.d.) Center for Heritage Conservation, College of Architecture, Texas A&M University. Retrieved March 12, 2013 from http://chc.arch.tamu.edu/research/temple-freda/
Temple Freda, 205 Parker Street, Bryan, Brazos County, TX. (n.d.) Historic American Builders Survey, Library of Congress. Retrieved March 12, 2013 from http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/tx0553/
Temple Freda Dedicated. (May 21, 1913). The Bryan Daily Eagle.