Synagogue saga: B’nai Abraham’s most excellent road trip


For a while there, it looked like something or Someone didn’t want Brenham to lose the little synagogue that sat downtown for parts of three centuries.

“I don’t know if God wants it moved or not,” longtime synagogue member Leon Toubin joked Jan. 6, referring to delays in a project that had been in the works for more than a year.

As the building was being cut into three pieces for the move, a passer-by peered at the deconstruction site.

“This was an old church, wasn’t it?” he asked.

No, it was not. It was an old synagogue at the beginning of a journey inspired by faith and love and mortality and challenged by sickness and bad weather and tree limbs and federal law about removing roadside mailboxes and a James McMurtry show at the Continental Club.

More than anything, this is the story of an older gentleman with a driving need to check off something on his to-do list.

“What is it, an old barn?” Robert Myrick of Milano asked as the main portion of the cut-up synagogue paused in front of his home when local police got involved.

No, it was not. It was B’nai Abraham synagogue, and Toubin and wife Mimi gazed wistfully down the road as they watched it hauled toward Austin. As it was just about out of sight, Leon Toubin, who’d prayed in it for many years, waved goodbye.

The B’nai Abraham synagogue on its way to Austin was built in 1893 as the Orthodox Jewish house of prayer in a town where you’re surprised there ever were enough Jews to have a house of prayer. Long out of use, but in fine shape thanks to Toubin’s loving care, the idea was to move it to Austin’s Dell Jewish Community Campus for a new life as home for an Austin congregation.

Problems with rains and cranes and cops and contractor conflicts arose as the project encountered the uncontrollable forces of weather and the even-more-uncontrollable forces of the Austin permit process.

The journey started Jan. 3, when the top part of the roof was lifted and rigged to roll to Austin on a later date.

All was in place — including the 86-year-old Leon Toubin; Mimi Toubin, a Brooklyn-born Brenhamite; and some family members — for the Jan. 4 lift of the second layer of the roof of the building, which was cut into three horizontal sections to fit under overpasses en route to Austin.

When I arrived that morning, workers were fiddling on the roof (fiddling, in this case, being a lay term for the exacting tasks involved in cutting up a building). Nearby, flags flew in a stiff breeze.

It turns out there are lots of moving parts when you are moving parts of a building. Routes must be approved. Sheriffs must be notified. And, in this case, two state highway districts were involved, one in which house moves have to happen at night and one in which they must happen during the day.

All was ready for the second lift when project officials huddled near the crane perched next to the synagogue.

“No one feels good about lifting this thing,” project manager Chris Sharp of DKC Construction reported.

“You can’t move it today?” Toubin asked.

“The wind gusts are 17-30, and they want them to be under 10,” Sharp said of the postponement.

B’nai Abraham once was the spiritual home for about 50 families in the Brenham area. But the town’s Jewish community long ago dwindled to the point it could not support a synagogue. B’nai Abraham hasn’t had a rabbi since World War II. Regular worship services haven’t been held in many years.

For many years, Rosa Toubin, Leon’s mom, took care of the place. She died in 1989, leaving the task to Leon, a longtime local businessman, civic leader and mensch who did it with love and reverence, the only way he knew how to maintain the synagogue in which he grew up. He can still tell you where everybody sat for long-ago services.

But Toubin has been worried about the building’s fate after he’s gone. The decision was made to move it to Austin, where it will be used by Congregation Tiferet Israel, an Orthodox congregation that now holds services elsewhere on the Dell Jewish Community Campus, and for other activities and events.

The truth is that it probably would have cost less to construct a similar 1,800-square-foot building than to move B’nai Abraham from Brenham. But new was not the point here. Old was.

In September 2013, I sat in B’nai Abraham with Toubin as he discussed the move financed by him and others. He was excited about the building’s vibrant future. I asked what it would feel like to drive past an empty lot where his synagogue — indeed, some people refer to it as “Leon’s synagogue” — used to be.

“Don’t ask that question,” he said, choking up. “Don’t ask that question.”

That moment was in my mind as I stood with him while the building was being prepared to leave town.

“A little sad,” he said. “I’m going to miss it, but I’m happy it’s going to be used. That’s the best part of it. It’s going to be used for a synagogue, which is what it was built for.”

The delays?

“Listen,” Toubin told me in January as they cropped up, “God will provide. That was my theme the whole time. My mother used to say that when she needed to do some fixing when she was taking care of the synagogue. They asked her, ‘How are you going to pay for this?’ She said, ‘God will provide. Don’t worry about it.’ And (they)said, ‘Mrs. Toubin, who’s going to pay me?’ And she said, ‘I told you, God will provide.’”

