HOUSTON


HOUSTON, port and industrial center in southeastern Texas. Population (est. 2003), 2,009,690; Jewish population, 45,000.

Early History

Houston was founded in 1836; it is not known when the first Jew arrived, but there are records of several who came during the early years of settlement. Eugene Chimene is often cited as the first Jew in Houston, but he is not listed until the 1860 census, and information about him there makes the date of his arrival unlikely to be before 1850. Jacob de *Cordova came to Houston in 1837, and Michael Seeligson was there in 1839. Lewis A. Levy came between 1837 and 1842, and Henry Wiener, Isaac Coleman, and Maurice Levy arrived in the early 1840s. The earliest available census is from 1850, and a possible 17 Jewish adults out of a population of 1863 can be identified; in 1860 the figures were 68 out of a total of 3,768. The majority of these Jews were merchants and clerks who operated stores selling clothing and food, luxuries, and necessities, both wholesale and retail. From their advertisements it is evident that they often formed and broke partnerships and had business dealings with each other. These Houston Jews were reported to be "comfortably situated" and "in a prosperous pecuniary condition" by contemporary sources. The 1860 census indicated that approximately 60% of these Jews were landowners (as compared with about 25% of other immigrant groups), but there were also some Jews listed with no personal and realestate. Socially, Houston Jews were active in the Masons and in the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, an organization which Jacob de Cordova is credited with establishing in Texas, as well as founding the first chapter in Houston.

The earliest tombstone in the Houston cemetery is dated December 10, 1854, so the cemetery was either established then or sometime between 1852 and 1854. The Jews were informally organized in Houston until 1855 when a Hebrew Benevolent Society was founded. The Occident heralded its organization as the first "regular Jewish Society in the state of Texas." On May 8, 1859, the first congregation, Beth Israel, was established, and in August of that year its synagogue, a wooden structure in the middle of the city, was dedicated. Beth Israel was begun as an Orthodox synagogue according to the Polish minhag, even though the majority of Jews in Houston were of German origin.

In 1856 a home was converted into a synagogue and in 1860 the Orthodox Beth Israel congregation was formed, with Z. Emmich acting as its first rabbi, cantor, and ritual slaughterer. In 1866 it appeared as one of the ten "churches" listed in the Houston City Directory. The congregation's first building was erected in 1870. The city then had a population of 9,382, of whom 245 were Jews. That population would almost double only 7 years later, to 471. The last decades of the 19th century witnessed the beginnings of Jewish immigration to Houston from Eastern Europe, replacing the earlier German one. As Beth Israel congregation became more liberal in outlook, two new Orthodox congregations were formed: the largely Galician Dorshe Tov, and the Russian-Polish Adath Yeshurun, both of which merged as Congregation Adath Yeshurun in 1891. The first B'nai B'rith lodge and a Hebrew Free Loan Society were organized, along with the beginnings of a YMHA. The new immigrants mostly entered the retail trade as peddlers and shopkeepers, although there were also several bankers among them, as well as dealers in cotton and commodities. Henry S. Fox was one of the founders of the Houston Cotton Exchange, Morris Levy was a member of the first Houston Ship Channel Company, and Ed Klein established Houston's first department store.

Twentieth Century

The turn of the century inaugurated a period of rapid growth in the Jewish community, spurred on by the 1900 hurricane that drove many Jewish inhabitants inland from the Texas coast, and by the implementation of the *Galveston Plan. The city's first Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Herald, went into publication in 1908. New synagogues were established and Jewish institutional life expanded, with such new organizations as a Bikur Cholim society, Workmen's Circle (1915), Zionist Federation (1903), United Jewish Charities (1914), and the weekly Jewish Herald (1908). The large military installations near Houston during World War I brought an influx of Jewish servicemen, many of whom remained in the city after their discharge. In 1917 the Jewish population of Houston was put at 5,000. By 1920 it had jumped to 10,000, close to seven percent of the city's total. The leading figure in the Jewish community during much of this period was Rabbi Henry Barnston, who accepted the Beth Israel pulpit in 1900 and for the next 45 years presided over the congregation. Judge Henry J. Dannenbaum was nationally active in the fight against white slavery and served the city in its civic life, along with participation in Jewish communal affairs.

