THE PROGRESS AND PRESENT STATE OF JEWS AND JUDAISM IN THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE OF TEXAS, 1876-1988
By W. T. Block
American Jews are most often defined in three categories which to some degree is determined by their points of origin in Europe. The “Sephardic” Jews, those of Spanish and Portugese ancestry, could be identified by the Latin surnames, their progenitors having been either expelled from Spain by Queen Isabella in 1492 or, as “Marranos” (meaning swine or New Christians), made outward manifestations of Christianity while retaining the inner trappings of Judaism which they practiced in private. The Marranos were to become the most persecuted group ever to be oppressed by the Spanish Inquisition, with thousands of them burned at the stake in both Europe and the New World. Although many Marranos ended up in Colonial America, the first contingent to arrive here were actually Jews who came to New York City in 1654, expelled by the Spanish from a former Dutch colony on the coast of Brazil. Altogether, about 1,500 Jews reached the colonies prior to 1775, all of them of Sephardic descent.
For the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century, liberal revolutions and other circumstances brought thousands of “Ashkenazic” or German Jews to American shores until, by 1880, they comprised about 98 percent of the 250,000 Jews then residing in the United States. For the most part, these were descendents of the Jews expelled from England by King Edward I in 1290 A. D. and from France by King Charles VI in 1394 A. D., and as a result, had settled in the “Germanies,” the 350 independent free cities, principalities, duchies, margraviates, etc. of Central Europe. For some reason, Jews were blamed for the spread of bubonic plague throughout the Middle Ages.
Beginning in 1881, due to Russiam pogroms and persecutions, the flood gates opened when in forty years time (up until 1921), 3,000,000 Jews came to the United States, quickly filling up the “Lower East Side” tenements to overflowing and spilling over into the rest of America. These were the “Hasidic,” or “Orthodox Jews,” from the “Pale of Settlement” in Eastern Europe, many of whom can be recognized on the streets of New York by their traditional black clothing, beards, and peculiar sideburns. Of the 6,000,000 Jews in the United States today, about half of them are “secular Jews,” retaining Jewish identity, but not otherwise connected to any synagogue.
In religion, America’s Jews break down into three additional categories–as Reformed Jews, Conservative Jews, or Orthdox Jews. In earlier days, many Orthdox Jews refused to let their children marry Reformed Jews, and perhaps some still do. The Sephardic Jews of the colonies were Orthodox members (since they predated the Reform movement), who kept the dietary laws, etc., but about 1850 the immigrant German Jews brought Reformed Judaism with them from Germany, which had scuttled many of the Orthodox trappings regarding food and clothing. About 1900, the Conservative Jewish movement was born in New York City, which blended the more acceptable facets of both Reform Jewry and Orthodox Judaism.
+ Many Americans are still unaware that America’s Jews most often reflect patterns of livelihood here that were fashioned for them in medieval Europe. Even where Jews were tolerated, such as in Holland, they were subjected to distinctive dress customs (wearing the Star of David), special and exorbitant taxation, and specific ghettoes in which to live and trade, whereas many large Dutch cities, such as Maastricht, Utrecht, and Deventer, barred Jews from residence there as late as 1785. Everywhere in medieval Europe, Jews were disfranchised politically and religiously (no religious assemblies outside the home, etc.) and barred from land ownership, the medieval guilds, and the universities. Hence, they were restricted to two fields of endeavor either barred to or disdained by Christians — the retail trades and usury. For instance, in the England of 1,200 A. D., Jews could trade in raw wool or in finished garments, but they could not belong to the weavers’ guild, the carders’ guild, the dyers’ guild, etc., or any process in the manufacture of clothing.
Traditionally, Jewish immigrants arriving before 1920 began there merchant careers as road vendors – as either pushcart hawkers on New York’s Lower East Side or frontier wagon peddlers in small town and rural America. By 1785, some colonial Jews had emerged as entrepreneurs, controlling the fur trade routes of New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. The Franks brothers and Michael Gratz of Philadelphia were merchant shipping families, accruing large fleets of ships, as did Aaron Lopez and Jacob Rivera of Newport, Rhode Island. Other Jews of Newport controlled the candle-making and whaling industries there.
