Honoring small Jewish communities in Texas

Part 1: Bryan-College Station’s congregation Beth Shalom, small but strong

For a community located between Austin and Houston, Bryan-College Station often conjures up thoughts of cattle calls instead of matzah balls.

Nevertheless, Bryan-College Station is home to Congregation Beth Shalom, a small and vibrant Reform congregation that serves area families, including those who work at the region’s largest employer, Texas A&M University. Bryan-College Station is located approximately 96 miles (158 kilometers) northwest of Houston.

CBS has no fewer than 40 families. They often collaborate with the AI ​​on the campus of Texas A&M and the Manet Schepps Hillel Center for High Holy Days, Passover and other occasions.

Beth Shalom was founded in 1968 and moved to its current location at 101 North Coulter Dr. in 1990. in Bryan. The Jewish settlement in Brazos County (1865) precedes the founding of Texas A&M (1876) by eleven years.

Temple Freda in Bryan was founded in the early 1900s, and although there is no longer a congregation, the Temple Freda building is listed on the National Registry of Historic Buildings.

Two of the current family members have worked at CBS since its founding 56 years ago. Half of the church members are 60 years and older.

Joe Fairchild, CBS president, took an interesting path to both Judaism and Aggieland.

Fairchild, a former non-practicing Protestant raised in Washington state, is a retired mechanic/truck driver and transplanted Austinite. He also served in the U.S. Army during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Fairchild was exploring different faith traditions, including different Christian denominations, when he developed an affinity for Judaism three years ago.

“Everything seemed to make sense in Judaism,” Fairchild said. “The more I read, the more it made sense and how good it felt. Every time I focused on Judaism, the pieces of the puzzle fell together for me and I finally found where I fit.”

Fairchild volunteered to serve on the CBS board. “And then they offered me as president,” he said.

Fairchild said interfaith couples and converts are welcome at CBS.

“You only have to profess the Jewish faith to be a voting member – no conversion necessary,” he said.

However, Fairchild went through the formal conversion process, which took about a year. Individuals in Bryan-College Station interested in converting to Judaism must travel to Austin or Houston, where there are full-time rabbis.

Marisa Papell, a native of Houston, is the student rabbi at Beth Shalom.

Student Rabbi Marisa Papell, born in Houston and raised in Congregation Emanu El, has been the spiritual leader of CBS since September 2022.

“It was a great experience,” Papell said. “The community welcomed me with open arms and made me feel at home in their space. They have given me many opportunities to grow, and I am very grateful for the kindness they have shown.”

CBS has services twice a month. Papell, who currently attends rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, leads services once a month, and a congregant leads services the other week.

“During the weekends, I lead Shabbat services, facilitate Torah study and teach at religious schools,” Papell said. “There is something truly magical about teaching a child the Hebrew alphabet for the first time and seeing his eyes light up when he makes the right sounds.

“I also organize social events to bring people together in an informal setting, such as community dinners or holiday celebrations.”

Papell graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2020 and served on the board of the Jewish Student Union.

“I’ve thought about becoming a rabbi for a long time,” Papell said. “As my graduation date approached, I listened to a Yom Kippur sermon in which the rabbi said to face your fears. It was at that point that I decided to apply to rabbinical school to explore my other passion, Jewish studies. I didn’t want to let fear hold me back from this journey.”