By: Rabbi James L. Kessler

Type: Overview Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: February 15, 2022

Jews have been a part of the warp and woof of the Lone Star State since the period of Spanish Texas. To the untamed future state came Jewish seekers of fortune and freedom. Heirs to the Spanish and European forms of Jewish ritual practice, the Jews of Texas adapted their seminal faith to the new ambience without damaging the integrity of a 5,000-year-old tradition. Though some abandoned their roots, most were tenacious in the nurturing of their heritage. Before 1821, Jews who openly practiced their religion could not legally live in Texas, a Spanish colony where only Catholics could take up residence. Samuel Isaacks had settled on the Brazos River by December 1821, however, N. Adolphus Sterne moved to East Texas in 1826, and by 1838 Jews were living in Velasco, Bolivar, Nacogdoches, Goliad, San Antonio, and Galveston. Their settlement pattern was repeated numerous times: first the formation of a cemetery-benevolent society, followed by a synagogue, formal or informal. Jewish cemeteries were established in Galveston in 1852, Houston in 1854, San Antonio in 1856, Victoria in 1858 and Jefferson in 1862. The first chartered Jewish congregation in Texas was Congregation Beth Israel, Houston, founded in 1859. It began as an Orthodox synagogue, but became a Reform congregation some fifteen years later. The oldest Reform congregation, Temple B'nai Israel, Galveston, was established in 1868. By the turn of the century, numerous congregations had been organized: Hebrew Sinai Congregation of Jefferson in 1873, Beth El of San Antonio in 1874, Temple Emanu-El of Dallas in 1875, Beth Israel of Austin in 1876, Rodef Shalom of Waco in 1879, United Hebrew Congregation of Gainesville in 1881, Shearith Israel of Dallas in 1884, B'nai Abraham of Brenham in 1885, Beth El of Tyler in 1887, Temple Moses Montefiore Adath Israel of Marshall in 1887, Tiferet Israel of Dallas in 1890, Mount Sinai Congregation of Texarkana in 1890, Ahavath Sholom of Fort Worth in 1892, and Beth El of Corsicana in 1898. Beth El of Fort Worth followed in 1902 and Ahavath Achim of Tyler in 1903.

In addition to cemeteries and synagogues, beginning in the 1870s various Jewish communities organized benevolent associations such as chapters of the International Order of B'nai B'rith, aid societies with predominantly female members, literary societies, community lecture series, Sunday schools, and afternoon schools. M. N. Nathan of New Orleans possibly became the first rabbi to officiate in Texas when Rosanna D. Osterman brought him to dedicate the Galveston Jewish cemetery in 1852. In 1860 the first resident rabbi, Zachariah Emmich, began service at Beth Israel in Houston. Of all the rabbis to serve in Texas, Henry Cohen of Galveston's B'nai Israel left the most well-known legacy; his service began in 1888 and lasted sixty-two years. In the late 1800s, Rabbi Cohen's first colleagues included Aaron Suhler (Dallas, Emanu El, 1875), Nehemiah Mosessohn (Dallas, Sherith Israel, 1893), Moses Sadovsky (San Antonio, Agudas Achim, 1889), Tobias Schanfarber (Austin, Beth Israel, 1884), Abraham Levy (Waco, Rodef Shalom, 1887), Heinrich Schwarz (Hempstead, 1875), and Hyman Saft (Marshall, 1887).

The earliest Jews, who arrived with the conquistadors, came from Sephardic (Spanish-North African-Israel) communities. After the Mexican period, Jewry in Texas was essentially populated by immigrants from Germany, eastern Europe, and the Americas. The same broadsides that attracted their non-Jewish fellow immigrants from other countries and from other states attracted the Jews. Texas was a land of promise with seemingly limitless potential. For many Jews, Texas and the United States also offered more religious freedom than they had known in Europe. The movement of Jewish settlers followed the standard patterns of movement throughout the state. Trade routes, railroad lines, new towns, established communities, and relatives who had already arrived drew Jewish settlers to diverse areas of Texas. As a result, the Jewish population remained heterogeneous, geographically scattered and stronger for it.