Post-World War I

Houston's Jewish community grew at a slower pace between the two world wars, reaching an estimated 13,500 in 1941. Ku Klux Klan activity in the area during the 1920s and 1930s discouraged Jews from entering civic and political life, with the growing professional class reluctant to fight back and the small merchants afraid to stand out. Beth El, Texas' first Conservative congregation, was formed in 1924. In 1927 Rabbi A.I. Schechter became leader of Adath Yeshurun; among his accomplishments was the organization of the Texas Kallah, an association of Texas rabbis which meets annually. The Jewish Community Council was organized during these years, with Max H. Nathan as its first president. An annual United Jewish Campaign was instituted under the Council's direction. A charitable foundation left to the community by Pauline Sterne Wolff helped support many of Houston's Jewish institutions in the years to come. Religiously, the drift in the Jewish community was toward Reform. A unique event in national Jewish life occurred in Houston in 1943 when a radically anti-Zionist majority at Congregation Beth Israel, the city's largest, passed a resolution of "Basic Principles" that excluded from the congregation all members professing an interest in Zionism. A minority of dissenters withdrew from the congregation to form a new synagogue, Emanu El. Beth Israel eliminated the "Basic Principles" from its membership application only in 1967.

Post-World War II

The growth of Houston's Jewish community after World War II did not keep pace with the phenomenal growth of the city as a whole, so that by 1970 the Jewish percentage in the total population had declined to less than two percent. To an extent this may be attributed to the fact that, more than elsewhere in the United States, large chain stores and distribution outlets in Houston have eliminated the traditional Jewish role of the individual entrepreneur. Nevertheless, Houston has remained a city rich in Jewish organizations. Among other institutions were a 12-story Jewish Institute for Medical Research, and a $3,500,000 Jewish Community Center. In 1967 the Houston Commission for Jewish Education was formed to coordinate Jewish educational activities.

Unlike neighboring Galveston, which had a number of Jewish mayors, few Houstonian Jews participated in local political life. The first Jew to be elected to political office in Houston in the 20th century was Richard Gottlieb, who was chosen to the city council in 1969. Jews have been more prominent in business, among them Joe Weingarten, one of the pioneers in the supermarket field, Simon Sakowitz, one of Houston's leading merchants, and M.M. Feld, an industrialist. In the field of education, Norman Hackerman became president of Rice University in 1970 and Joseph Melnick, one of the world's leading virologists, was dean of the graduate research department of the Baylor College of Medicine. Maurice Hirsch was for many years chairman of the Houston Symphony Society. D.H. White (d. 1972) edited and published the weekly Jewish Herald-Voice.

[Jack Segal /

D.H. White]

Developments 1970–2005

The 1970s saw a tremendous growth in Houston's Jewish community, which grew from 25,000 to 45,000. The growth was a reflection of the boom in the Houston economy that lasted through the mid-1980s. With the growth, the Jews moved beyond the Southwest Houston corridor, the traditional site for Jewish communal institutions that reflected the concentration of Jewish families. The 1970s and 1980s also saw tremendous growth in Jewish institutions.

By 1995, the Houston Jewish community had five Jewish day schools with an enrollment of over 1,000 children. More than 3,000 children participated in other forms of Jewish education throughout the community.

In the mid-1990s the community had 30 congregations representing every stream of Judaism and geographically located in all corners of the city.

Houston's Jewish Home for the Aged, now called Seven Acres Jewish Geriatric Center, evolved into a 290-bed nursing home and day care facility. Houston's Jewish Community Center had four locations: the Weingarten Building in Southwest Houston, a specialized facility providing early childhood services, a campsite for day and resident camping, and a satellite facility in West Houston.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston raised $8,000,000 annually through the United Jewish Campaign. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the Jewish Federation raised $3 million for neighborhood renewal in Israel and in excess of $10 million for the rescue and resettlement of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

A Commission on Jewish Continuity implemented special programs targeted at enhancing Jewish identity and affiliation. Houston is home to a $6 million Holocaust Education Center and Memorial Museum, opened in 1996. The museum features a permanent exhibit telling the stories of Holocaust survivors living in the Houston area. It has served as a regional educational center, drawing visitors from Louisiana as well as Texas and educating in Spanish as well as English.

The Jewish community of Houston has grown to incorporate many different traditions and branches. In the early 21st century it was one of the largest Jewish communities in the South and continued to contribute to the cultural and economic life of the region.

[Benjamin Paul (2nd ed.)]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.