Jerusalem of the South? The Very Jewish History of This Very Texan Town

Galveston on the Gulf Coast was once a haven for Jewish immigrants. Though there are far fewer Jews there today, they still make their voice heard on immigration, interfaith solidarity and other key issues

Congregation Beth Jacob in Galveston, Texas, November 2019.
Danielle Ziri

GALVESTON, Texas – With its colorful Victorian houses, wide streets and palm trees, downtown Galveston, Texas is almost like Main Street at Disneyland.

Home to around 50,000 people, this barrier island off the Gulf Coast isn’t only a coveted vacation spot – and an occasional hurricane victim – but also a place where diversity thrives. The town once had a flourishing Jewish community too; almost every store was Jewish-owned, and the synagogues were full to capacity on the High Holy Days.

Today, after many of Galveston’s Jews moved to bigger metropolitan areas in Texas or as far afield as New York, only a few dozen Jewish families live on the island. But they seem to be making an outsize contribution to local efforts at social justice.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as ships of immigrants – many of them Jews – made their way from Europe to the United States, most disembarked in the Northeast, many at Ellis Island in New York Harbor.

But, according to the website of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, some U.S. Jewish leaders “worried that the growing number of poor Jewish immigrants concentrating in Northern cities like New York would lead to calls to restrict Jewish immigration to the United States.”

Thus came the Galveston Plan, an effort to divert ships carrying Jewish immigrants from New York to the small city on the island. The Galveston Movement was in action from 1907 to 1914, but despite the effort, only about 10,000 Jewish immigrants came to Galveston during that time, the Institute of Southern Jewish Life estimates. Most didn’t stay on the island.

Still, today there are two synagogues in town: Congregation Beth Jacob, the former Orthodox shul now Conservative, and Congregation B’nai Israel, a Reform temple.

Two years ago Matt Cohen, originally from Cleveland, had never heard of Galveston. A young reform rabbi, Cohen was heading a congregation in Jacksonville, Florida, where he lived with his wife and son.

Rabbi Matt Cohen in Galveston in November 2019.
Danielle Ziri

But in November 2017, Cohen received a call from Rabbi Marshal Klaven of Congregation B’nai Israel. Klaven was stepping down and suggested to Cohen that he apply to replace him.

“He said I would love the people, I would be treated very, very well; there’s a lot of kavod harav” – respect for rabbis – and it’s a lovely, lovely place,” Cohen told Haaretz over lunch at a local restaurant. After visiting Galveston and much consultation with his wife, Cohen decided to take the offer.

“This wasn’t a place that we even considered, but we came and saw a really nice community and we wanted to be part of it, so here we are,” he said. “It’s been wonderful.”

On Friday nights, around 30 people show up for Cohen’s Shabbat service. It begins with a small gathering over food and drinks, before congregants make their way into the sanctuary.

As he leads the prayers, Cohen is joined every Shabbat by his 10-year-old son Ayden; the two play guitar throughout the service. Only around 30 people turn out, but Congregation B’nai Israel today has some 180 member families; most live outside of Galveston.

“We don’t have 180 families show up every week, but if you look at the percentage of people; for instance, for our High Holiday service, we had 150 people,” Cohen said. “That’s a huge percentage of the congregation.”

Since he began his role in this community in July 2018, Cohen has learned a lot about Jewish life in the South.

“I grew up in Cleveland, there are a hundred thousand Jews there, so if you don’t choose to go to religious school or belong to a temple, Judaism isn’t leaving, it isn’t going anywhere,” he said. “Small towns, on the other hand, if they don’t continue the traditions, if they don’t have gatherings for Shabbat or the holidays or other programming, guess where Judaism goes? Bye bye, it’s gone.”

A plaque in the Galveston home of Jimmy and Shelley Kessler, November 2019,
Danielle Ziri

Jewish life in Galveston is “very different” from that of towns in the North – also due to “a different sense of pride in southern Jewry,” Cohen said. “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s a pride that you just don’t have in the North.”