No aspect of nineteenth-century Texas history is without the involvement of committed Jewish Texans. Adolphus Sterne of Nacogdoches served as alcalde, treasurer, and postmaster in 1826, Albert Moses Levy was surgeon in chief in the revolutionary army in 1835, Jacob and Phineas De Cordova sold land and developed Waco, Simon Mussina founded Brownsville in 1848, Henri Castro founded several towns, Michael Seeligson was elected mayor of Galveston in 1853, Rosanna Osterman funded significant religious and charitable activities through her will, Sid Samuels and Belle Doppelmayer were in the first graduating class at the University of Texas in 1881, Olga B. Kohlberg started the first public kindergarten in Texas in 1893, and Morris Lasker was elected to the state Senate in 1895. Jews also established themselves in Beaumont, Brenham, Corsicana, Gainesville, Hempstead, Marshall, Palestine, Texarkana, Tyler, Port Arthur, Wichita Falls, Baytown, Corpus Christi, Brownsville, New Braunfels, McAllen, Alice, Amarillo, Columbus, W harton, Giddings, Navasota, Crockett, Lubbock, Longview, Jefferson, San Angelo, and Schulenburg.

With the turn of the century the Jewish population began to increase more rapidly in response to new outbreaks of anti-Semitism in Russia and the significant movement of eastern European Jewry to the United States. Leo N. Levi framed the famous Kishinev petition, cabled by President Theodore Roosevelt to the Russian Czar to protest massacres of Jews. Between 1900 and 1920 estimates of the Jewish population of Texas grew from 15,000 to 30,000. In particular the major cities, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio, saw mushrooming populations of Jews. This growth resulted in a concomitant increase in the membership of religious, educational, and social-service organizations, as well as the building of synagogues. The Jewish Herald Voice began publication in Houston in 1906, and was eventually followed by the Jewish Journal and Jewish Record of San Antonio and the Texas Jewish Post of Dallas-Fort Worth. Many new immigrants came through the port of Galveston. From 1907 to 1914, the Galveston Movement, locally spearheaded by Rabbi Henry Cohen, settled some 10,000 Jewish immigrants. Though the plan called for them to settle in the middle states of the country, most remained in the Southwest.

A number of the great Jewish mercantile establishments date from the early years of the twentieth century. Many of the Jewish immigrants who settled in the state began as backpack peddlers of goods they acquired by selling their possessions at the port of entry. If the community to which such a peddler traveled was hospitable, and if the potential for earning a livelihood was optimal, the new immigrant usually set down roots, opened a small store, and established a chain linking him to his supplier at the port of entry. In turn, as relatives arrived, they were sent out as peddlers from the new location to newer areas, where they opened stores. In this way the chains were extended. This entrepreneurial spirit gave rise to small businesses and larger ones that became well known. A small but diverse sampling includes Joseph Weingarten, Schwarz, Proler, Weiner, Aronoff, Abraham M. Levy, Finger, Farb, Schnitzer, Simon and Tobias Sakowitz, and Axelrod of Houston; Roger's Texas State Optical and Edwin Gale of Beaumont; Zale Jewelry Corporation, Neiman-Marcus, the Lorch Company, Bernard Gold, Pearle, Elsie Frankfort, and Sanger Brothers of Dallas; Schwartz of El Paso; Levines of Lubbock; Bettins and Lacks of Victoria; Kanes of Corpus Christi; Avigael of Laredo; Roosth and Genecov of Tyler; Appel and Brachman of Fort Worth; Michael Riskind of Eagle Pass; Harris and Isaac Kempner, Seinsheimer, and Morris Lasker of Galveston; Smith of Austin; Rapoport and Smith of Waco; Louis Kariel of Marshall; Wolens and Goldens of Corsicana; and Arons, Moskowitzs, and Wilkenfelds of Baytown.