On that windy Sunday, Oliver Billingsley of Billingsley House Moving & Demolition of Manchaca talked about the challenge at hand, starting with the fact that the building is an open-span room with little interior support.

“We’ve had to come in here and construct three or four walls just to keep the building square,” Billingsley said, adding, “We kind of made extra preparation to make sure we don’t have any problems.”

Problems? Why would there be any problems?

The weather looked OK for attempt two to lift the second section of the roof on Jan. 6, which was good because approaching weather looked iffy. It was on that day that Toubin joked, “I don’t know if God wants it moved or not.”

As we waited for the crane, Billingsley recounted the delays to date.

“We’ve really had rain about three weeks,” he said. “We had some freezing weather, then we had the holidays. And it gets dark at 5 o’clock now.”

“The wind killed us,” he said of the Jan. 4 postponement and the crew. “I was paying them double time. I was paying them a thousand dollars an hour to sit here and watch the wind blow.”

And then there are the state and local officials who had to be involved. “It’s a coordination nightmare,” he said.

But on Jan. 6, everything was going like a dream. Toubin smiled and waved as he arrived to watch. There were brief delays, and he had to leave for a noon meeting at Blinn College, where he’s a trustee.

“Leon, Leon,” Mimi Toubin said into her cellphone as the roof was lifted, “they’re moving it right now. Yeah. You can’t come?” Brief pause. “OK. Yeah. I’m taking the video now, All right, sweetie. OK. Love you.”

It was a combination of grace and mechanical advantage as the 42,000-pound roof section was lifted over the power lines — exposing the interior to God and everyone — and placed in the parking lot next to the synagogue that was now, and may I be forgiven for this, a topless joint.

As I took her hand and helped her down a couple of steps from where she had watched, I asked Mimi if she’d been nervous.

“Not nervous,” she said. “Like I said the other day, kind of bittersweet.”

Inside the building, drenched in sunlight, project manager Sharp looked down from what was once the balcony where women, by Orthodox Jewish tradition, had to sit.

“God, what an awesome sight,” he said of the lift. “Seeing that thing fly, there’s not many things in life that are even similar to that.”

‘A little disagreement’

Preparation for the move of the roofless synagogue was set for Jan. 7. Prep work would take several hours, with 3 p.m. as something of a target for the move. But Billingsley told me early that day that nothing would happen unless he got more money. The wind delay and other unanticipated costs left him without cash to proceed.

He didn’t sound like a man who’d take “God will provide” for an answer.

Project manager Sharp, by email, told me, “We’re having some issues with Oliver this morning. Ultimately, we should have it worked out shortly.”

Jay Rubin, CEO of Shalom Austin, which includes several Jewish organizations and manages the Dell Jewish Community Campus, had this report: “Remember the other day when we were talking about the 10 plagues? This is the subcontractor-contractor version. They’re having a little disagreement.”

Yes, they were.

I headed back to Brenham on Jan. 8, having been told the building might be wrapped to protect it from icy weather. All was quiet when I pulled up to the synagogue. Then Billingsley called to tell me he was en route to take the top part of the roof to Austin. “We’re still having kind of a meltdown, but I’m going to go up there and get the little piece of the roof,” he told me.

FYI, the “little piece,” though littler than the big piece, weighed about 17,000 pounds.

The move was a surprise to me. Turns out it also was a surprise to project officials. In general, general contractors don’t like surprises.

Billingsley drove his truck, with the rooftop in tow, out of the synagogue parking lot. He and a co-worker did a last check of the height, which had to be 15 feet or less to clear the overpasses.

“Fifteen-three. That’s amazing,” Billingsley said with a laugh somewhere between nervous and diabolical. “I don’t care man,” he said. “Let’s just put the hammer down, put the pedal to the metal.”

Moments later a few raindrops fell. “She wants to stay here,” Billingsley joked about the synagogue. “She doesn’t want to go is the deal.”

All went well until we got to the city of Caldwell, where we stopped just short of a sign of problems to come at an upcoming railroad overpass. “14-11,” Billingsley said of its height limit as he plotted a dirt-road detour and crossed his fingers. It worked, and the synagogue roof continued down Texas 36. We stopped again in Milano.

“Thirteen-11,” Billingsley said before getting into the pickup pilot vehicle to scout another detour. Sharp emerged from a pickup that had caught up with us. The two men exchanged words out of my earshot.

“Nobody knew this was moving?” I asked Sharp.

“Nobody knew it was moving,” he said. “I’ve already contacted security at the Jewish center, and they are good to receive it tonight.”

“We hadn’t been able to get in touch with” Billingsley, Sharp added as he went back to his truck.

