(With special thanks to the ISJL online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities: www.isjl.org)
The History of Congregation B'nai Israel
Click on a link below to jump to a specific section of our history:
The Early Years: 1800-1866
Driving down Broadway Avenue, on Galveston Island, one can see the splendors of this southern port city in the enormous Victorian homes that once housed the commercial magnates who transformed this small island into one of Texas’ largest cities in the 19th century. A handful of Jews were among Galveston’s earliest settlers, foreseeing the tremendous economic and social potential in this burgeoning coastal town.
Joseph Osterman, a Dutch native, moved to Galveston from Baltimore in 1838 after a doctor recommended a warmer climate for his wife Rosanna, who had a heart condition. Osterman became one of the first merchants to set up shop in the new town, successfully engaging in the cotton trade. After only a few years, Osterman sold his store – then the largest in town – to his brother-in-law Isadore Dyer, and focused on real estate. Isadore Dyer served as a Galveston alderman in the 1850s, 60s, and 70s.
Many of these early Jews were involved in civic affairs. For example, Michael Seeligson, who also came to Galveston in 1838, quickly became a town alderman and was elected mayor in 1853. In a letter to the national Jewish newspaper, the Occident, Seeligson explained that he ran for mayor to “thwart the designs of a certain clique” who had been speaking out publicly against Jews. Seeligson’s comments indicate that while there was a degree of anti-Semitism in early Galveston, the town’s Jews were willing and able to confront and defeat it.
As a growing number of Jews moved to Galveston during the 1840s and 50s, a Jewish community began to take shape. In 1852, Galveston Jews dedicated their first cemetery, bringing in Rev. M.N. Nathan from a New Orleans synagogue to lead the ceremony. According to a local newspaper, there were not enough Jews in Galveston to support a congregation, so Rev. Nathan enticed them to “pray at home.” In 1856, they did so, praying together at the Dyer home. By 1859, according to the Galveston Weekly News, they were meeting for the High Holy Days.
The progress of the Galveston Jewish community was interrupted by the Civil War. When the Union military captured the city early in the conflict, most Galveston Jews moved to Houston, while others went to Matamoros, Mexico where they were able to ship cotton through the Union blockade. Rosanna Osterman, whose husband Joseph had died in 1861, remained in Galveston during the war, nursing the wounded of both sides in her home. According to legend, Osterman overheard crucial troop information while nursing Union soldiers, and shared it with the Confederate forces, enabling them to retake the city in early 1863. Nevertheless, the Union continued its blockade of the port, as business in the city suffered severely during the war.
Rosanna Osterman nursed the wounded of both sides of the Civil War in her home.
The Formation Years of Congregation B'nai Israel: 1866-1887
Rosanna Osterman was dedicated to building the local Jewish community. After she died tragically in a steamboat explosion in 1866, her will provided money to start various Jewish organizations in Galveston. Her bequests included money to buy additional land for a cemetery, $1000 for a Jewish Benevolent Society, which had not yet been founded, $1000 for a Jewish school in Galveston, and $5000 to go toward construction of a synagogue. Osterman also left money to the state’s only chartered congregation, Beth Israel in Houston, as well as to Jewish organizations and charities around the country. Through her will, Osterman was able to jumpstart the next level of growth for the Galveston Jewish community.
With Osterman’s money as the impetus, eight Galveston Jews established a benevolent society in 1866 and soon discussed forming a congregation. A local gentile butcher began to supply kosher meat to the Jewish community. All of the founding members of the Hebrew Benevolent Society were merchants, and most were young. Only one, Isadore Dyer, was over 35 years old. All but one was foreign born, with most from Alsace and the German states. The local newspaper praised the creation of the benevolent society, but called on Galveston Jews to go further and construct a house of worship, arguing that this would help uplift the entire community.