Galveston strong

To understand the changes that the Jewish community in Galveston has undergone in recent decades, visitors are advised to speak with the people born on the island, also known as BOIs, a sort of seal of approval in town.

“It’s a sign of identity,” said Jimmy Kessler, the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel for over 20 years. “I can tell you when I came in 1976, if you weren’t a BOI, you didn’t belong, you had to earn the right to be here.”

Kessler, 74, is regarded as a pillar of the Galveston Jewish community and has written a number of books on its history. He considers himself a BOI by association: His wife Shelley Kessler was born and raised on the island.

They went on a blind lunch date in 1977 and have been married for 42 years. After a stint away from Galveston, they moved back in 1989. Two children and three grandchildren later, Shelley and Jimmy Kessler are happy on the island.

“It has been the best place to raise the kids,” 68-year-old Shelley Kessler said in her Texan twang. “There are so many people that have moved back to town, there are so many people who wish they could move back to town” – even though, after high school, “every one of us couldn’t wait to get the heck out.”

Besides being a BOI, Shelley Kessler is among the rare few whose Jewish grandparents came from Europe to Galveston via the Galveston Plan – in the early 1910s. Her grandmother was the first to arrive. She boarded a ship in Hanover, Germany, with her second cousin, who she referred to as her brother, according to passenger manifests found years later.

Rabbi Jimmy Kessler and his wife Shelley outside their home in Galveston, November 2019.
Danielle Ziri

Some time after her arrival, Shelley Kessler’s grandfather, who had told the authorities he was meeting his sister in Galveston, joined her and they got married. “My grandma was really unhappy here; she didn’t find the pot o’ gold and she wanted to go back to Europe. It was at the beginning of World War I, they had their tickets and she was going to go back with my daddy.”

But with the war started, all passenger ships were suspended, a twist of fate that saved the family from the Holocaust a quarter century later. “For whatever reason, after the war, they didn’t go back,” Shelley Kessler said. “Can you imagine? I wouldn’t be here talking to you today.”

A short walk from the Reform temple, B’nai Israel, is another monument of Jewish life on the island: the Conservative synagogue, Beth Jacob, where Shelley Kessler would go as a child.

The shul, a large brick building topped with a round stained glass window with a Star of David at its center, was erected in 1931 by Eastern European Jews.

Although it no longer has a permanent rabbi and the main sanctuary is rarely used, a small group of congregants hold their own prayer service at the shul every Friday night. One of them, 68-year-old Marc Weiss, was also born on the island. He has been attending Beth Jacob since he was a young boy, starting with Hebrew school as well as Shabbat services.

“I had a wonderful childhood,” he said walking through the empty building. “The synagogues were filled for the High Holy Days, there were so many Jewish families.” On Shabbat today, he said, the congregation can rarely muster the 10 men required for a service.

Weiss, however, doesn’t seem to have problems bumping into 10 friendly faces on the street. Strolling through Galveston with a reporter, he was interrupted every few minutes by someone saying hello. “Since I was born and raised in Galveston, I know a lot of people,” he said.

Walking past the Grand 1894 Opera House, Weiss pointed to the many stores once owned by Jews; the popular Mod café was once a Jewish-owned jewelry store.

A Victorian house in Galveston, Texas, November 2019.
Danielle Ziri

“This was a shoe store owned by a Jewish family,” he said, pointing at another building. “You’d be amazed how much of downtown was occupied by Jewish merchants. By far the majority of merchants in Galveston in those days were Jewish.”

From darker times to a tolerant approach

For Shelley Kessler and Weiss, growing up Jewish in Galveston was a very positive experience. Sure, there were a few comments at school, and some clubs didn’t allow Jewish members, but they can’t remember any traumatic incident – even if racism was all around them.