In general, Jews sought out the Golden Triangle counties of Texas (Jefferson, Orange and Hardin) when economic opportunites became better there than elsewhere, principally Galveston and Houston where the early Jews congregated. And Judaism being an urban religion best practiced and maintained in association with others, Jews who hawked their wares on the frontier always risked losing their religion. The first Jew to arrive in Jefferson County, Simon Wiess, opened a store in Beaumont in 1837, sold out and opened another in Port Neches in 1838, but he eventually removed to Wiess Bluff, Jasper County (the head of tidewater navigation) in 1840, where he became the middleman of Neches River commerce, particularly the cotton trade. Although Wiess abandoned his faith and married a Presbyterian, his sons, Valentine, Mark, and William Wiess (who were Christians), became wealthy Beaumonters who befriended many penniless, immigrant Jews who later settled in the “sawdust city.” Apparently, between 1840 and 1878, the only other Jews who came to Beaumont were itinerant wagon peddlers who hawked their wares in the countryside. According to Jefferson County’s “Record of Retail Licenses, 1838-1851,” Simon Goldman and Mordecai Primrose paid fees to “hawk and peddle” in Jefferson County between 1845 and 1850.
Beaumont’s first Jewish residents who practiced their religion in their home were the Morris J. Loeb family, who opened a cigar store in Beaumont in 1878. As the first Beaumonter to conduct family Jewish services, Loeb was to contribute many Jewish “firsts” in his adopted city. By the time of his death in 1908, he and his family (which included daughters Julia Bohrer, Mildred Lederer, and Mattie Bliss) had won the respect of all Beaumonters for their high moral standards, but their earliest years in the”sawdust city” may have been somewhat less placid. On at least one occasion, he was “threatened and told that Beaumont had no Jews and wanted none,” but that appears to have been an isolated instance. Three years later, according to the New Orleans “Democrat” of September 8, 1881, Beaumonters viewed tghe arrival of other Jews as a foretoken of better days ahead. The paper noted that: “Seven new stores have been built in Beaumont in the past forty days, and a number of Israelite merchants have settled here, a sure precursor of the prosperity which is to follow.” (Until 1890, “Israelite” was the common journalist jargon for Jew.)
Thus, it appears that Beaumont may have offered an amenable or as amenable and equitable climate for Jews to compete as existed anywhere, one where Jews could flourish, much like they did in early Charleston, South Carolina, rather than an inequitable climate such as that in early Baltimore, Maryland. As early as 1700, there is no record of differential treatment of Jews in South Carolina colony, whereas the state of Maryland, as late as 1825, had to pass its notorious “Jew Bill” to relieve its Jewish citizens of extra taxation and other disabilities not shared by Gentiles. The writer believes that, unlike Beaumont, a fear of retail competition at early Orange, Texas, may have soured the business climate for Jews there, whereas Beaumont’s principal merchants of 1880, the three Wiess brothers, probably set the pattern for friendship and encouragement which allowed the early Jews of Beaumont to flourish.
Orange developed a small nucleus of Jews even before Beaumont. James Solinsky and Wolf Bluestein arrived there in 1876. By 1880, the census enumerated several more, all listed as “general merchants,” as follows: Ignatz Kahn, Leopold Krager, Louis Jacques, Morris Hecht, A. Flaxman, F. Philefsky, and Jacob Racke. Bu 1895, other Jewish merchants in business there included R. Sokolski, Levy and Company, and Aronson and Brother. However, by 1880, Henry Solinsky (the second Jew in Beaumont) had already left Orange for Beaumont, although he also kept his Orange store open. By 1881, he was followed by Morris Hecht, A. Flaxman, and Wolf Bluestein. Bluestein, who also owned the first Torah, may have conducted the first joint Jewish services in Beaumont. Whether or not an anti-Jewish climate prevailed that triggered these removals to Beaumont is sheer speculation, but Orange had a long reputation for violence and prejudice. In 1856, greed and envy sparked the 60-day, “Orange County War,” that expelled 35 free and wealthy Mulatto families back to Louisiana and cheated them of their large holdings of land and cattle. In 1879, the town’s rowdies tried to run a priest out of town at gunpoint and warned him never to return. In August, 1881 the same border hooligans shot down the sheriff in cold blood with buck shot.
