Tucked away just beyond Downtown Bryan — and close enough to the train tracks to feel the rumble of passing locomotives — stands a small temple, aged but still majestic, waiting patiently for its turn to receive new life.
Built in 1912, Temple Freda stands as the oldest religious structure in Bryan, the only temple in the country to be named after a woman and one of only two Jewish temples in the world to receive its namesake from a non-Biblical woman.
Now, the former Jewish temple is poised to take its place as a vibrant part of the community once again with help from the City of Bryan and other community partners.
Recently receiving a $40,000 matching grant from the Texas Historical Commission, City of Bryan Director of Strategic Projects Lindsey Guindi said Temple Freda now has the financial support it needs to begin the process of revitalizing its infrastructure.
“We are taking small bites on this project,” Guindi said. “This [grant] should get us through the first year of the restoration effort. It will get us started.”
She said the grant, along with the private donations raised so far through the Brazos Heritage Society — which is partnering on the restoration effort — and a downtown improvement grant from the city, will “get us to the point that the structure is stabilized.”
After being cared for by a number of stewards over the past several decades — the most recent being Texas A&M physicist William Bassichis — Guindi said the City of Bryan stepped in to manage Temple Freda about three years ago during the rise in Downtown Bryan restoration work.
Stephanie Sale, a member of the city’s “Friends of Temple Freda” committee, said interest in the temple “sort of coincided with the success of the restoration effort in Downtown Bryan.”
“Somehow as everything else looked better, Temple Freda looked more and more in need,” she said. “The general feeling was, ‘Isn’t it a shame about Temple Freda?’”
Outside of its cultural significance, City of Bryan Senior Planner Randy Hanes said Temple Freda also has deep historical ties to several other religious groups in the area.
Hanes, who also serves as a member of the Brazos Heritage Society, said over the years the temple has served as a venue for a number of other faith groups without a structure of their own to have religious services.
Even stretching back to its inception, Hanes said the construction of Temple Freda was a communitywide effort that received assistance in the form of everything from materials to a gift of the land on which it was built.
“When they went to [build the temple], it became sort of a communitywide effort,” Hanes said. “The Jewish community was very accepted by the community; there didn’t seem to be any kind of rancor. Really, not only were they accepted, they were popular people.”
Hanes said over time what would become Aggie Hillel was established by Jewish faculty members at Texas A&M and by the 1950s, the community had mostly shifted from Temple Freda to the location in College Station.
After that, he said the temple was used on loan by several start-up congregations of other faiths over the next few decades until a year or two before the City of Bryan stepped in, effectively shutting its doors so that the restoration process could begin.
Once the renovation of Temple Freda is complete — in an estimated three to five years — Guindi said the plan is to resume the building’s role as a servant of the community.
Although it will no longer be used solely as a synagogue, she said the space is expected to become a venue for “respectful” events such as weddings and receptions, educational events, concerts and more.
“It’s going to operate very similar to how it has for many decades at this point,” Guindi said. “It’s been open to the community, and it will continue to be open to the community. We think it will be a fabulous asset to the building inventory of Downtown Bryan.”
While the city is the owner and caretaker of the property, Guindi said the plan is for a yet-to-be-determined nonprofit organization to take on ownership and maintenance of the building to oversee the temple’s long-term management.
Sale said while looking back on the temple’s history, she had been particularly moved by the language in the land’s original deed, which stated that Temple Freda only be used for “benevolent purposes.”
“Whatever it’s used for, it has to be reflective of that request,” Sale said. “That is guiding a great amount in the restoration effort.”
More than anything, Guindi said she believes Temple Freda represents the essence of what the community has stood for over the past century.
“[It stands for] an appreciation of history, diversity, hope,” Guindi said. “These are all things that our community represents today. One-hundred and five years later, I think this effort represents Bryan. It isn’t just one group in the community — it’s people from all backgrounds, all faiths, all financial capabilities coming together. I think that’s what Bryan is about.”