In 1979, when West Houston wasn’t even within the city limits, when this area was just a neighborhood on the edge of the prairie, nine families joined together to form a Reform congregation, Temple Sinai.
It was a time when there was very little west of Highway 6 other than the J.C.C. campsite and San Antonio. While a “Jewish-style” deli actually existed, there was certainly an absence of an official Reform Jewish presence out here in the “wilderness.” That all changed in the summer of 1979 with the establishment of Temple Sinai.
Until 1983, the congregation met in a building in the Memorial area of Houston, in rental space that allowed for both services and a functioning religious school. In 1983, the decision was made to purchase the building where we were tenants, and Temple Sinai became the owner of its first property at 783 Country Place.
Rabbi Abraham Shaw, our founding Rabbi, served in a part-time capacity until 1984 when Rabbi Howard Rabinowitz z’l of Houston succeeded him. Under the spiritual guidance of Rabbi Rabinowitz, the educational leadership of several religious school directors and the capable administrative talents of many dedicated volunteer board members and officers, Temple Sinai grew in membership. Just as Houston and the surrounding suburbs grew around us, with multi-lane highways replacing streets and large subdivisions and corporate headquarters replacing grassy fields, the Temple membership expanded, and it became apparent that our little synagogue on Country Place was too small to meet our current and certainly future needs.
In the mid 90’s the leadership of the congregation began a process to determine where our future home should be located. Addressing the congregation’s desires and aspirations for a new building as revealed by a congregational survey, the board formulated a mission statement to guide the congregation on its path to a new home.
Then in 1999, just as the building program was in its infancy, Rabbi Rabinowitz retired, and the Temple hired its first full time clergy, Rabbi Todd Thalblum. With a new Rabbi and a newly formed architectural search committee, the path to a new facility was underway. In April 2002, a groundbreaking ceremony was held with honored guests from the Houston Jewish Community in attendance. Along with Rabbi Thalblum, Temple officers, many congregants and guests, the first shovels of dirt were turned in a process that led to our current building.
Actual construction began in August 2002 with a move-in date late in the spring of 2003. With construction completed in late June, 2003, July 4th was chosen as the day to officially move. On July 4th, over 150 member families and friends left our old location to march our four Torahs to their new home on Brimhurst Drive. With television crews present to film the event, the congregational Hakifot, sometimes two blocks long, spread along the route of the march. While the threat of rain was constant, we arrived at the new building, unveiled the cornerstone, affixed a mezzuzah to the doorpost, and entered our new sanctuary for its first official service. As the service commenced, the sun broke through the clouds and illuminated the Ark where the Torahs were placed upon arrival in their new home. The building is the home for the Temple’s membership, numbering around 190 families; a membership that draws predominantly from all over west Houston, Katy, Sugarland, and Cypress, including families from both the Southwest and Northwest areas of Houston, but also from the Memorial Villages, Meyerland, and even inside the 610 Loop.
In 2008, following the departure of Rabbi Thalblum after nine years with the Temple, we were blessed to have Rabbi Barry Diamond serving us as an interim rabbi, and after a successful rabbi search, the next year, 2009, Rabbi Annie Belford became our spiritual leader.
Rabbi Belford’s tenure has seen many wonderful, inspiring moments, including Second Night Seders and creative (and often musical) Purim Spiels, as well as a congregational trip to Israel. Special events have included a fascinating and well-attended community event featuring the “Four Firsts” (the first women rabbis), and an annual collaboration with the Evelyn Rubinstein Jewish Community Center to host an author for their annual Jewish Book Fair, together with Chabad West Houston and Congregation Or Ami, on the west side of Houston. Our congregation is also an active member of the Memorial Assistance Ministries.
For the past 18 years, since moving into our permanent home, we have enjoyed our development and evolution, with active Shabbat services every Friday evening and Saturday Shabbat services or Torah study at least once per month, as well as Holiday services and events. Our full time Director of Congregational Learning, Chava Gal- Or, supervises the Judaics and Hebrew School programs and has developed thought-provoking adult learning programs. We have an active Sisterhood organization which hosts an annual Rosh Hashanah oneg and Yom Kippur break the fast. Our Brotherhood runs an annual Food Truck Festival which attracts foodies from all over the city. We are especially proud of TeSTY, the Temple Sinai youth group, and its vitality and devotion to community service; currently two of its members are on the Board of NFTY-TOR. We have established a permanent legacy endowment fund with the assistance of the Houston Jewish Community Foundation. We have an actively engaged Social Action Committee which plans and executes our annual Mitzvah Day, volunteers at the Houston Food Bank, Memorial Assistance Ministries, and Raise Up Houston.
In 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston with 50+ inches of rain in a few days, and the consequent city-wide flooding/displacement impacted over 50% of our congregants. Temple Sinai was there to help, working collaboratively with other Jewish organizations in the community, providing gift cards and meals and volunteer help to muck out homes and help salvage precious belongings, as well as financial assistance in the form of membership pledge waivers. After the hurricane, we learned that the church building of our neighbors, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, had been flooded. Temple Sinai offered to let them use our building for services. Little did we know, but the relationship that developed from their sharing of our sacred space created a long lasting and permanent bond between the two religious communities. Members of Emmanuel joined us at Passover Seders, our annual fundraising gala, and our Mitzvah Day projects. Even though they moved into a new home, we retain close ties with the church, have a joint book club, and continue to share other events. In December of 2020, Emmanuel presented Temple Sinai with a quilt of a menorah, and on the back is a message that says, in part:
“This quilt is a gift from the Emmanuel community to Temple Sinai, in gratitude for over two years of partnership. Your kindness to us, the stranger, has brought us a strengthened understanding of our common roots and a safe harbor in a time of deep uncertainty and anxiety.
“Dayenu: it would have been enough to have rested here, but our shared spaces have forged shared hearts. No longer strangers, we are sisters and brothers. We look forward to many more years of repairing the world side-by-side. And know this, the Light will always be on and burning brightly for Temple Sinai and Emmanuel.”
COVID-19 created significant challenges for our congregation, since our congregants live dispersed among several large counties within the Houston area, but Zoom and Facebook Live ensured that Shabbat services were provided to our congregants every week during the 14+ months we were unable to meet in person, as well as adult education programs, book club, and Religious and Hebrew school. Volunteers distributed High Holy Day, Hannukah, and Pesach bags to our members, delivering them to those who could not pick them up at the Temple. During the winter holiday period, as we have for many years, we adopted a family through Raise Up Houston (formerly Westside Homeless Partnership). Our members volunteered at the Houston Food Bank multiple times.
In forty years, Temple Sinai has grown from an idea to a reality; from nothing to the spiritual home of almost 200 families in Houston, Katy, Sugar Land and other western suburbs; a center for a Jewish presence in the community where none previously existed.
In 2021, Rabbi Belford announced her intention to discontinue being a congregational rabbi effective June 30, 2022. As we emerge from the pandemic, and continue recovery from Hurricane Harvey, our congregation is engaged in strategic planning efforts, including focus groups, to plan for the future and to ensure growth and financial stability for many years to come. With the help of our new rabbi, our goal is to continue to grow in number and in our programming thereby maintaining us as a center of a meaningful Jewish experience in our community. We are confident that Temple Sinai’s resilience, compassion, and commitment will serve our community well, and we look forward to our next chapter.