Late in 1880, Henry Solinsky and Morris Hecht of Orange, as partners, opened a store in Beaumont. They were soon followed in 1881 by Sid J. Levy, who opened the “Red Store;” Leon R. Levy, who opened a general mercantile firm, the”Lone Star Store;” and a Jewish widow, Mrs. A. Schwerin, who operated a boarding house. Louis Schwarz opened a dry goods firm and during the same year, D. Gordon built a store on Pearl Street.
When Wolf Bluestein moved to Beaumont, Solinsky severed his ties with Hecht and re-entered business with Bluestein. In April, 1881, when the Blanchette Hall was remodeled and a new opera house was built, Solinsky bought it and immediately left for New York in search of vaudeville talent. In October, the Bluestein Opera House opened on the second floor of the partners’ new brick building on Forsythe Street. It remained in use until the new Crosby Opera House was completed in October, 1883.
In September, 1881, the Beaumont “Enterprise” made its first mention of the Jewish holidays in Beaumont, as follows: “Today and tomorrow are Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year. All the stores and places of business kept by the Israelites will be closed.”
Solinsky, Bluestein, and L. R. Levy quickly found a niche for themselves in Beaumont’s business community. Solinsky soon became a director of the new First National Bank, the first co-chairman in 1880 of Beaumont’s annual Grand Tournament and Strawberry Festival, and became the owner of a cypress shingle mill. A Galveston newspaper said of him:
“H. Solinsky is a wide awake merchant, who by dint of fair dealing, close profits, and closer collections, has amassed quite a neat fortune. He is proud of his city and is always ready in any enterprise that will lead to the good of the town.
L. R. Levy quickly became a director of the bank also, as well as president of the Beaumont Improvement Company. He officered many committees and fraternal orders, and won for himself a reputation as financier and philanthropist. Wolf Bluestein, as both commercial rice grower and merchant, was an enigmatic individual of rare talents, whose personal fortune had already reached $75,000, quite a tidy sum for the 1880’s. He could neither read nor write, yet his competence at mental arithmetic, fractions, and compounding interest knew no peer. In fact, other merchants often came to him to verify their figures. Bluestein’s crude “BXX” on drafts and checks was honored by wholesalers and banks as far away as New York.
The earliest Jewish services were conducted in private homes, in the Bluestein and Crosby Opera Houses, and later in Lederer’s Store, Deutser’s Furniture Company, or in the Harmony Club. In lieu of a trained rabbi, S. Feinberg, Bluestein, and sometimes others acted as lay leaders for the Jewish assemblies, and the latter possessed the only Torah in Beaumont in 1881.
After 1885, the trickle of arriving Jews continued. S. Feinberg opened a store in 1887; Sam Lederer came in 1886 to manage the grocery department of Valentine Wiess and Co. His marriage to Mildred Hirsch, daughter of Mrs. Loeb, in 1887 was Beaumont’s first Jewish wedding, and later, Lederer opened his own business.
In 1889, five of Beaumont’s six largest dry goods firms, Schwartz Brothers, H. Solinsky, L. R. Levy, F. Hecht, and E. Morris, were Jewish-owned and did a combined annual business in excess of $200,000. In the same year, three other jews, R. M. Mothner, M. H. Hirsch, and Hyman A,. Perlstein, arrived, the latter with only $11.90 in his pockets. Mothner became Beaumont leading jeweler as well as the first president of the town’s Chamber of Commerce and the Beaumont Fair Association.
