AUSTIN, geographic and political center of Texas and the state's capital, with a Jewish population of around 13,500 in 2001. Jewish settlers arrived as early as the 1840s. The first well-known Jewish settler was Phineas de Cordova, born in Philadelphia and grandson of a 1749 Amsterdam immigrant to Curaçao, Netherlands West Antilles. De Cordova arrived in Texas sometime after 1848 with his wife, Jemimina Delgado. During a brief time in Galveston and Houston, he formed a land company and newspaper publishing business with his brother Jacob de Cordova, then settled in Austin at the request of Governor P.H. Bell in 1850.
Once in Austin, Phineas de Cordova published a weekly, the Southwestern American, for two years. As the de Cordova land agency grew, he became an expert in Texas land laws and published a topographical map of Austin in 1872. He developed a number of political associations, and served in the Texas Senate for three terms during the Civil War years. Other notable Jewish families in Austin during this period included the family of Henry Hirshfeld, who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Hirshfeld, de Cordova, and a handful of other Jewish pioneers met in the mayor's office of the City of Austin to organize its first congregation, Temple Beth Israel, in 1876. Chartered by the State of Texas in 1879, the congregation built its first house of worship in 1884 on the corner of 11th and San Jacinto streets in the heart of downtown Austin.
As Austin grew through the end of the 19th and into the beginning of the 20th century, its Jewish population grew slowly relative to other Texas cities, and unlike places such as Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Waco, a merchant prince who was philanthropist or benefactor never emerged. The Jewish population included peddlers who eventually founded small Main Street types of businesses and intellectuals drawn to teach or study at the University of Texas at Austin. Temple Beth Israel remained the cornerstone of the organized Jewish community until 1924, when the Federation of Jewish Charities was formed.
Orthodox Jews formed a minyan as early as 1914, which was chartered to become Austin's second congregation, Congregation Agudas Achim, in 1924. In 1931, the congregation built its first building at 909 San Jacinto, and occupied this location for more than 30 years. The members affiliated with the Conservative Jewish movement in 1948. Among the founders was Jim Novy, whose longstanding relationship with President Lyndon Baines Johnson served as a springboard of congregational growth. In the early 1960s, Johnson helped Novy trade the synagogue's land downtown for an easement along the Missouri Pacific railroad, in an expanding and newer part of Austin. The site of the old synagogue became the site of Austin's Federal building, a move that helped ensure the financial viability of the congregation for years to come.
In 1963, the congregation moved, but its dedication ceremony, which was to include then Vice President Johnson, had to be postponed in the wake of the assassination and mourning of President John F. Kennedy. On December 30, 1963, President Johnson returned to Austin, and in his first non-official address as president, dedicated the new synagogue, the second time in U.S. history for a sitting U.S. president to do so.
Austin's beginnings as a center of high technology began shortly after the Great Depression. The city grew steadily through the World War II years, and by the 1950s, several research laboratories and think tanks had been founded. As these formed and began to draw innovative thinkers and high-tech companies to the area, the Jewish population grew as Jewish engineers, doctors, intellectuals, and inventors followed the trend. Rapid growth in the 1970s contributed to more political activity, this time at the local level.
During the 1970s, local Jews contributed to the growth and development of the state's cultural and political life. Michael R. Levy founded Texas Monthly magazine, and Austin's first Jewish mayor, Jeff Friedman (also the youngest ever to hold that position, and fondly known as "the hippie mayor"), was elected in 1975. Also during the 1970s, local philanthropist Helen Smith became the first Texan to serve as international president of B'nai B'rith Women. Helen's husband, Milton Smith, was among those responsible for purchasing land to move Congregation Beth Israel from its downtown location to the suburbs in the 1960s.
While Austin's Jewish population steadily rose and remained at about 1% of the total population of Austin for over a century, its communal growth trajectory differed from most Texas Jewish communities. Unlike Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and other cities, the concept of a united Jewish community was slow to catch on, and support for Zionism was fairly limited. From the late 1970s to the 1990s, the Austin Jewish Federation had a small community center located in an old church and small trailer park. During the late 1970s and 1980s, signs of communal growth manifested itself through a preschool of about 100 children, a Jewish Book Fair, and a Jewish Family Service.
The high technology boom of the 1990s caused an unexpected influx of hundreds if not thousands of new Jewish families to Austin and stretched the longtime traditional bi-congregational infrastructure to the breaking point. In addition to the hi-tech think tanks and start-up shops, Dell Computers, founded by a member of Austin's Jewish community, Michael Dell, also played a large part in the community's growth. As a
member of the community, Dell became Austin's first major Jewish philanthropist.
The tone of the community changed dramatically in response to population growth in the 1990s, and new members called for organizations and structures from the Jewish community that had never before existed. Perhaps most emblematic of its unique hi-tech tone was the innovative consolidation of the Austin Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Center. Michael Dell and his wife, Susan Lieberman Dell, purchased and donated a 40-acre site in central Austin, which has become the Jewish Community Association of Austin's Dell Jewish Community Campus. Ground was broken in December 1996 for the new campus facility, which would house Congregation Agudas Achim, a community center, and space that allows for the operation of the Austin Jewish Academy, Early Childhood Program, and a number of youth and family programs. While the campus has become the physical center of Austin's burgeoning Jewish community, the community's growth since 1997 has also spawned two new Reform congregations, as well as growth of its existing Conservative and Orthodox minyans.
The innovative "campus" approach to Jewish communal life has set the tone for the second century of Jewish life in Austin and is actively watched by other mid-sized communities throughout the United States as a model for operating Jewish communities in dynamic and changing times.