Jewish Texans

People of Jewish ancestry have been a part of Texas history since the first European explorers arrived in the 1500s. These first families were conversos, a Spanish term for Jews who converted to Christianity to avoid expulsion from Spain after the royal decree of 1492. Updated 2 years ago
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Jewish Texans

Jewish Texans

The old Temple Beth-El in Corsicana.

Their numbers are not large, compared to other cultural groups in the state. By last count from a census of religions, there are about 108,000 adherents to Judaism in Texas. Jewish Federations in local communities supplied the estimate in 1990.

A figure for people of Jewish heritage would be somewhat greater when the same criteria used for other cultural and ethnic groups is applied: "all or part ancestry" and religiously observant and non-observant.

But, whatever the relatively small number is in the general population of 20 million, the Jewish impact on the culture, arts, commerce and professions in Texas is vastly greater than that figure would indicate.

People of Jewish ancestry have been a part of Texas history since the first European explorers arrived in the 1500s. These first families were conversos, a Spanish term for Jews who converted to Christianity to avoid expulsion from Spain after the royal decree of 1492. Until 1821 Jews who openly practiced their faith could not be residents in Texas because the Spanish authorities required adherence to the Catholic faith.

These first Jewish-Texans were Sephardic Jews, that branch of the Diaspora around the Mediterranean from Turkey to the Iberian Peninsula. But the vast majority of Jewish-Texans today are descendants of Ashkenazi Jews, those from central and eastern Europe whose families arrived in Texas after the Civil War or later.

There were some Jews in Texas during the fight for independence from Spain and Mexico, one of the most prominent being Adolphus Sterne. This East Texas merchant became a principal source of financial backing for the Texas Revolution. Born in the Rhineland in 1801, he arrived in Texas in time to fight in the ill-fated 1826-27 Fredonia Rebellion at Nacogdoches. He was sentenced to be shot but was released on the promise never to bear arms against the government again. He kept to the vow in the 1836 struggle for independence but supplied funds, coordinated with his old friend Sam Houston, who he had known in Tennessee before coming to Texas.

Other early Jewish-Texans included Albert Moses Levy, surgeon-in-chief in the revolutionary army; the De Cordova family, who helped develop Waco; and Henri Castro, who settled immigrants in several Texas towns, including Castroville.

In antebellum Texas, itinerant Jewish merchants began to settle in various towns as those places were established, so the Texas Jewish community was geographically scattered throughout the state. When towns began to have more than one or two families, cemetery-benevolent societies began to form during the 1850s in Galveston, Houston, San Antonio and Victoria. These gradually were followed by the organization of synagogues.

Houston had the first synagogue in 1859. It was an Orthodox synagogue that fifteen years later became a Reform congregation, Beth Israel. The oldest Reform congregation was established in 1868 in Galveston as Temple B'nai Israel.

It was to this Galveston temple that Henry Cohen came in 1888. He has been called "the dean of Lone Star rabbis" and titular "chief rabbi of Texas." He served as rabbi there until 1952, having a major influence not only in Galveston society in general but also on the political and cultural history of the state. He was a regular visitor/lobbyist in Austin, working for social reform, and an advocate in Washington, pleading for immigrant rights, not only for Jews but also for people of all backgrounds. Author Hollace Ava Weiner says in Jewish Stars in Texas, "Henry Cohen's entire life was a homily that blended humanitarianism and individualism, the ethics of Judaism with the ethos of Texas."

Trade, the merchandising of food, clothing, jewelry – with style, elegance, distinction – these are the arenas in which many Jewish-Texan families made their most visual marks on the state. There is hardly a city whose history is without landmark stores founded and developed by Jewish entrepreneurs: Neiman, Marcus, Sanger in Dallas, Battelstein and Sakowitz in Houston, Joske in San Antonio. To name any one overlooks a couple of others, right down to smaller towns.

And, in most cases these cities and towns reaped the benefits not only in availability of goods, but also in owners' generous patronage of the fine arts and in contributions to civic life. That legacy is seen in such historic structures as the Levy Opera House in Hillsboro and the Brin Opera House in Terrell. Early contributors to civic life include Anna Hertzberg, who served as president of the original San Antonio Symphony Orchestra before World War I, and Olga Bernstein Kohlberg of El Paso, who started Texas' first free public kindergarten in 1892.