Before opening his own shop, Perlstein worked as a blacksmith for others for 50c per day. In 1902 Perlstein and Mothner brought in a new Spindletop gusher on a site where, earlier, Capt. Anthony Lucas reputedly had been unsuccessful. During the 1890s, Hirsch’s Cordova Hotel Bar, with its magnigicent bar and French plate mirrors, was the show place of Beaumont, containing also two wine rooms, 11 ceiling fans, 211 incandescent lights, and a stock of wines, beers, liquors, and cigars equal to anything in New Orleans.
During the 1890’s, the trickle of Jews progressed to a healthy flow, enabling the young colony to think in terms of a new synagogue and a local rabbi. E. Deutser, Leo Mothner, and S. Sternberg opened stores on Crockett Street, which burned down during Beaumont’s business district fire of April, 1897. Other new merchants included Bernard Deutser of the Lone Star Furniture Store; A. Flaxman, merchant; Joe and Leon Rosenthal, merchants; E. Szafir, stationer; Gus Weil and L. Perl, racket store owners; Jake J. Nathan, the town’s first department store owner; H. and S. Nathan, Beaumont’s first pawn brokers, and Louis Mayer, merchant.
About 1894, Mrs. Loeb and her daughters organized the Hebrew Women’s Benevolent Association, which became the oldest Jewish organization in Beaumont. Its goals were to raise funds for a new synagogue and charitable purposes, to sponsor social and cultural events, and to act as a cemetery association. In 1895, they purchased Hebrew Rest Cemetery, which they deeded to the congregation in 1897. Also in 1895, they began sponsoring Beaumont’s annual masquerade ball at the Goodhue Opera House, which was attended by everyone who could afford a ticket, and the balls continued for many decades afterward. Another group, the Council of Jewish Women, was organized in April, 1901.
In September, 1895, the Jewish community organized Temple Emanuel congregation about the time of the Jewish New Year, and they immediately engaged Dr. Aaron Levy as the city’s first resident rabbi. In 1901, the first synagogue, a wooden building which cost $3,435, was completed at Broadway and Willow, and the Hebrew Women’s Association donated $3,000 more, earmarked for lighting and interior decorations. In 1901, Dr. Levy left for a new assignment and was replaced by Rabbi Friedlander, who also remained only a few years. His successor, Rabbi Elkin, remained until 1910, when he was replaced by Dr. Samuel Rosinger, who remained the Temple’s spiritual leader for fifty years and brought a new era to Judaism in Beaumont. One of the witticisms often told about Dr. Rosinger’s arrival concerned the Temple’s advertisement in a northern Jewish publication to engage a new rabbi at an annual salary of $1,500. The publication’s editor laughed and suggested that $1,500 might buy the Temple a good bartender, but never a good rabbi. The editor was wrong.
As of 1900, the following list is believed to contain the names of about 80 percent of the Jewish families living in Beaumont, as follows: M. J. Loeb, H. Bohrer, Maurice Goldstein, Abe Goldsmith, J. S. Gordon, Wolf Hecht, Bernard Deutser, Joe Rosenthal, Leon Rosenthal, Charles Stern, Silvestor Greenwood, M. Hecht, Gus Weil, L. Solinsky, Joe Solinsky, Abe Solinsky, Dr. Louis Goldstein, J. Goldstein, A. Zwirn, L. R. Levy, Sid Levy, S. Lederer, E. Deutser, Louis Schwartz, Sidney Mayer, S. Feinberg, Morris Levy, E. Szafir, Sr.; E. Szafir, Jr.; Alex Szafir, Isadore Feinberg, Henry Roos, Nathan Roos, H. Nathan, Sam Nathan, Simon Light, E. Goldsmith, N. T. Cook, A. Kahn, J. Wiess, Carl Broune, W. T. Smyth, J. Frank, H. Horwitz, Dr. Aaron Levy, S. Sternberg, – Itzig, S. Stern, Sol Gordon, Oswald Levy, M. Alschwang, A. Flaxman, Louis Mayer, and H. A. Perlstein.
In April, 1898, two young Jewish men, Sam Nathan and Simon Light, marched away with Beaumont’s Company D of the 3rd Texas Infantry to fight in the Spanish American War, and both of them returned after the war ended. The Jewish community was not so fortunate during World War I. One young soldier, Sam Lewis, was killed in action in that conflict.