Billingsley returned and had some choice words about Sharp, and down the road we went.

At dusk, Billingsley pulled into an open lot where U.S. 79 and U.S. 77 cross in Rockdale. The two men again had a very brief exchange of words. I stayed back, sensing they needed some private time. Billingsley left in the pickup driven by his co-worker, and Sharp walked back to his truck.

The roof just sat there.

Billingsley called and said he planned to come back the next day to take the roof to the Dell campus. “You’re getting to film a whole little drama,” he told me.

Sharp, who heard about Billingsley’s plan from me, got a local young man to spend the cold night on the roadside and at the roofside. At 7:30 a.m. Jan. 9, the young man was there when Sharp, fresh from a night at the Days Inn across the highway, returned. Sharp pondered a Plan B as his firm’s lawyers got involved. One possibility was lifting the roof onto another truck.

By midmorning that Friday, it was a rainy 36 degrees in Rockdale.

Billingsley again was in text message contact with project officials. “I can’t stand those guys, but I want this thing to happen,” Billingsley told me.

Leon Toubin was checking out the roofless building when I drove back to Brenham that afternoon. Usually upbeat, he was distressed when he saw his synagogue covered with a blue tarp as weather blew in.

“They’re not doing what I want them to do,” he said. “I want them to put a thing for the water to run off the sides, otherwise it’s going to collect in the middle, break a hole in it and flood the (building).”

He bemoaned the rain, much needed for months but now an ongoing problem for his synagogue. “It should be in Austin already, protected.”

I told him the top of the roof was in Rockdale.

“I was aware it was there last night, but I thought today it would be in Austin already,” he said.

“It’ll get done,” I assured him.

“It’ll get done,” he agreed.

“You know why?” I said, quoting his mom: “Because God will provide.”

“God will provide,” Toubin said, eyes lighting up. “You’ve got it down right now. Ken, you’re all right.”

And then he went into his synagogue to instruct workers on how to adjust the tarp that covered it.

The roof arrives

On Jan. 11, I called Rubin for an update. Billingsley, he said, had become a “real renegade.”

“He’s holding the oldest synagogue in Texas hostage here,” Rubin said of Billingsley. “It’s the craziest thing.”

Nothing happened for several days as officials tried to get things back on track. Rubin reported that the top section of the roof, still in Rockdale, was to arrive at the Dell campus by 1 a.m. Jan. 14.

But that didn’t happen. Because, by then, Billingsley’s permit to move it had expired. So the move was pushed back another day.

I headed back to Rockdale on Jan. 14, expecting to see the roof move. When it became clear the new permit wasn’t going to be issued for a few hours, I drove back to Brenham where, as Toubin feared, the weather had removed part of the tarp covering the synagogue. There was drizzle and mist in the area, but I saw no damage when I peered in. Billingsley got the permit too late in the afternoon to start moving the roof from Rockdale. So another day passed.

In all, the top section of the roof spent seven nights in Rockdale, finally arriving at the Dell campus at 11:57 p.m. Jan. 15.

Rubin’s reaction was summed up in three letters and three punctuation marks in an email: “Yay!!!”

After more than a week of chasing the roof, and though the Dell campus is just blocks from my home, I wasn’t there for its arrival in Austin.

On Jan. 7, my mother-in-law was hospitalized in Dallas, 37 years to the day after she became my mother-in-law. She died Jan. 14 of the flu, which, we’re told, has been particularly hard on elderly people this year. The funeral was Jan. 18 in Dallas. I returned to Austin the next day aware of the plan to move a second section of the synagogue to Austin on Jan. 20.

It didn’t happen. Further delays, including a broken tractor, got in the way. By this point, it was impossible not to share Toubin’s passion for the project and desire to see it completed.

And Rubin had told me something distressing: “Leon is also under the weather with the flu.”

‘It doesn’t want to go’

I headed back to Brenham on Jan. 21. That day contractors demolished the front steps and inserted long steel beams under the building, readying it to move.

Recap: At this point, the upper roof section was at the Dell campus, the larger roof section was in Brenham in the synagogue parking lot, and the building’s main section still was on the ground on which it had sat since 1893.

Billingsley hoped for a Jan. 22 move of the lower, largest part of the building. The Brenham forecast called for a 100 percent chance of rain. It was correct.

On Jan. 21, Judy Katzman watched with me as workers guided the beams under the building. She is a Houstonian who now has a place in Brenham. Leon Toubin is her cousin.

“Both of my parents’ families grew up here. So it’s almost like one side of my family is very focused on it being used as an Orthodox synagogue, that that’s the important part,” Katzman said. “Another side of my family that has Jewish monument scholars in it is more interested in the fact that it be here, because it tells the story of where the Jews came to Texas.