“In those days in the South there were signs everywhere that indicated ‘we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone,’” Weiss recalled. “I remember distinctly as a young man, the public courthouse had colored rest rooms and white rest rooms.” Racial segregation was in full swing in the ‘50s and ‘60s in Texas; officially, it was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It took a few years for things to change in Galveston. In 1969, their senior year of high school, Weiss and Shelley Kessler were in their very first integrated class. Until then, there were two high schools on the island: one for African Americans and one for whites and Hispanics.

The merger took a lot of community pressure. Weiss was among the students who, along with teachers, pushed for the move.

“We went around to meetings in the community and to school boards and the city council trying to convince people that there weren’t going to be rapes in the hallway, and there weren’t going to be fights in the classrooms,” he said. “It wasn’t that many years ago when school integration was completed.”

The class of 1969 just had its 50th reunion, which Shelley Kessler said felt therapeutic. “It took us this long of a time as a group to kind of heal from the process,” she added. “Over the years it really has taken us all a long time to realize the historical significance of this.”

Rabbi Matt Cohen and his 10-year-old son Ayden to his left at Galveston's Temple B'nai Israel; the two play guitar at Shabbat services.
Danielle Ziri

A week before Thanksgiving, Galvestonian Jayson Levy made his way to the Islamic Center of Galveston, as he has many times before. Levy, a BOI and member of Congregation B’nai Israel, joined a group of Muslims and Christians who had gathered at the mosque to put together Thanksgiving meal packages for needy families.

The room at the entrance was filled with around 300 reusable grocery bags; each including a 15-pound turkey, canned cranberry sauce, a box of stuffing, corn, gravy mix and other treats. “This is nothing; last year we did 700 meals,” Levy said.

Several years ago, Levy co-founded the interfaith alliance In the Name of God. Throughout the year, this group of Jews, Christians and Muslims organizes charity efforts, or sometimes they just try to learn more about each other’s traditions.

The so-called turkey drive, which has been going on for nearly a decade, began with five donated turkeys but quickly grew.

Levy says the personal relationship is so close that in October 2018, when 11 people were killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, he was notified about the attack by local Muslims who texted him to express their solidarity.

“That’s how close the communities are here,” he said. “I would trust my life with a number of people in the mosque.”

Rabbi Cohen added that over his year and a half in Galveston he has learned that the Jewish community is central to life on the island. “They are well respected,” he said, adding that local Jewish philanthropy funds are making a significant contribution to Galvestonians of all faiths.

As volunteers packed the final few turkeys into the care packages, the imam at the Galveston Islamic Center, Ahmed Ahmed, said the collaboration with local Jews is a “very important relationship.”

Galvestonian Marc Weiss and his dog Karma, Galveston, Texas, November 2019.
Danielle Ziri

“We call our religious brothers and sisters the People of the Book and we are instructed to [respect them],” he said. “We feel that what we do is for God and all others have the same God, so we are working for one boss.”

As he put it, “The thing with Thanksgiving is that before you thank God, you have to thank your brother and sister because all your blessings come through them, through human beings. If we can get the word out and we see that happening in every mosque, every church and every temple, that will be great. Nobody will be hungry again.”

A line in the sand

Starting when Donald Trump campaigned for president in 2015 and 2016, his immigration policies made headlines, whether the Muslim travel ban or the wall on the Mexican border or the separation of family members in detention.

Jews across the country, including in Texas, have mobilized to protest the treatment of undocumented immigrants. They have taken action including demonstrations outside detention centers operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, held free legal clinics for asylum seekers, and offered sanctuary.

Activists often cite their families’ own immigration stories, like the one of Max Sukiennik, a Galveston Jew.

Sukiennik arrived on the island with his parents, brother and sister when he was 3, in November 1950. He was born in a displaced persons camp in Austria, where his Polish-born parents had been sent after the Nazi concentration camps were liberated.

“When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, my mom and dad fled east into Russia and were captured by the Russian army and spent six years in Siberia in a labor camp,” he said, adding that after the war “my parents bounced around in the displaced persons camps for a few years.”

