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Barnston, Henry


BARNSTON, HENRY (1868–1949), U.S. Reform rabbi and scholar. Barnston was born Henry Barnstein in Dover, England, and ordained at Jews College, London. He attended University College in London and earned his Ph.D. in ancient Semitic languages at the University of Heidelberg, where he published The Targum of Onkelos, According to the Yemenite Manuscripts and collaborated on Aramaic and Chaldean dictionaries. In 1900, seeking an atmosphere more conducive to the practice of liberal Judaism, he immigrated to the United States to serve as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, Texas. Beth Israel, the oldest and wealthiest synagogue in the city, had suffered a split when more traditional members left in protest against the congregation's move to Reform. Barnston, who changed his name after World War i in order to sound less German, took maximum advantage of his congregants' financial resources to build a temple widely considered to be the finest in the Southwest. At the same time, under Barnston's leadership, the congregation's membership increased tenfold to become the city's largest synagogue. Barnston's influence extended far beyond his congregation: he founded the Jewish Welfare Service, served as president of the local B'nai B'rith, and lectured on behalf of the Jewish Chautauqua Society and the Houston Conference of Christians and Jews. Statewide, he co-founded the Texas Kallah of Rabbis (comprising Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform members) and was elected president of the Texas Association of Rabbis. Over the course of his half-century in Houston – he became rabbi emeritus in 1943 and held that position until his death – Barnston emerged as a civic leader as well: he founded the Community Chest and is credited with forming the Houston Symphony Society and nurturing it into the renowned Houston Symphony Orchestra. He was also active in Houston's Ministerial Alliance and Rotary Club. While Barnston would not take any public stand on civil rights, he did join together with the First Methodist Church in an unprecedented gesture of ecumenical defiance of the Ku Klux Klan. Although he was a member and supporter of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism, he resisted his congregation's pressure for him to become a more outspoken activist in the organization. By the time Barnston was promoted to rabbi emeritus, he was the dean of Houston clergymen.


D. Lefkowitz, Central Conference of American Rabbis 61st Convention Publication (1950); H.A. Weiner, The Jewish Stars of Texas: Rabbis and Their Work (1999).

[Bezalel Gordon (2nd ed.)]

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