History of the Jews in Texas

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Jewish Texans have been a part of the history of Texas since the first European explorers arrived in the region in the 16th century.[1][2] In 1990, there were around 108,000 adherents to Judaism in Texas.[2] More recent estimates place the number at around 120,000.[3]

History of Jewish Texans[edit]

1870 Congregation B'nai Israel Temple & Henry Cohen Community House in Galveston, Texas
Hebrew Benevolent Cemetery (Established 1852)

Spanish Texas did not welcome easily identifiable Jews, but they came in any case. Jao de la Porta was with Jean Laffite at Galveston, Texas in 1816, and Maurice Henry was in Velasco in the late 1820s. Jews fought in the armies of the Texas Revolution of 1836, some with James Fannin at Goliad, others at the Battle of San Jacinto. Dr. Albert Levy became a surgeon to revolutionary Texan forces in 1835, participated in the capture of Bexar, and joined the Texas Navy the next year.[4] The first families were conversos and Sephardic Jews. Later settlers such as the Simon family, led by Alex Simon, came in the 1860s and contributed to the construction of synagogues and monuments such as the Simon Theatre. B. Levinson, a Jewish Texan civic leader, arrived in 1861.[5] Today the vast majority of Jewish Texans are descendants of Ashkenazi Jews, those from central and eastern Europe whose families arrived in Texas after the Civil War or later.[6]

Organized Judaism in Texas began in Galveston with the establishment of Texas' first Jewish cemetery in 1852. By 1856 the first organized Jewish services were being held in the home of Galveston resident Isadore Dyer. These services would eventually lead to the founding of Texas' first and oldest Reform Jewish congregation, Temple B'nai Israel, in 1868.[7]

The first synagogue in Texas, Congregation Beth Israel of Houston, was founded in Houston in 1859 as an Orthodox congregation. However, by 1874 the congregation voted to change their affiliation to the fledgling Reform movement. The ensuing years were accompanied by the spread of Judaism throughout Texas. Temple Beth-El (San Antonio, Texas) was founded in San Antonio in 1874, followed by Temple Emanu-El of Dallas in 1875 and Brenham's B'nai Abraham in 1885. Temple Beth-El is known as one of the state's more contemporary Reform Jewish congregations due to their very open support of the Jewish LGBT community while B'nai Abraham, currently led by Rabbi Leon Toubin, is the state's oldest existing Orthodox synagogue.[5][8]

Between 1907 and 1914 a resettlement program, known as the Galveston Movement, was in operation to divert Jews fleeing Russia and eastern Europe away from the crowded East Coast cities. Ten thousand Jewish immigrants passed through the port city of Galveston during this era, approximately one-third the number who migrated to the area of the Ottoman Empire that would become the state of Israel during the same period. Henry Cohen, the rabbi of B'nai Israel at the time, is credited with helping to found the Movement.[9]

Texas however suffered from antisemitism in early 20th century. During the 1920s Ku Klux Klan became influential in Houston and Texas. Billie Mayfield edited a weekly Klan newspaper in Houston that regularly used anti-Semitic stereotypes to attack Jews as parasites only interested in extracting wealth from the community. he wrote in an article “there are lots of good Jews in Houston and all over Texas; you find them with tombstones over their heads.” However most of the times the violence was against the African-Americans and not the Jews. KKK threat also helped unify the Houston Jewish community. By 1924, the Klan had lost much of its local support and influence and Mayfield’s newspaper went out of business.[10] Even at the time of KKK many Houston Jews were powerful in its economy. By the 1920s, big department stores in Houston, such as Foley’s and Battlestein’s, were owned by Jews. Brothers Simon and Tobias Sakowitz left Russia as young children. In 1915, they opened a clothing store in Houston that eventually became Sakowitz’s, one of the finest department stores in the city. In 1959, they built a new flagship store on Westheimer Road; ten years later the large Galleria mall was built across the street from it. Sakowitz’s expanded too much in the 1970s and declared bankruptcy during the economic downtown of the '80s, selling most of the business to an Australian company. The Sakowitz stores closed for good in 1990

The Handbook of Texas states that, "The formal preservation of the history of Texas Jewry goes back to Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston and Rabbi David Lefkowitz of Dallas, who set out to interview as many early settlers and their families as possible. They produced a historical account for the Texas Centennial in 1936."[11]

Among the leading philanthropists in Texas were several Jews such as Ben Taub. Taub who was born and raised in Houston, became a leading real estate developer. He donated the land for the University of Houston when it was founded in 1936. He also helped Baylor College of Medicine to move to Houston from Dallas in 1943. Taub founded a new public charity hospital which is known as Ben Taub hospital today. The Jewish community in 1958, decided to build a $450,000 Jewish Institute for Medical Research, which they donated to the Baylor College of Medicine when it was completed in 1964. Leopold Meyer was a major donor and fundraiser for the Texas Children's Hospital. He was also the longtime director of two of Houston’s most iconic annual events: the Livestock Show and Rodeo, and the Pin Oak Horse Show.[10]

Many Jewish immigrants thrived in Houston such as Joe Weingarten. Weingarten who was born in Poland became a very successful grocery store owner. He pioneered the innovations of cash and carry and self-service grocery stores in Houston, building a local chain that reached 70 locations by the time of his death in 1967. He was very active in Jewish social causes as well.

Joe Straus, (born September 1, 1959), is the current Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. Straus was elected Speaker on January 13, 2009 and is the first Jewish Speaker in Texas history.[12]

More recently, prominent Jewish Texans include the late retailer Stanley Marcus, longtime CEO of Neiman-Marcus based in Dallas, and Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Dell Computer. Dell is also active in charity and civic affairs, including helping to fund the Dell Children's Hospital in Austin and the Dell Diamond supporting the Round Rock Express AAA professional baseball team owned by Nolan Ryan and run by the Ryan family.

List of Jewish Texans[edit]

Jewish Communities in Texas[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]