This development was slowed by a major yellow fever outbreak in 1867, which killed as many as forty Jews in the area. Isadore Dyer, president of the Hebrew Benevolent Society, made an appeal for financial help in the Occident newspaper, since the Society had already spent all of its money helping the sick and burying the Jewish dead. Despite this setback, the Jewish community moved forward as external pressure, Osterman’s financial largesse, and the growing size and wealth of the Galveston Jewish population finally led to the formation of Congregation B’nai Israel in 1868.
From its founding, B’nai Israel was a Reform congregation, befitting the German heritage of its members. Soon after they organized, the members hired Alexander Rosenspitz as their first spiritual leader, who also established the community’s first religious school on 14 November 1869. On 10 October 1868, the executive board of the Congregation voted to purchase a suitable lot upon which to build a synagogue. Upon it, a grand building in a Norman Gothic style was built, designed by Fred Stewart. On 9 June 1870, Mr. Tuck—the grand master of the Masonic Lodge of Texas—laid the cornerstone. Rabbi Jacobs of the New Orleans Portuguese Synagogue officiated. That same year, the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society was created; Caroline Block was its first president, serving thirty years in the position.
In 1871, Congregation B’nai Israel hired its first ordained rabbi, Rabbi Abraham Blum, who led the island Jewish community for the next fourteen years. During his tenure as rabbi, Rabbi Blum took part in a statewide circuit-riding rabbi program, visiting small Jewish communities throughout Texas and helped start religious schools in Brenham, Waco, Fort Worth, and Brownsville. Congregation B’nai Israel was relatively small but had lots of young families. In 1880, the Congregation had 61 member households and a whopping 188 students in their religious school!
The Rabbi Henry Cohen Years:
1888-1950 (Emeritus 1950-1952)
The course of Congregation B’nai Israel and the Galveston community in general was forever changed when the young Rabbi Henry Cohen arrived on the island in 1888. For the next 64 years Cohen put his indelible stamp on the Congregation and set a remarkable standard for rabbinic involvement in the larger community. Rabbi Cohen was a strong advocate for prison reform, serving on the Texas Board of Pardons and working to rehabilitate released prisoners. After the great hurricane of 1900, Rabbi Cohen helped to maintain order in the city and organized a central executive relief commission.
Rabbi Cohen was also instrumental in the Galveston Movement (an immigration assistance program) operated by several Jewish organizations between 1907 and 1914. The program worked to divert Jewish immigrants, fleeing Russia and Eastern Europe, away from East Coast cities, particularly New York, which was already crowded with poverty-stricken immigrants. During its operation, ten thousand Jewish immigrants passed through Galveston, Texas, about a third the number that emigrated to Palestine during the same period. New York financier and philanthropist Jacob Schiff was the driving force behind the effort, which he supported with nearly $500,000 of his personal fortune. Rabbi Cohen was the humanitarian face of the movement, meeting ships at the Galveston docks and helping guide the immigrants through the cumbersome arrival and distribution process, and on into the countryside.
Rabbi Cohen’s support did not stop at the port. As a strong advocate for k’lal Yisrael (the collective Jewish community), Rabbi Cohen fought to ensure that all Jewish families on the Island—regardless of affiliation or financial position—had access to a sound Jewish education. Thus, in the early 1900s, Congregation B’nai Israel began offering free religious school for all Jewish children in Galveston. This high standard of service continues today, as Congregation B’nai Israel still offers all Jewish children of Galveston free religious school education, whether their parents are contributing congregants of this Reform congregation or not.
A major teaching of Rabbi Cohen’s, particularly to his religious school students, was the need to be defenders of liberty. Rabbi Cohen’s life was a lesson in motion. According to legend, with his close friend Father Kirwin of the Catholic Diocese, Rabbi Cohen prevented the Ku Klux Klan from marching on the Island by blocking them on the causeway bridge. Also, when Cohen learned that the U.S. Navy had no Jewish Chaplains during World War I, he lobbied successfully to get special legislation allowing for rabbis to serve as Navy Chaplains. President Woodrow Wilson sent Cohen the pen with which he signed the bill into law.