“So that argument goes on inside of me,” she said. “It’s not an argument. They both make sense.”

Both her son and her dad had their bar mitzvahs at B’nai Abraham. Her son Gerard’s bar mitzvah included an excursion from Houston.

“We bused all of his teachers from kindergarten through whatever grade and all his friends and all our family from Houston and some people around the country,” she recalled. “Leon, my cousin, opened it. He was very gracious about it, probably a little worried.”

She took photos on her daily visits. “I haven’t sent one picture to anyone in the family,” she said. “They were unhappy to learn it was moving.”

I told her about the roof’s seven days in Rockdale.

“It doesn’t want to go,” Katzman said of the synagogue.

I told her Toubin was ill.

“I hope he’s all right,” she said. “I’m sure it’s related to this.”

‘It’s got a future’

Project officials hoped to move the roofless synagogue to Austin on Jan. 26, but Billingsley needed another dry day of prep.

Jan. 27 started out well, including sightings of two things I was happy to see. The sun was shining in Brenham, though the ground remained a bit muddy. And I saw Toubin. He still didn’t feel well, with flu and sinus problems, but little could keep him from seeing his synagogue leave town. The Toubins watched silently from near their truck across the street. After their synagogue was in the street, they walked toward it, hand in hand, as it was aimed toward Austin.

“Well,” he said, sounding weak, “like I told you before, I’ll be sad, but I’ll know it’s going to be used. And that’s what I was interested in. It couldn’t be here. They’d be tearing it down soon. So it’s got a future.”

Toubin thanked Billingsley.

“I’m sorry the weather’s worked against us,” Billingsley said. He put his left hand comfortingly on Toubin’s right shoulder. “I’m going to meet you when we get this thing put back together.”

The Toubins, again hand in hand, stood silently as Billingsley pulled their synagogue out of town. At last, it was time to get this shul on the road.

A gantlet of mailboxes

The highway portion of the trip went well, but there were frequent stops to raise wires and clear limbs and other obstacles as the synagogue, 30 feet wide and 50 feet long, lumbered through neighborhoods to avoid low overpasses. The stops became routine, until we got to Milano, where Billingsley spoke with two local cops who had concerns about whether this was a legal route. And then there were the mailboxes.

“You touch a mailbox, it’s a federal crime, and I can be held under federal charges if I were to pull that mailbox up,” Billingsley said he was told. “Even if we put it back in the same hole it came out of, it’s still a federal crime. How many mailboxes have I passed? I’ve cleared 100, 200 mailboxes by inches.”

He and the cops worked things out. Cleared to proceed under the officers’ watchful eyes, first up was taking down some oak branches in the way.

Myrick, the Milano man who watched the ordeal from a folding chair on his porch and asked me if it was a barn, owned the tree. He was OK with having the strangers trim the limbs, so OK that he went inside and fetched a chain saw when Billingsley’s men had trouble with theirs.

The limbs trimmed, the synagogue turned left and then right toward a railroad crossing. This is where I witnessed what probably was the planet’s only incident that day involving a railroad crossing device and a slow-moving synagogue, which brushed against it, causing the bell to clang and dislodging the arm.

Milano’s finest, still watching, deemed the incident an accident that needed proper investigation. That went on for about an hour, ending when Billingsley promised to get in touch with railroad officials to sort out the damage.

“Next time,” Billingsley told me after working it out with the officer, “we’ll get routed better, come down (U.S.) 77, never come through this town again — ever, rest of my life. I’m driving around it, take dirt roads.”

“Get in your truck,” I told him. “Get in your truck before you get in more trouble.”

‘McMurtry, man’

The delays wiped out any chance of getting the synagogue to Austin that night. Instead, it overnighted in Milano at what used to be Al’s Diner and Al’s Used Tires on U.S. 79. It’s unclear whether it ever simultaneously operated as Al’s Diner and Al’s Used Tires. From certain angles, the sign made it look like the old synagogue was Al’s Diner.

Billingsley and crew hauled it toward Austin that afternoon. The wide load shut down downtown Rockdale as it rolled through.

We arrived in Manor around 3 p.m. to stash the synagogue roadside until it could be taken into Austin and to the Dell campus that night. Billingsley said the final leg wouldn’t take long, and he hoped to be done in time to see James McMurtry at the Continental Club. Billingsley has a devilish sense of humor.

We reassembled roadside in Manor at about 10:30 p.m. The road trip took an hour and was uneventful, the way you like it to be when you haul a house of worship through a big city. The final few hundred feet at the campus, however, took more than three hours because of tight turns and tree limbs.