Marc Weiss at Galveston's Temple Beth Jacob, November 2019.
Danielle Ziri

Eventually the family boarded a ship from Hamburg, Germany, to New Orleans, then traveled by train to Galveston. “They didn’t know anything about Galveston or where it was,” Sukiennik said. “They just knew it was in the U.S.”

When he arrived in the United States, Sukiennik, who only became a U.S. citizen when he was 25, received what was then known as an Alien Card. For “country of origin” it said “stateless.”

“When you’re born in a DP camp, you’re not a citizen of that country,” he said. “I kind of thought about that here recently in light of what’s happening with all the immigration .... Where would I be deported to? Where would you send me if you didn’t want me here?”

A few hours’ drive away, at the Mexican border, the current crisis surrounding immigration and the detention of families in conditions deemed unsafe is one that Sukiennik relates to.

“I think the people who live here think there is a sense of entitlement [among immigrants] and there is not,” he said, adding that many locals believe that veteran Galvestonians should be in line for jobs first “before someone who is Hispanic or Asian or Pakistani. That’s not how it works.”

He asks why the Trump administration is “keeping out people whose lives are being threatened, whose lifespan is 15, 20 or 25 years shorter?”

When Shelley Kessler’s grandmother arrived in Galveston, she told authorities she was coming with her brother, but the man with her was actually her second cousin. Although it’s unclear whether this was a lie or a clerical error, Kessler can’t help but wonder whether she had “a better chance of getting the ride the closest [she was] to a relative.” The same happened when her grandfather arrived: He said he came to join his sister, who was actually his girlfriend.

“I think people do what they have to do to survive; we all know that,” she said. “Think about what parents did in Europe to get their kids out: that’s the history of immigration.” She added: “It makes me sick what Trump is doing. These refugees are trying to get asylum and they aren’t letting them do that, and that’s a legal process.”

Jimmy Kessler too said he relates to the people trying to cross the border and is “distressed” by Trump’s actions on the matter. “The first thought is: It could be me,” he said. Jews are “not in that exact position, but if we don’t pay attention to it, we could be in the equivalent of that position.”

When it comes to immigration, Cohen, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, said he’s not comfortable bringing up this divisive topic as part of his job as rabbi, but he’s happy to talk about it privately.

“I don’t know how any Jew couldn’t understand the need for immigration, it doesn’t make sense to me. If America had closed its doors on my entire family, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.

A victorian house in Galveston, November 2019.
Danielle Ziri

“I respect people’s opinions, and I understand. But at the end of the day, if we think about what our Jewish values teach us, how can we call ourselves religious Jews and look at the world through that type of lens?”

For Galveston’s Jews, it isn’t easy talking about the Trump administration’s immigration policy. Although the members of the community lean Democratic like most American Jews, they’re loath to trigger a heated debate. “I know people who were best friends their entire life and this election ruined their friendship,” Cohen said.

Levy, the founder of the interfaith alliance, added that he believes “immigration is kind of an issue where we feel we are obligated to draw the line in the sand.” As he put it, “Every generation wants to pull up the bridge behind them. So what we are experiencing now isn’t different in intent, it’s different in the vitriolics.”

The United States, he added, is “clearly a nation of immigrants, and Texas and Galveston have benefited from that. I think we have to struggle and maintain civility, and that’s what is really hard right now, but that’s part of our duty in a small community like Galveston: to bridge the divide where we can.”

When asked about the detention of immigrants in ICE facilities and family separations at the border, Weiss, whose grandparents came from Europe through Ellis Island, fights back the tears when he answers.

“I got off Facebook two years ago because I couldn’t unfriend any more people; I just didn’t want to deal with it,” he said. “People who aren’t members of victim groups can’t understand; some of them don’t want to understand.”

Jayson Levy, a local pastor and Imam Ahmed Ahmed at the Islamic Center of Galveston after packing charity Thanksgiving meals, November 2019.
Danielle Ziri