April 7, 1863, is the birthdate of Rabbi Henry Cohen, who led Reform Congregation B’nai Israel in Galveston, Texas, over a period of 61 years, from 1888 to 1949.
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Cohen is remembered not only for his longevity, but also for the positive role he played in his town as a humanitarian and voice of tolerance.
Henry Cohen was born in London, the fifth of eight children of David and Josephine Cohen, both recent immigrants from the town of Rava (in present-day Ukraine). He was educated at Jews’ Hospital, a boarding school for children of “the respectable poor,” where a classmate was Israel Zangwill.
At age 15, he began studying at night at Jews’ College, while working days for the Jewish Board of Guardians, a welfare agency.
Before graduating, Cohen decided to take time off from his studies to travel to South Africa, where he and his brother Mark wanted to work and make some money for their family. Henry ended up at the Kimberley diamond mine, where he worked in a grocery store and, having learned the Zulu dialect, also served as an interpreter.
On his return to England, Cohen finished Jews’ College and, in 1884, was recommended by the London Jewish community to a synagogue in Kingston, Jamaica. Kingston had recently suffered a devastating fire and the city’s Ashkenazi and Sephardi shuls were sharing a building. Rabbi Cohen had the duty of trying to satisfy both groups, which were united in their mutual contempt, and each Shabbat he switched between their respective prayer traditions.
The following year, Cohen accepted a job at the synagogue in Woodville, Mississippi; that led, in 1888, to the offer to take over the pulpit at B’nai Israel, in Galveston, some 420 miles to the west. Galveston at the time was a city of 22,000, with some 1,000 Jewish residents, and B’nai Israel had some 175 member families.
In 1900, Galveston was ground zero for the most destructive hurricane ever to hit the United States, leading to some 8,000 deaths. Rabbi Cohen took a leading role in relief work, bringing food to hospitals and opening the synagogue to serve as a temporary home for four churches whose buildings were destroyed.
In 1907, he played the leading local role in the implementation of the “Galveston Plan,” a program sponsored by German Jews in New York to redirect some of the tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe pouring in following the pogroms. Galveston was a fitting port of entry, as it was served by rail lines heading out around the country.
Between then and 1914, approximately 10,000 immigrants entered the United States via Galveston, where they were greeted by Rabbi Cohen, and soon sent on their way to other towns in the rapidly developing American Midwest and West. Fewer than 300 actually remained in Galveston.
Henry Cohen was a vocal opponent of the Ku Klux Klan, which was extremely popular in Texas in the early decades of the 20th century but never got a strong foothold in Galveston. He was a proponent of prison reform, and an appointee to the state prison board. And he often came to the aid of needy immigrants, even famously traveling to Washington, D.C., in 1911, to appeal directly to President William Howard Taft not to deport a man from Russia who had arrived in Galveston as a stowaway, and who feared execution if he was deported back home.
President Taft promised Cohen he would reverse the deportation order, and then, according to the account published years later in the New Orleans Times Picayune, told the rabbi, “I’m sorry you were put to so much trouble for one of your coreligionists, Dr. Cohen.” Cohen’s response was, “Coreligionist, hell! The man is an Orthodox Greek Catholic.”
Henry Cohen was opposed to the idea of a Jewish state, but supported Jewish settlement in Palestine, and was a non-Zionist member of the Jewish Agency board. He retired from the synagogue pulpit in September 1949, and died on June 12, 1952. After his funeral, flags in Galveston and Houston were flown at half-mast.