An obituary that ran in the Associated Press described Cohen as “one of the greatest inspirational and spiritual leaders in Texas history.” According to the historian Jacob Rader Marcus, Cohen was “a pastor whose field was not the small confines of the Jewish parish but the entire community of which he became the throbbing heartbeat.” As a tribute to his efforts, the generous Mrs. Eliza Kempner—at the turn of the 20th century—donated a home to the Congregation for the use of the rabbi. Rabbi Henry Cohen was its first resident. Over the years, this house was called the “rabbinage” (short for the rabbi’s parsonage), perhaps the only such label given to a rabbi’s home anywhere in the world. Another tribute for Rabbi Cohen by the Congregation was an addition to their glorious building in 1928, which they named the Henry Cohen Community House.
Rabbi Henry Cohen helped divert Jewish immigrants away from East Coast cities and bring them towards Galveston instead.
The Contemporary Years: 1950-present
Congregation B’nai Israel continued to be influenced by Rabbi Henry Cohen, even after he passed away in 1952. His vision of social justice inspired the Congregation’s leadership to open the “Temple Academy” in 1957, in their new and present facility located at 30th and Avenue O. At a time when Galveston was still racially segregated and there was no public kindergarten for blacks, the Congregation’s pre-school and kindergarten accepted students of all races. After the Selma March in 1965, the congregational board voted to give money to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Congregation B’nai Israel has been blessed by a number of successful and inspiring rabbis after Rabbi Cohen: Rabbi Leo Stillpass (1950-55), Rabbi Stanley Dreyfus (1956-65), Rabbi Robert Blinder (1965-69), Rabbi Samuel Stahl (1969-76), Rabbi Jimmy Kessler (1976-81), Rabbi Alan Greenbaum (1981-85), Rabbi Martin Levy (1985-89) and, again, Rabbi Jimmy Kessler (1989-2014). To date, Rabbi Kessler is the only native Texan to assume the leadership of the Congregation. In 2014, Rabbi Kessler was honored by Congregation B’nai Israel with Emeritus status, as Rabbi Marshal Klaven—formerly the circuit-riding rabbi of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL)—became CBI’s new spiritual leader. In July 2018, Rabbi Matt Cohen relocated from Jacksonville, Florida to become our current Rabbi.
It’s not just the rabbis of Congregation B’nai Israel who were and continue to be outstanding—so are its congregants. Following a pattern set in the earliest days of Jewish settlement on the Island, Galveston Jews have continued to play a leading role in the civic affairs of the city. Eddie Schreiber spent much of the 1960s as mayor of Galveston; initially selected by his fellow city council members for the position in 1961, Schreiber was elected directly by the voters in 1965, 1967, and 1969. Ruth Levy Kempner became the first woman elected to the city council in 1961. Barbara Crews served as Galveston’s mayor from 1990 to 1996 after spending several years on the city council. Most recently, Lewis Rosen was Galveston’s mayor from 2012-2014.
A.R. “Babe” Schwartz represented Galveston in the Texas state legislature as a liberal Democrat from 1955 to 1981. Schwartz was a strong supporter of environmental laws and Civil Rights. Once, when the Ku Klux Klan sent each legislator an honorary membership card, Schwartz denounced the organization on the floor of the Texas House, declaring that one couldn’t be an honorable member of a dishonorable organization. While the phenomenon of Jewish mayors and officeholders has been rather common in the South, the number of Jews elected to political office in Galveston is quite remarkable and reflects a unique level of integration into the larger community.
Today, just as it was throughout its history, the members of Congregation B’nai Israel continue to bring an innovative and inclusive approach to their Jewish heritage, allowing its values to make a demonstrable difference in the larger community and all the lives therein: Jews, people of other faiths, or of no particular faith at all. And, as a result, Congregation B’nai Israel will likely continue to make history for the foreseeable future!