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Rabbi Jimmy (James Lee) Kessler’s soul returned to its Maker on September 14, 2022. He is survived by his wife Shelley Nussenblatt Kessler, his son Andy Kessler and wife Brandie, his daughter Jenny Kessler and partner Nick Buis, and his grandchildren Samara, Ruthe and Jakxon Kessler. He is also survived by his brother and sister-in-law Fred and Jean Kessler, sisters and brothers-in-law Francine and Brad Beckman and Steve and Cynthia Nussenblatt, and a large extended family of nieces, nephews, and cousins. He is predeceased by his parents, Harry and Ruthe Aron Kessler, his in-laws, Sam and Felice Hoffman Nussenblatt, and his brother-in-law, Harris Nussenblatt.
Jimmy was the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel for 32 years. He was born on December 10, 1945 in Houston, Texas. Jimmy was a graduate of San Jacinto Senior High School in Houston and of the University of Texas at Austin. Jimmy received his ordination from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati in 1972 and his class recently celebrated the 50th year anniversary of their ordination. Jimmy was extremely proud to be a part of this class because it was the first in which a female rabbi was ordained. In addition, he earned the first doctorate in Texas Jewish History and an honorary doctorate from HUC-JIR.
Jimmy was the first native Texan to come back to Texas to serve as a rabbi. He spent all but one year of his Rabbinic career in Texas serving as Director of the University of Texas Hillel Foundation in Austin and as the rabbi in Galveston and Victoria. His one-year out-of-state was in Alexandria, LA at Congregation Gemiluth Chassodim. During his years in Austin, Jimmy served as the Hillel Director, restoring the program to one of the most outstanding in the country. He was president of the Campus Ministers Association and established interfaith relations between the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faculty and students. In addition, he taught Bible courses for the University. Jimmy was also invited to deliver invocations for the U.S. House of Representatives, the Texas House of Representatives, and the Texas Senate.
During Jimmy’s tenure at Congregation B'nai Israel, he was president of the Galveston Ministerial Alliance three times, chair of the Community of University Ministers at UTMB, taught for the Osher Life Long Learning Institute at UTMB, and was an adjunct faculty member at Galveston Community College, having been selected as the college’s outstanding Teacher of the Year. Jimmy retired in August 2014 and was made Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel, joining Rabbi Henry Cohen as the only two rabbis to receive this designation.
During his quarter of a century plus in Galveston, Jimmy served as a director of the Harris and Eliza Kempner Fund, the Abe and Annie Siebel Fund, the Abe and Peggy Levy Fund, the Lipson Fund, and the Charles Meyer Fund. He chaired the City of Galveston Ethics Code Committee and the Community Liaison Committee for the National Laboratory at UTMB. In addition, he served on the boards of the Red Cross, Edgewater/Moody House, the United Way, the Galveston Historical Foundation, the Rotary Club, St. Vincent’s House, the 50 Club, the Institutional Review Board of UTMB, and the Jewish Federation of Galveston County. He also served as the Chaplain to the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office and as the Jewish Chaplain to UTMB.
Jimmy was the first rabbi elected to serve as Master (President) of a Masonic Lodge (Harmony Lodge #6 in Galveston) in the history of Masonry in Texas, where he served two terms. In addition, he was a member of the Chapter and Council of York Rite Masons and was a 33’ Scottish Rite Mason. In 2015, he served as the Grand Chaplain of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Texas.
Jimmy was the founder and first president of the Texas Jewish Historical Society (now 40 years old with over 1000 members). He was the first chair of the Church Relations Advisory Board of the State of Texas, a member of the Philosophical Society of Texas, and an Admiral in the Texas Navy. Jimmy edited the first major work on Texas Jewish history, authored three other books and was a writer of midrash – Jewish folklore.
A memorial service will be held on September 18, 2022, at 3:00pm at Congregation B’nai Israel, 3008 Avenue O, Galveston, Texas. The family requests those who attend to wear a mask. The service will be livestreamed at shorturl.at/jkqR4. There will be private burial arrangements. In lieu of flowers, please make contributions to Congregation B’nai Israel, PO Box 8060, Galveston, Texas 77553.