Billingsley, the only one with the skills to maneuver the synagogue in tight quarters, grew frustrated, exiting the cab at one point and proclaiming tree limbs were going to tear out the synagogue windows. Chain saws once again became a key part of the move. Sometime during the sawing, Billingsley disappeared.

When the tree trimming was done, everybody milled around awaiting Billingsley’s return. Campus security guards rolled out a cart with coffee and a nice assortment of pastries at 2 a.m. I enjoyed a lemon square. Others opted for brownies. At that point, Billingsley was not the most popular man on campus.

He showed up at 2:20 a.m., marking the beginning of an hour of adjusting, readjusting and re-readjusting to slalom the synagogue past trees, fire hydrants and lampposts and onto the pad where it will sit. You ever try to parallel park a synagogue?

“McMurtry, man,” Billingsley told me when I asked where he’d disappeared to. “James McMurtry. Wednesday night. Can’t miss him, all his depressing political rock music.”

And, the synagogue over the pad, he offered this mixed-pronoun assessment of the job/ordeal: “He put up a big fight. Brenham was his home. She didn’t want to go. That’s all right. I told Leon we are going to meet over here whenever they have the opening, whenever they put this thing back together.”

All that remained was bringing part three from Brenham and reconnecting the building at its new home.

The reconstruction

Billingsley spent Feb. 2 seeking the state permit needed for the move. I got a late afternoon text message from him indicating he, at that moment, wasn’t state officials’ favorite house mover: “They r mad because we didnt pick up the barrels at the construction site (along the route). my wrkr following lied to me and said he got them but didnt.”

But, after what he called a “chewing out,” he got the OK for the better route, one that would avoid Milano and include fewer tight turns and squeezes. The move of the final part was set for Feb. 4, but it was delayed because of rain and the fear that the heavy load would get mired in mud.

The final part of the old synagogue hit the road around noon on a very cold Feb. 5. You’d figure after two previous trips they’d have this pretty well figured out. And you’d be right. The move of part three was the smoothest.

Oh, there were minor problems: An inquisitive Somerville cop pulled Billingsley over to check his permit, a muddy median almost trapped one of the escort vehicles, two parked cars got in the way (one was towed, the other pushed by Billingsley’s crew), assorted limbs needed adjusting by a chain saw, multiple roadside residential mailboxes (despite federal law) needed temporary removal, and a discombobulated oil cap in the truck engine had to be recombobulated to stop it from spewing oil.

But part three made it to Manor by late afternoon and then to the campus shortly after midnight.

Reconstruction was scheduled for Friday the 13th. (What could possibly go wrong on that date?)

Thursday evening, the crane rolled onto the campus to prepare to install the two roof sections.

“I haven’t been this nervous since my bar mitzvah,” said Rubin, who had invited the Jewish community and others to come out and watch the momentous event.

“Bring blankets, folding chairs and cameras,” the invitation said.

Reconstruction went well. The lower, larger roof section was lifted and in place by 9 a.m. The smaller, upper section was in place by 2 p.m. There’s plenty of structural work to do inside the synagogue, and it probably will be several months before the building is ready for use.

On Friday, neither Leon Toubin nor Billingsley (who, it turns out, was fired earlier in the week) wasere on hand to see the building put back together. Toubin remained in Brenham and is expected to come to Austin when the building is formally dedicated. Billingsley showed up to get his equipment but wasn’t allowed on the campus.

“Locked me out so they use my equipment til next week,” Billingsley told me in a text that ended with “dirty biz.”

A small crowd gathered to watch Friday’s action, including Austinite Charles Toubin, 75, who lived in Brenham until he was 9 and returned there for his bar mitzvah at B’nai Abraham when he was 13. His father, Haskell, a Lithuanian who wound up in Brenham, died of a heart attack in B’nai Abraham during Friday night services in July 1948 at age 55.

Charles Toubin, Leon Toubin’s cousin, is delighted to be reunited with the synagogue of his youth.

“We have been trying to get the synagogue to Austin for a while,” he said.

And, in the end, it took a while to get it here.

On the day that Leon and Mimi Toubin had stood silently, hand in hand, and watched Billingsley pull the main part of the synagogue away from the Brenham street where it had been for so many years, I noticed that Mimi looked back over her right shoulder for a glimpse of the now-vacant lot where it had stood. But Leon fixed his gaze on his synagogue as it shrank in the distance. Never turning his head, he seemed unready for the answer to the question I had asked in September 2013 about what it would feel like to see a vacant lot where the building so precious to him once stood.

Sometimes you do the right thing, even if you wish it wasn’t.



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