What Texas Taught Me and My Israeli Dad About Being Jewish in America Today

A trip to Galveston offers a fascinating insight into how immigration has become a touchstone even for the country’s smallest Jewish communities

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Congregants praying at the Friday night service in Temple B'nai Israel, Galveston.
Congregants praying at the Friday night service in Temple B'nai Israel, Galveston.Credit: Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York

NEW YORK – The main thing that drew me to the island city of Galveston (“The Very Jewish History of a Very Texas Town,” February 2) was the current immigration crisis in the United States.

Over the past few months, I have covered the American Jewish community’s efforts to fight the Trump administration’s treatment of undocumented immigrants. Every time I ask Jewish activists why they chose to engage in the struggle, they always refer me to their own family stories.

>> Jerusalem of the South? The very Jewish history of this very Texan town

Texas being the epicenter of the immigration crisis, I was interested in seeing how Jewish Galvestonians – who live in the only Texas port that welcomed Jewish immigrants, over 100 years ago – relate to the issue.

The little-known history of Jewish immigration to Galveston is a fascinating one. Reading about the 10,000 Jews who arrived on this Texas island from Europe in the 1910s, I decided to reach out to any Jewish residents of the city that I could find on Facebook. After many phone discussions with locals, I made my way to the island last year.

Marc Weiss and his dog, Karma, in Galveston.Credit: Danielle Ziri

This was my first visit to Texas. Sure, part of me had imagined horses everywhere and people walking around in cowboy attire, but I was not disappointed. Galveston is a quaint little city with a population of some 50,000. With its distinct Victorian architecture, it could easily be mistaken for a movie set. It was only while researching the feature that I learned it is also where – fun fact – Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard was born.

Within my first few hours in town, I had met with Shelley and Jimmy Kessler in their home; interviewed Rabbi Matt Cohen and Jayson Levy over a blackened fish lunch; walked around the island with my guide Marc Weiss and his very popular dog Karma; and witnessed an interfaith collaboration at the local mosque.

The first thing I learned upon arrival is the acronym “BOI” – short for “Born On the Island” – which is a mark of respect for native residents. “You too are a BOI,” Weiss jokingly told me during our tour, “because you are either ‘Born on the Island’ or ‘Born Off the Island.’” After receiving permission to appropriate it, I proudly used the phrase as well.

Never taken for granted

It took exactly two hours to realize that the Jews of Galveston love their island and are actively upholding Jewish life there on a daily basis. Having covered small remote Jewish communities before, I have an appreciation for their determination to not let go of tradition, and to ensure it is passed on to the next generation.

The entrance of Congregation Beth Jacob in Galveston.Credit: Danielle Ziri

Watching Galvestonians show up for Shabbat service and practice their Jewish values every day, despite the significant effort it requires in a small community, serves as a reminder that Judaism should never be taken for granted.

This seemed even more significant for me as my father, who was visiting from Israel, had decided to join me on the short trip. The two of us jointly discovering this small community allowed us to process the environment together. It also enabled me to share with him some of what I have learned about the American Jewish community during my years as a foreign correspondent.

It was fascinating for both of us to see how Galveston’s Jews had a strong opinion on current immigration policies, but also that it was something they felt deeply connected to. For some, the discussions very quickly turned emotional. Even so, it took some trust-building for many of my interviewees to open up about the immigration crisis and anything related to President Donald Trump.

Like many communities in the United States these days, Galveston is divided by politics. Most of my Jewish contacts said they don’t tend to bring up the subject socially, unless they know for sure that the person in front of them feels as appalled as they do about family separations and immigrants pictured in cages at detention facilities.

The divide, especially in a fervently Republican county where nearly two-thirds of the electorate voted for Trump in 2016, illustrates the unprecedentedly polarizing times I am covering in the United States. As people told their stories of broken friendships and relationships, I watched my father trying to grasp quite how deep political disagreements run here and to understand how people could be so affected by politics – something that was new to him.

Unusual presence

On Friday evening, our second night in town, we made our way to Temple B’nai Israel for Shabbat service. Rabbi Cohen called me en route.

“I have an idea,” he said. “These people hear me speak and give a sermon every week, so I was thinking that today, since you are here, it would be nice for them to hear from you and what brought you to Galveston.”

Jayson Levy and Imam Ahmed Ahmed at the Islamic Center of Galveston after packing up Thanksgiving meals for families in need.Credit: Danielle Ziri

As a reporter, you never want to insert yourself into the story. But his request made me understand how much my presence in Galveston was a story in itself for this community.

The service was an enriching experience, especially observing my father’s reaction. It was his first Reform Shabbat, and although he probably hasn’t stepped foot in a synagogue since my brother’s bar mitzvah 13 years ago, I could tell he was captivated. “I was shocked when the rabbi picked up a guitar,” he told me. “I have never seen that before – it’s amazing.”

When it was my turn to address the congregation, I explained how Galveston had piqued my interest and why I had wanted to hear their stories. What followed was a half-hour discussion about the importance of bridging the gap between Israelis and the American Jewish community, immigration and what Judaism in a small town entails.

I could tell I had touched them. Clearly, not many journalists from out of town have shown an interest in the community for a while. I left the shul with a stack of business cards and contacts that I intend to reach out to in the future as I keep an eye on this community.

Since my feature was published last week, I have received numerous comments and emails from people whose ancestors also reached the United States at Galveston. One reader even shared his grandfather’s diary with me that recounted the trip in 1913, and requested that I put him in touch with the Kesslers. I discovered that the families of some of my own personal contacts had arrived via Galveston too. That is the incredible community-building power of publishing such stories: For a journalist, nothing compares to getting this sort of feedback.

As we waited for our plane back to New York, I overheard my dad on the phone recounting the experience with a family friend. It was clear Galveston was an unforgettable visit, and not just for me.

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