“A Decade and a Half of Music and Jewish Leadership; LA to SA”

In 1989 Hazzan David and Barbara Silverstein and their son, Joshua Adam came to San Antonio from Los Angeles with a 50 voice Youth Chorale in tow. Here they came to sing with friends and tour Texas, giving concerts in synagogues, senior living facilities and theatres—even to run the length of the Houston Astro Dome. With Hazzan David Propis and his cadre of youthful singers of Congregation Brith Shalom, Houston, they met the families at Congregation Agudas Achim, on Donaldson Avenue, and there were welcomed by President Sandra Weingart for an evening of joyous Jewish music performed by the kids and the cantors.

In 1999, they returned to San Antonio at the invitation of Rabbi Richard Spiegel and Hazzan Joseph Lutman, this time to audition for the position of Hazzan and Director of Music for that same Congregation Agudas Achim, now on the north side on Huebner at Bitters.

“I received a call from Joe in my office at Sinai Temple, Los Angeles where I was serving as both clergy and Interim Executive Director of Administration, and asked if I would like to move to Texas. Stunned by what I was to learn was Joe’s “Tex-direct.”  I said, “Why would I leave my spiritual home of four generations and where I work and live to come to San Antonio? They have a great Basketball team, it looks like Calabasas, California, we have been all over the world, but lived only here in LA.”

Hazzan Lutman took the cue and said” that is why you should move here!” On December 10, 1999, the Shabbat of Chanukah, Hazzan Silverstein, Barbara and Josh participated in the Shabbat services at Agudas. Hazzan Silverstein was offered the position that same weekend following the customary interviews which began mid-week. He began his service to Agudas on July 1, 2000.

“All of the congregational family we met there were so welcoming, the leadership so forward thinking, the new building spectacular, and the Jewish community so tightly allied and involved, Barbara and Josh told me that they were moving here, even without me! What else could I do? Here we are, still, and loving it.” Silverstein said. Barbara Silverstein is an educator at the Nellie Reddix North Side Vocation Center; Joshua was graduated from The University of Miami, Oxford OH, a double Masters in Geology and The University of Missouri School of Science and Technology  (BS)  and Tom C. Clark High School, San Antonio.

“What was surprising was what I learned after accepting the position and maybe three months later:  Rabbi Spiegel was moving to Los Angeles to accept a position! Truly, he was the main reason I wanted to serve at Agudas, having met him a decade earlier on the Donaldson location. Here was a brand new facility, a fabulous adult and youth chorale program, dedicated and committed members, and now both Lutman and Rabbi Spiegel were moving away. I asked the Rabbi, ‘but who will be the rabbi here once you have moved?’ He answered me with a smile and said “why, you are, of course! We know you can fulfill the dual assignment based on your career experience, and with the leadership, pick the right rabbi for yourselves!”

Hazzan Silverstein was the sole clergy at Agudas for three years of the five he served, “with a brief respite of four months,” he laughed.

His work at Agudas for those three years was to manage the dual portfolio of both rabbi and Hazzan: preaching, teaching, singing, leading, and many life-cycle events. He credits his lay leadership and the community of rabbis who helped him maintain the stability of Agudas while waiting for a permanent rabbi to lead the congregation.

“I loved my total of five years’ service to Agudas. And then it was time to move on,” he observed.  “There were some tense moments and transitions and times of sublime accomplishment within, but my mentors Rabbis Stahl, Scheinberg, Barry Block and Chaim Block and Presidents Mike Birnbaum, Mel Weingart, Phil Heintz, Mike Kavy, our Board and a fabulous office and management team,  helped me to maintain the best of what Agudas was:  a congregation of long reach and broad stroke, with an eye to future growth and accomplishments. On balance, we did well maintaining the smooth sails that Lutman and Spiegel had unfurled, and kept our vessel on course.”

Silverstein is proud of his service to Agudas, his 90  youth and professional quality adult chorales he inherited from Lutman, the number of families and their children with whom he still maintains close relationships. He was active with Jewish Federation making three Mission trips to Israel, after first reintegrating Agudas into the Federation’s activities and campaigns.  He became involved within the larger Jewish and secular community: Mayor Garza’s Commission for a United San Antonio, the Oblate School of Theology Evenings of World Faith, upon which he was empanelled for ten years; the UTSA and San Antonio College concert choirs with whom he has performed Jewish liturgical music in concerts, the San Antonio Opera, where he donned character roles within its tenor chorus, and the San Antonio Mastersingers. He was invited to perform with the new Opera San Antonio for its October 2015 production of Madama Butterfly, but scheduling and the High Holy Days prevent this.

Most controversial in the past, perhaps,  was his immediate involvement with the Masjid Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque and its Imam Omar Shakir in the wake of 9/11.

