Rabbi Jimmy Kessler, one of the best known members of the Galveston community, is retiring from his duties at Congregation B’nai Israel. He served five years at B’nai Israel beginning in 1976. After some time away, he returned in 1989 and has been the congregation’s rabbi since then. Kessler talked with Editor Heber Taylor about his work.
Q: You have had such an influence on this community, many people think you were born here. But that’s not true. How did you get to Galveston?
A: I grew up in Houston and came regularly
to Galveston for the beach and to fish with my father.
For me, it was a nostalgic locale where I always felt excited when my parents turned left on 61st and Seawall. Usually we ate on the beach, but if my grandparents came with us, we got to eat at Gaido’s.
After college at UT and seminary in Cincinnati, I came to Austin for three years as the campus Rabbi. I then took a year off to work on a doctorate.
During that time, Rabbi Stahl was called to Temple Beth El in San Antonio and B’nai Israel was looking for a new Rabbi. I could not think of a better place to be the Rabbi — and the rest is history.
Q: You did not initially intend to become a rabbi. How did you become one?
A: Becoming a Rabbi was not even the last thing I ever considered; it wasn’t on my radar. I was always going to be a physician, and it was what my parents wanted.
Sadly my father died at the beginning of my junior year in college, and my mother insisted I return to UT. I did and returned to my social fraternity where I had been elected president. Those were days when I was looking for advice and possibly a mentor.
The Jewish campus ministries are called Hillel Foundations and a new Rabbi had just come to the Austin facility.
I was told he was coming to our fraternity, Tau Delta Phi, as he had been a member when he was in college at Rutgers.
So I had the pledges clean up the house, I put on a nice pair of pants a buttoned down shirt, the president’s pin and I went to check on the clean up.
As I walked into the living room, there was a strange man sitting in shorts, a pullover shirt, sneakers with no socks, sporting a goatee, sunglasses, a sports cap and smoking a pipe.
Thinking he was one of Kinky Friedman’s friends, I went up to the gentleman to ask him to wait outside for the Kinkster.
As I stretched out my hand and introduced myself as the president of the fraternity, he got up and said, “Hi, I’m Mickey Sills, the new Hillel Rabbi.”
His dress and his demeanor were so “unrabbinic” I was fascinated. This unusual first encountered turned into a friendship that provided me with the counsel I was seeking.
After several months of conversation, one day Rabbi Sills suggested that I had the soul of a Rabbi and not a physician. I told him I wasn’t going to be a Rabbi, I didn’t know much Hebrew, I rarely went to religious services.
I wanted to be a doctor. We’ll, he reached back to a bookshelf and handed me a catalog and application for admission to the Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion.
This is the Reform Rabbinical school that he attended and he thought it was where I should attend.
I looked through the material, put it on a shelf in my apartment room and thought no more about it. That is until one Sunday when it was my turn to the clean the kitchen and my three roommates were watching a golf tournament.
During lulls in the game, my three buddies began ragging on me about becoming a Rabbi and that went on and on and on. Finally I got fed up, brought out my portable typewriter and began completing the application for HUC-JIR.
Much to my shock, several months later I received an acceptance notice. Four and one half years later, about five months before ordination, I learned I was an experiment.
The school was interested in knowing if a student with only minimal background in Judaism could make it through the five-year graduate program. Fortunately I made it and I have been a Rabbi for 42 years.
Q: Did you say you knew Kinky Friedman in college? Are you still friends?
A: Kinky and I met when we were about 7 years old. His parents ran a summer camp, Echo Hill Ranch, in Medina, Texas and my parents sent me there for 14 summers. We were in the same cabin and have been friends for 60-plus years.
We were in the same social fraternity in college where Richard (in those days) was a leader in civil rights issues on campus.
During my seminary days, I spent a year at the Hebrew University in Israel, and Kinky stayed with me for a month in Jerusalem as he traveled home from his Peace Corps service.
I am a supporter of his in his efforts to hold public office. Kinky is a brilliant, compassionate, insightful soul who is more misunderstood than appreciated.
Q: You wrote a book on Rabbi Henry Cohen. How did you get interested in him?
A: I really didn’t know much about Henry Cohen until I applied for the job in Galveston in 1976.
I made it my business to read everything I could about him before my interview for the position.
At that interview, I was asked if I was OK with living in the home the Temple provided. That gave me a chance to share with them some of my new knowledge of Rabbi Cohen.
I explained that if they hired me, my mother would be ecstatic. Every Rabbi who came to B’nai Israel single, married a Galveston girl after a year and went on to great achievements.
