By Marion Fish
Jewish Conversos who outwardly adopted Christianity to escape the Spanish Inquisition and 1492 expulsion were among the first Texas European explorers in the 1500s. Until 1821, Jews who practiced their faith could not reside in Texas because the Spanish authorities required adherence to Catholicism.
The first Jewish-Texans were Sephardic, but the majority of Jewish-Texans today are Ashkenazi Jews who arrived after the Civil War. Among the Jews fighting for Texan independence from Spain and Mexico was Adolphus Sterne, an East Texas merchant. Born in the Rhineland, Sterne was a principal financial backer of the Texas Revolution with his old friend Sam Houston. Other early Jewish-Texans include Albert Moses Levy, surgeon-in-chief in the revolutionary army; the De Cordova family who developed Waco; and Henri Castro, who settled immigrants in Texas towns, including Castroville.
Texas seemed to have limitless opportunity: land in every direction could be bought for a song; eager customers with nowhere to shop; and jobs were available to anyone stepping off the train. Some immigrants arrived directly by sea, and there was a steady percolation of people from the Eastern Seaboard through communities in the South. A few took up farming in central Texas, while itinerant Jewish merchants settled along the rail lines and around the Gulf ports. Cemetery-benevolent societies formed during the 1850s in Galveston, Houston, San Antonio and Victoria; Houston had the first synagogue in 1859.
Jewish families excelled in merchandising food, clothing and jewelry with landmark stores by entrepreneurs Neiman, Marcus, Sanger in Dallas, Battelstein and Sakowitz in Houston, and Joske in San Antonio.
El Pasoan Haymon Krupp went from merchant to wildcatter, drilling the Santa Rita No. 1 on land of the University of Texas System. This 1923 oil discovery still benefits university students today through oil royalties.
At the end of World War II, the Texas Jewish population was around 50,000, while today it is estimated to be over 100,000.
Texas hosts several Jewish festivals. The Dallas Jewish Arts Fest includes music, lectures, arts & crafts, childrens activities and food. The Kosher Chili Cook-off has a real Texas flair, with thousands attending the annual event at Dallas Tiferet Israel Synagogue. Travelers to Abilene can enjoy the Celebrations of Life: Paintings of Jewish and New Mexican Traditions at the Grace Museum through October of this year. Check the local Chabad for details on Kosher restaurants and amenities.
CHABAD OF TEXAS
Celebrating its 30th year in the state, vibrant Chabad Centers (Chabadtexas.org) are found in Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, El Paso, Plano, S. Antonio and Austin. Jewish educational resources, holiday awareness, Hebrew schools, day camps, mikvas and prison chaplaincy can be accessed through these centers. See Texan style Chabad online at Chabadtexas.org.
Houston's Torah Day School, founded in 1977 by pioneers Rabbi Shimon and Chiena Lazaroff offers excellent secular and Jewish education at the modern facility.
Chabads Creative Chanukahs Covers Texas, from Dallas Chanukah on Ice at The Galleria for over 900 participants to the giant Lego menorah at the Anderson Cancer Center. The San Antonio River walk hosts hundreds as accordion accompanied revelers travel in river barges illuminated with electric menorahs and powered by Chanukah songs.
The Texas Medical Center is home to The Aishel House. Opened by Rochel and Eliezer Lazaroff, it offers patients and their families complete support from basics like transportation, child-care and delicious home cooked meals to comfortable accommodations and sensitive counseling. Patients are relieved to learn that they are not alone; Aishel demonstrates that the Jewish community the world over is one large family.
During this year's High Holidays, Chabad volunteers baked, cooked and delivered homemade meals for patients at the hospitals, accommodating dietary restrictions.
"Being hospitalized over the holidays can be depressing. We try to bring a smile to their face," says volunteer coordinator Rochel Lazaroff. "We cant take away their pain, but we want them to know that they are not forgotten. 'Kol Yisroel Arievim Zeh Lazeh' (Jews are responsible for one another) is not just a nice Talmudic adage, but a reality here."
Recently, Debbie accompanied her husband Joe from Atlanta for a one-day consultation at Anderson to explore a new treatment for his rare lymphoma.
"They were so kind," says Debbie. "We were exhausted after a long day at the hospital, and didnt have the strength to forge ahead with the difficult treatment. Knowing that somebody is there for us in Houston made it so much easier. I could never go back home to be with the kids if Aishel wasn't there for us. I dont know what I would have done. Thank G-d we are now on the road to recovery".
This beautiful example of selfless care for ones' fellow Jew is reflected in the vast array of inspiring activities and services offered by the Texas Chabad Centers.