“The following Shabbat, I invited Imam Shakir- having only met him on the first Oblate Evening of World Faith a year earlier- to Shabbat dinner at our home,  and then to speak to the Congregation at Agudas about the future of our world;  more pointedly,   the relationships he saw between Jews and Muslims here and in the larger arena. The Sanctuary was full like Kol Nidre night, congregants fielded questions and were given meaningful answers by Omar. We felt a small step had been taken to address that which was on our minds and hearts—in a Jewish setting. Then, as a congregation, we patronized the Shiraz restaurant on McCullough Circle. It had been recently firebombed by maniacs and we wanted to show our commitment to understanding that not all followers of Al Islam were the same murders who attacked the United States or hate all that is Israel and the Jewish people. We made some people think, I think!” The two men have maintained a personal relationship since.

Following his tenure at Congregation Agudas Achim, Silverstein helped found Temple Chai , a reform congregation, in 2005. He became its only full time spiritual leader, serving there until 2006 when he and 40 families created a newer expression of organized and more traditionally observant synagogue Judaism. It was named  Congregation Israel of San Antonio.

“We call it now Covenantal Conservative but not in the political sense—since the mix of religion and politics is always a dicey throw,” Silverstein observed. “It is by some accounts, conservative and reform in flavor, with a heady mix of traditional texts and rabbinic thought for study.

“ My former Rabbi in Los Angeles suggested a name change for the “stodgy” conservative movement which he felt was a counter-intuitive name. We have  many people coming from so many disparate Jewish denominations, blended or even no background,’ lapsed and lapsing.’  We wanted participatory Jewish services with professionally rendered choral and solo music to accompany all our services. We pray from our own vanity prayer books culled from many expressions of different movements—even the ArtScroll orthodox series from time to time just to provide a wide range of poetry for those who are still seeking a Jewish expression that fits them. And , most importantly, the term Covenantal in Hebrew is brit-a relationship of stewardship, and we are stewards one to the other.

‘We are entering our 9th year with a cadre of 150 souls on our roster-- it ebbs and grows as people move on or join us. We have celebrated weddings, B’not Mitzvah, Mitzvah concerts with the ALA (American Lung Association Bailey’s Peeps)  as our beneficiary, operas, adult studies institute and Torah study,” he said.

“Some thought San Antonio needed another synagogue like we need new buggy whips. Our intent is not to be large, only to be excellent in what we can offer in a Jewish “tam” within a comfortable setting.”

That physical setting was both the Sanctuary and facilities of St. Andrew Lutheran Church on Huebner road, down the block from Agudas, and The Patriot Heights All Faiths Chapel off Fawn Circle.  “The St. Andrew setting was discomfiting for some, but we have been treated so wonderfully there, so ecumenically. It reminds me of my roots in Los Angeles, where it was commonplace for a church to share with a young Jewish community or while building a facility of their own. Pastor Weyrauch, emeritus, Senior Pastor Bonnie Claycomb, Administrator George Siglin and I love to compare and contrast our faith expressions under a roof dedicated to Martin Luther—only in America!” St. Andrew is under purchase agreement with the Christian Messianic congregation “Baruch Hashem” ‘which is a church, not Jews for Jesus,” Silverstein observed. “They are wonderful souls, but their Theology, and their building has nothing to do with us.”  For smaller worship requirements, Congregation Israel was offered the facilities at Patriot Heights Brookdale properties. “The additional 8 mile drive hindered the larger attendance garnered at St. Andrew, so we use the facility rarely these days. In fact, we used St. Andrew for our last High Holy Days services.

Silverstein decided though he is invested by the Conservative Cantors Assembly of the Jewish Theological Seminary, not to identify Congregation Israel with a particular movement initially, especially conservative, “out of respect for my former congregation which is ‘conservative’ directly right up the street. He feels enough time has elapsed and a new rabbinic leadership is currently at Agudas , “so we identify a ‘brand’ to which more people can relate—with a twist. Basically it is because we prefer to be expressively ‘just Jewish.  We are post denominational, I guess,” he explained.

Asked what he envisioned for CISA and his own path having completed fifteen years in San Antonio he said,” if we can continue to provide a meaningful, authentic and beautiful expression of authentic Jewish ritual, coupled with ecumenical  community service we will go forward with that vision. For me personally, it is my passion and purpose to serve in this way without apology or gimmickry. Rabbi Israel Chodos, of blessed memory taught me, ‘what we build in mortar and stone the elements in time will weather. What we build in human spirit will last an eternity.’ I hope to continue that vision in some small way,  here in San Antonio.”


Barbara and Hazzan David Silverstein

Hazzan Silverstein, informal

Hazzan Silverstein, biz