The Muslims of Victoria, a small city in southern Texas, have experienced the healing power of kindness in the face of devastating cruelty. Their mosque, the Victoria Islamic Center, was destroyed by an arsonist on January 28, the morning after President Trump issued his original executive order banning immigration from seven predominantly Muslim nations. While the investigation into the fire continues, officials are not yet able to call the arson a hate crime.
Meanwhile, the public response to this tragedy was immediate and widespread, with expressions of support coming in from around the community and around the world. In fact, a GoFundMe page created to cover rebuilding costs took in over $1 million from donors in 90 countries.
One of the first offers of support came from Victoria’s only synagogue, Temple B’nai Israel, whose congregation of about 30 members is significantly smaller than the congregation of the mosque. After the fire, a member of the synagogue’s board, Dr. Gary Branfman, went directly to his friend Dr. Shahid Hashmi, president of the mosque, and offered him the keys to the synagogue.
Robert Loeb, synagogue president, wholeheartedly supported Branfman’s actions:
Thinking back it was easy. Those are my Jewish values: love thy neighbor as yourself. We have a nice historic synagogue that seats about 125 in the sanctuary, and we use it for High Holy Days and maybe a couple other holidays. Sharing our building is a mitzvah.
The people of Victoria as a whole stood in solidarity with their Muslim neighbors. Many churches offered support, and like B’nai Israel, some volunteered the use of their buildings as temporary places of worship until the mosque could be rebuilt.
In an interview with The Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Loeb — no relation to Voice publisher Dan Loeb — talked about his synagogue and the Jewish community in Victoria. Founded at the end of the 19th century, B’Nai Israel moved into its current building in 1923. Despite the growth of the Jewish community in Victoria during the 1800’s, the Jewish population of the town dwindled during the 20th century.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Loeb relocated to Victoria, Texas, almost 40 years ago in order to join his wife’s family business, after a few years in New York. Determined to provide the next generation of Jews in Victoria with a Jewish identity, Loeb and his wife, Margery, reopened the Sunday school at B’nai Israel, and along with other parents, they alternated teaching the children. The school never had more than 12 students, and the last two have since been confirmed. Nevertheless, Loeb said, “We made Judaism happen for our kids.”
Given the small size of the congregation, Loeb describes himself as the “permanent president” of B’nai Israel. The congregation relies on a visiting rabbi from Houston, who travels to Victoria to lead services on the High Holy Days, Passover and a few Friday nights.
For his synagogue’s role in supporting the members of the Victoria Islamic Center, Loeb has been interviewed by radio stations from around the world. He has also received daily phone calls from people offering donations to B’Nai Israel or simply expressing their appreciation to the congregation for its genuine act of generosity and kindness. Others have posted comments on the synagogue’s Facebook page.
“It’s a small thing we’ve done,” says Loeb, “but it’s had a big impact. In these times of uncertainty, people want to reach out to other people.”
For more information about the fire at the Victoria Islamic Center and its aftermath, including photos and video footage, see the Victoria Advocate’s special report.