Rabbi Silverman came and married within a year and became the Rabbi of Temple Emanu El in New York City, the then largest synagogue in the world.
Henry Cohen moved here and in the first year married Molly and stayed 62 years. B’nai Israel had a perfect batting record, and I wanted to take advantage of it.
Many years later a member of that committee told me that they didn’t like overweight people and they were going to vote against me when I came into the room.
However after I explained the uniqueness of B’nai Israel and the batting average, I was told I had to be their Rabbi with a sense of humor like that.
After reading about Rabbi Cohen, I set out to collect Cohen stories. When I arrived at B’nai Israel in 1976, the average age of the members was 79 and I was 29, and most of the members knew Dr. Cohen.
Many of their stories about him were personal and never recorded; I set out to save those stories. As time went on I realized what an amazing legacy he left and what a wonderful way to Rabbi. So somewhere in that early period of my tenure I decided to pattern my rabbinate after Cohen’s.
The book I wrote on Dr. Cohen was at the request of Ed Eakin, whose Texana publishing house had printed a teenage series on Texas heroes and he wanted one on a Jewish hero. After surveying folk in the state, he decided on Henry Cohen and me as the author.
Q: Was he a role model or just a character who piqued your scholarly interest?
A: Oh yes, in my first year in Galveston, I, too, married a Galveston girl (Shelley Nussenblatt) and stayed at BI for 32 years. The magic certainly passed to me.
Q: At one point, you left Galveston to pursue other opportunities. Please tell us a bit about that. And what brought you back?
A: In hindsight, I am tempted to just say it was childish mischief. I have always questioned my legitimacy in holding the title “Rabbi.”
Oh, I passed all the courses, wrote my master’s and received the award for the outstanding graduating senior in 1972; but, I was admitted as an experiment. Moreover “Rabbi” is one of the oldest achievable titles still used today.
So after a wonderful five years in Galveston and having married a BOI, I convinced Shelley it would be more fun to work in the business market place and just function Rabbinically on the side.
In response to that thinking, we went off to Austin; I went to work for my cousin’s insurance firm and didn’t look back.
That is until a member of my Hillel Board called from Victoria, Texas and convinced me to serve that small community on a part-time basis.
Six years later, after two healthy children, a doctorate in history, Shelley achieving her CPA credentials, I realized I missed the full-time pulpit. With no pulpits open in Texas, we went to Alexandria, La.
Then in the middle of that year, B’nai Israel called and asked me to return as the Rabbi was leaving.
It was a blessing come home, and now a quarter of century later we will remain in Galveston in retirement.
Q: You placed a larger role in Galveston than just B’nai Israel. Do you have a philosophy for leaders in a faith community as to their role in the larger community?
A: Thinking I would tell anyone how to serve a faith community would be out of character for me.
I can only tell you that I found a mentor in the actions recorded about Henry Cohen during his 64 years as a Rabbi of B’nai Israel, and I copied them.
I suspect that my approach has always been to think outside the box and consider every possibility. Jewish tradition teaches that stories ought to end on an upbeat note and my job as a storyteller/teacher is to be sure to leave folk with possibilities.
Who they are has never mattered to me. I can assure you, I am honored and moved beyond words when I hear folk say, “Oh, I don’t go to church or have a pastor, but I have a Rabbi.”
Q: In all your years in Galveston, what was your biggest achievement?
A: Let me respond with a two-part answer. I think my most significant achievement “professionally” was founding the Texas Jewish Historical Society in 1980.
Today it has about 1,000 members worldwide, and the history of the Jewish experience in Texas is being preserved. As a Rabbi that is very important to me; otherwise how would we know where we’re going?
As to the second part, I know this will sound pastoral, but I am very driven by a first century BCE story that God created the world with one creature to teach us that if we touched one life, it was as if we touched all of humanity.
Every hour of every day of my 32 years in Galveston has permitted me to fulfill that tradition. That privilege is my biggest achievement.
Q: Was there ever a low point?
A: Sure, daily. Something always seems to happen that makes me question what I’ve thought, or done or not done.
I get through a lot of those with an adage given me by a dear friend who prior to his death was a deacon in one of the local Baptist churches.
In one of my down moments he said to me, “Rabbi, if folk were stiff necked for Moses, why would you expect any better?” It always brought a smile and made things a little less significant.
Congregation B’nai Israel is planning a Transition Weekend on Nov. 14-16 to welcome Rabbi Marshal Klaven, the new Rabbi, and to honor Rabbi Jimmy Kessler.
Community will be invited to the programs. Mark your calendars and check The Daily News for details.