While a handful of pioneers with Jewish ancestry passed through or lived briefly in Texas as early as the years of Spanish and Mexican rule, organized Jewish life did not appear until the 1850s, after the region had been annexed into the United States. The state's southern portion, extending as far north as San Antonio, was part of a massive 1590 land grant issued to Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva, a Spanish adventurer several of whose family members were executed by the Mexican Inquisition as secret Jews; Carvajal himself was a devoted Catholic but was imprisoned until his death for sheltering his crypto-Jewish relatives. Still, no Carvajal settlements existed north of the Río Grande in present-day Texas, and Spanish colonization left no record of Sephardic practice there.
The first North American Jew known to have been in Texas was Captain Samuel Noah of New York, who commanded a Mexican force against Spain at San Antonio in 1811 though he only remained in the area briefly. After Mexico, then including Texas, achieved independence from Spain in 1821, a small number of individuals (perhaps no more than 10 or 20) of Jewish background appeared in the region, though none practiced the faith openly or consistently. Adolphus Sterne opened a general store in Nacogdoches in 1826 and served as a local official to the Mexican government. Sterne formally converted to Catholicism as required by Mexican law, but was raised in a Jewish home in Germany before immigrating to America. Jacob de Cordova, a land merchant, arrived in 1839 and operated businesses in Galveston and Houston. Like Sterne, de Cordova married a Christian woman, as was common in frontier settings, and he neither practiced the Jewish faith openly nor identified himself as a Jew. The first report of self-identified Jews was in the early 1830s at Velasco, on the Gulf Coast near present-day Freeport, where Abraham Labatt, who had been active in large Jewish communities in the U.S., recognized residents Jacob Henry and Jacob Lyons as fellow Jews.
A handful of Jews from the United States fought in the Texas war for independence from Mexico and remained afterward in the new republic which, with constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom, began to attract more Jewish settlers, mostly Central European immigrants who had lived for a time in the U.S. After Texas joined the United States in 1846, the Jewish population grew still faster, and as Jews gathered in the state's largest cities they began to shape the rudiments of institutional Jewish life. In Galveston, the Dyers and Ostermans formed the core of a growing Jewish merchant class that also included Michael Seeligson, who was elected Galveston's mayor in 1853. When a Dyer child passed away in 1852, the family established a cemetery and invited a New Orleans rabbi to perform the burial, the state's first recorded Jewish religious service. In nearby Houston, the city's first permanent Jewish residents, Lewis A. and Mary Levy, had purchased a plot of land for use as a Jewish cemetery as early as 1844; Lewis Levy later spearheaded the creation of a Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1855. In 1856, San Antonio Jews led by Henry Mayer and Louis Zork began meeting as an informal congregation, and three years later Houston's Beth Israel was formally chartered as the state's first Jewish congregation. B'nai Israel in Galveston was founded in 1868, followed by other Jewish congregations in Victoria (1872), Jefferson (1873), San Antonio (1874), Dallas (1875), Austin (1876), Waco (1879), Brenham (1885), Tyler (1887), Marshall (1887), Fort Worth (1892), and El Paso (1900). Jewish communal institutions flourished alongside the synagogues: B'nai B'rith chapters were active in every major city, and in 1898 the state's first chapter of the Council of Jewish Women was formed in Tyler. In 1908, the Texas Jewish Herald was established in Houston. Published today as the Jewish Herald-Voice, it is among the longest-running Jewish newspapers in the country.
While most of the state's first congregations observed Reform worship services, there was a strong traditional presence, and many cities also sustained Orthodox synagogues. Congregation Beth Israel in Houston was founded on the Orthodox ritual, though it later changed to Reform, and the state's larger communities also supported talmud torahs, shoḥatim, and traditional minyan services. The predominance of Classical Reform in part explains the anti-Zionist sentiment that prevailed in Texas until World War II, but Zionist organizations were nonetheless strong in many Texas communities, often led by European-educated rabbis and sustained by a growing influx of Eastern European immigrants. In 1905, the Texas Zionist Association was formed to coordinate Zionist efforts across the state, and in 1914 the state's first Hadassah chapter was chartered in Wharton.
As in other southern and western states, Jews were initially attracted to Texas for the enormous commercial opportunities of an expanding region. From the coastal commercial centers of Galveston and Houston, where Jews participated heavily in the cotton trade, Jewish retailers followed the state's burgeoning rail system: by the early 20th century Jews were present in at least 70 communities, many operating the town's only retail establishment. In larger cities, Jews dominated the retail industry and built many of the state's premier retailing institutions including Sanger Bros. and Neiman-Marcus. In several cases, as frontier customers paid in barter rather than cash, retail businesses led Jewish families into the state's signature industries: cattle and oil.
The Galveston Plan, directed from New York but managed locally by Galveston's beloved Rabbi Henry Cohen , sought to divert the flow of European Jewish immigration to the Texas Gulf Coast, bypassing the overcrowded ghettos of New York, and between 1908 and 1914 some 10,000 European Jews passed through the city to destinations throughout the western states. Of these, about 2,000 settled in nearly 100 Texas communities, providing a burst of social and religious development statewide. Despite this effort, however, and despite the general southerly migration of American Jews to sunbelt states after World War II, relatively few Jews were drawn to Texas. Today, although Texas is the state with the second-highest population, it ranks tenth in Jewish residents. In part this is because the Texas economy remained heavily agrarian even after World War II, leading migrants to seek the greater mercantile opportunities and stronger Jewish communal life of California and Florida. But as the contemporary Texas economy strengthens in fields like electronics, computing, and aerospace, the Jewish population is growing rapidly, especially in high-tech centers like Austin.
Following national trends, Jewish communities in small Texas towns are disappearing as the population clusters in metropolitan areas and their suburban and exurban outgrowths, though congregations remain active in smaller cities including Abilene, Amarillo, Brownsville, Corpus Christi, El Paso, Longview, Lubbock, Odessa, and Tyler. In large cities, Jews maintain a variety of religious and social institutions which sustain virtually every political, social, and worship style. Lubavitchers are organized in Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio; Holocaust museums and research centers have been established in Dallas (1984), Houston (1996), El Paso (1992), and San Antonio (1990); Jewish newspapers serve the communities of Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Fort Worth; the Texas Jewish Historical Society was created in 1980,
In 2021, Texas became the second state to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Definition of Anti-Semitism.
As of 2020, Texas’s Jewish population was approximately 176,000.
N. Ornish, Pioneer Jewish Texans (1989); R. Winegarten and C. Schechter, Deep in the Heart: The Lives and Legends of Texas Jews, a Photographic History (1990); H.A. Weiner, Jewish Stars in Texas: Rabbis and Their Work (1999); B.E. Stone, "West of Center: Jews on the Real and Imagined Frontiers of Texas" (Ph.D. Dissertation: The University of Texas at Austin, 2003); H.A. Weiner and K. Roseman (eds.), Lone Stars of David (2007).
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.