Another El Pasoan, Haymon Krupp, went from merchant to wildcatter. He drilled the Santa Rita No. 1 on land of the University of Texas System. This 1923 oil discovery continues to benefit university students today through the oil royalties. Other Texas Jews who made their mark in the oil business include Max Jaffe and the Rudmans in East Texas and the Danciger family for whom a Fort Worth community center is named. Charles Brachfield was elected in 1931 the first president of the East Texas Lease, Royalty Owners and Producers Association. Judge Brachfield, who had various Rusk County political offices, ran for state attorney general in 1926, becoming the first Jew to seek statewide public office.

Texas Jews have been artists, as well. Joseph Finger was the architect who designed the art deco Houston City Hall in 1937. Gershun (Gus) Levene, who as a young man in 1932 heard the Dallas Symphony Orchestra perform his "Ballet Suite: Exodus," went on to a career in Hollywood. His work there included arranging the music for the film The King and I.

Others in the popular culture field include David Westheimer, whose book Von Ryan's Express became a motion picture, and writer and country-music performer Kinky Friedman.

On the political scene, many Jewish-Texans have served as mayors of their cities, including Isaac Kempner in Galveston and Annette Strauss in Dallas. Galveston's Babe Schwartz was a longtime fixture in the Texas Senate. And, on the national scene, attorney Robert Strauss served presidential administrations from Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton. Another lawyer of note was San Antonio native Hermine Dalkowitz Tobolowsky, an advocate of women's rights who has been called "Mother of the Equal Rights Act in Texas."

Many Jewish-Texans have made their mark in the medical field as physicians, researchers and benefactors. Dr. Ray K. Daily was the first Jewish woman to graduate from a Texas medical school in 1913. She later served as president of the medical staff at Jefferson Davis Hospital in Houston and was a catalyst in the founding of the University of Houston in 1927. Important benefactors to medical work have included Houston's Ben Taub and William and Morris Zale and Ben Lipshy in Dallas.

Federal quotas implemented in the 1920s effectively ended immigration from Europe for many cultural groups, including Jews. During the same period, Texas Jews opposed the blatant emergence of anti-Semitism at home in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan and spoke out about the growth in Germany of National Socialism.

At the end World War II in 1945, the Texas Jewish population was estimated at 50,000. This Jewish community assisted survivors of the Nazi concentration camps in relocating to the United States. The memory of Holocaust victims is preserved today by the Dallas Memorial Center for Holocaust Studies, which opened in 1984, and Holocaust Museum Houston, which opened in 1996.

Slavery and exodus, persecution and freedom: it is a rhythm of Jewish history that is remembered with rituals and celebrations that focus mostly on the family table – in the home rather than in the public square. Special foods mark important holy days and festivals such as Passover during the spring. Matzo balls (a dumpling) served at the Passover Seder recalls the hasty flight from Egyptian slavery, leaving no time for the dough to rise. Hanukkah, the festival of lights in November or December, has latkes (potato pancakes). And the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, in early autumn, is when customary foods such as challah (braided bread), a regular Sabbath staple, are served in a more elaborate style.

In the last few decades, a few public festivals have been inaugurated. Dallas has the Jewish Arts Fest. The fourth annual celebration was held in August 2000 at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center. Not only a music event, it also includes lectures, arts & crafts, children's activities and food.

One festival with a particularly Texas flair is the Kosher Chili Cook-off. Nearly 4,000 people attended the seventh annual celebration held at Dallas' Tiferet Israel Synagogue in the spring of 2000.

— written by Robert Plocheck, associate editor, for the Texas Almanac 2002–2003.


Jewish Stars in Texas, by Hollace Ava Weiner, Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 1999.


New Handbook of Texas, 1996, various: "Jews," by Rabbi James L. Kessler. Others, "Carvajal," by Robert S. Weddle; "Cohen," by James C. Martin; "Krupp," and "Levy," by Natalie Ornish; "Sterne," by Archie P. McDonald.

Hispanic Texas, by Helen Simons and Cathryn A. Hoyt, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1992.

Pioneer Jewish Texans, by Natalie Ornish, Texas Heritage Press, Dallas, 1989.

Spanish Texas, 1519-1821, by Donald E. Chipman, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1992.

Spanish Texas, Yesterday and Today, by Gerald Ashford, Jenkins Book Publishing, Austin, 1971.

Texas Highways, various: "L'Chayim (To Life)!" January 1997, and "The Museum District: Houston's Cultural Core," May 1997, both by Howard Peacock.

The Dallas Morning News, various: "Texas on the Potomac," Nov. 27, 1985, and "Women's Rights Advocate Dies," Aug. 27, 1995.


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