Immigration ended for a time with the 1920s immigration-quota acts. In that decade Texas Jews opposed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and in the 1930s they watched with growing concern the growth of anti-Semitism in Germany and elsewhere. Organizations were founded in the national Jewish community before World War II to respond to the needs of persecuted Jews in Europe, and branches of these were established in Texas. Houston established its Jewish Community Council in 1936 under the presidency of Max Nathan and enhanced its Jewish Family Service under Ruth Fred. Dallas was well organized by Jack Kravitz. After the war the Jews of Texas became involved in the resettlement of Holocaust survivors who sought refuge in the United States. Their memory has been carefully preserved by the Dallas Memorial Center for Holocaust Studies. The number of Jews in the state continued to grow after the war, from an estimated 50,000 in 1945 to 71,000 in the mid-1970s and 92,000 in 1988. This population was increasingly concentrated in the larger urban areas of the state, as the small-town Jewish communities faded away. Texas Jews continued to demonstrate significant concern for the welfare of Jews outside the state and around the world. Perhaps the most significant community effort since World War II was support for the establishment of the state of Israel, though not initially with unanimity. The belief of some Jews elsewhere that such an establishment was unwise was echoed in Texas. Concerns beyond a regional level have led to national service, as exemplified by Helen Smith of Austin, past international president of B'nai B'rith Women, and Dolores Wilkenfeld of Houston, past president of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods. In addition to these community activities in the international arena, local and regional efforts have included youth camps such as Echo Hill Ranch, Camp Bonim, Camp Young Judea, and Greene Family Camp. On the college campuses the Jewish presence is found at Hillel foundations, Chabad houses, fraternities such as Tau Delta Phi, Sigma Alpha Mu, Alpha Epsilon Pi, Zeta Beta Tau, and sororities such as Alpha Epsilon Phi, Delta Phi Epsilon and Sigma Delta Tau.

The freedom experienced by Jews in Texas encouraged them to become active in many fields. Among those who served as mayors were Isaac H. Kempner and Adrian Levy, Sr., of Galveston. Some of their more recent counterparts include Barbara Crews and Eddie Schreiber of Galveston, Adlene Harrison and Annette Strauss of Dallas, Ruben Edelstein of Brownsville, Abraham Albert Lichtenstein of Corpus Christi, Minnie Solomonson of Padre Island, Bayard Friedman of Fort Worth, Jeff Friedman of Austin, and Veta Winick of Dickinson. Other names of prominence include Ambassador Robert Strauss, state senator Babe Schwartz, Billy Goldberg, and Congressman Martin Frost. Hermine Tobolowsky was a leading figure in the campaign for the Texas Equal Rights Amendment in 1972. Jewish federal judges have included Irving Goldberg, Norman Black, and David Hittner; Hattie Heneberg and Ruby Sondock were state justices. The Texas Jewish community has also been home to more eclectic souls, including such military men as Samuel Dreben and Maurice Hirsch, 1930s wrestler Abe Coleman, and country-western singer Kinky (Richard) Friedman, who not only made headlines with his Texas Jew Boys but also wrote a series of mysteries. Prominent Texas Jewish authors and journalists have included Fania F. Kruger, John Rosenfield, Jr., and Rosella H. Werlin. In the later part of the twentieth century the expansion of Texas universities and the development of high tech industries drew Jewish academics and professionals to Texas from other parts of the country. Outstanding Texas rabbis who have achieved national recognition in the twentieth century include Robert Kahn and Samuel Karff of Houston, and Levi A. Olan and David Lefkowitz of Dallas, all of whom served as presidents of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and Hyman J. Schachtel of Houston, who delivered the invocation at the inauguration of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

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. Rabbi Floyd Fierman of El Paso and Rabbi Harvey Wesel of Tyler collected and recounted much of the history of their area. Through the efforts of Rabbi Jimmy Kessler of Galveston, the Texas Jewish Historical Society came into existence in 1980. The society has established an archive at the Barker Texas History Center in Austin. The entrepreneurial and pioneer spirit that pervaded Texas, a reflection of some of the major teachings of Jewish tradition, has been part of the impetus for the involvement and achievements of Jewish residents. Though Judaism is a religion, it is also clearly a way of life that calls upon its adherents to be actively involved in the community within which they live. Jews of Texas have striven successfully to make the world in which they live and particularly the state of which they are an integral part a better place in which to live.

Henry Cohen, "The Jews in Texas," Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 4 (1896). The Jewish Texans (San Antonio: University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures, 1974). Natalie Ornish, Pioneer Jewish Texans (Dallas: Texas Heritage, 1989). Ruthe Winegarten and Cathy Schechter, Deep in the Heart: The Lives and Legends of Texas Jews (Austin: Eakin Press, 1990).

  • Peoples
  • Jews
Time Periods:
  • Antebellum Texas
  • Progressive Era

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Rabbi James L. Kessler, “Jews,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 08, 2022,

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February 15, 2022