Temple Emanuel was a Reformed congregation from its beginning. However, beginning about 1900, another type of immigrant began to join the ranks of the Mosaic faith in the “sawdust city,” the Hasidic or Orthodox Jews, common to the “Pale of Settlement” in Western Russia or the Austro-Hungarian empire. These practitioners of Judaism kept every facet and commandment of their faith exactly as they interpreted them, with customs of dress and dietary laws sometimes at odds with Beaumont’s older community of Reformed Jews of Germanic or Ashkenazic origins. And it was inevitable that some conflict between them and perhaps even a competing congregation would result.
Between 1910 and 1960, Dr. Rosinger led Temple Emanuel through a half-century of unprecedented progress. During the same fifty years, the Jewish shopkeeper along Pearl, Orleans, and adjoining thoroughfares was the norm for Beaumont’s old business district, and although there were three larger department stores, Nathan’s, Rosenthal’s, and Max Feinberg’s, there were no shopping malls and no chain stores (except ‘five and dimes’) for them to compete with. As one might expect, the new rabbi soon became noted for a combination of courage and compassion, loyalty to Judaism, a fierce commitment to principle which sometimes provoked anger, and yet he was one of the most gentle of men, “no matter what one’s creed or station in life.”
Dr. Rosinger enjoyed excellent relationships with all facets of the religious and civic communities. He served as chairman of the Red Cross Board, the Jefferson County Tuberculosis Association, and through his efforts, the tuberculosis hospital was built. At other times, he served as president of the Rotary Club, was chairman of the Municipal Hospital, a director of Boy’s Haven, and he edited the Rotary Bulletin for twenty years. It was also his sad lot to have to stand up to the Ku Klux Klan’s vitriolic hate and intimidation in Beaumont between 1920-1925 (the Klan was both anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic). And the writer attributes as one of the causes for the downfall of the Jefferson County Klan to be the uncomprising opposition exerted by Dr. Rosinger and several of Beaumont’s prominent Jewish and Catholic businessmen.
Around 1912, Orthodox Jews began the founding of Congregation Kol Israel, which was slow at first because of their limited numbers. There first spiritual leader was Rev. L. M. Yellen, who performed daily religious services, as well as celebration of the High Holy Days in September, in a rented hall. The leaders of Kol Israel, E. I. Greenberg, L. Perl, Max Horwitz, Max Feinberg, Aymen Waldman, Ben Blum, Ben Dorfman. and J. Solomon, decided to locate their first synagogue building at Pine and Elizabeth Streets in 1917, and in 1918 Kol Israel engaged Rabbi Stern as its first full-time, resident spiritual leader.
Under the guidance of Rabbi Benjamin Wade in 1926, Kol Israel built its Hebrew Institute, which housed both the Hebrew school and the social club room for its members. One of the fraternal auxiliaries of the synagogue was the Anshe Chaim Lodge, which purchased and maintained Kol Israel Cemetery and later deeded it to the congregation.
The good times of the 1920’s soon turned sour, into ten years of unprecedented depression, which also took a heavy toll among the Jewish merchants. Kol Israel members soon learned that they could neither pay a rabbi’s salary nor the notes on the synagogue’s mortgage. But with diligent effort, the membership was able to keep mortgage payments current, although they had to do without the services of a trained and paid spiritual leader.
The World War II years revived the Jewish community of Beaumont considerably, and a large number of Jewish young men soon went away to war (in 1942 the writer was in the same company with Sigmund Greenberg of Beaumont). The Jewish community was soon caught up in all segments of the war effort, including the war bond drives and building ships at the Pennsylvania Shipyard.
In 1947 Rabbi Hyman Solomon was engaged as Kol Israel’s new rabbi, and members became acutely aware of the need for a new and larger sanctuary. However, the construction plans had to be delayed for five years because of the congregation’s large financial burden of bond commitments to the new state of Israel. In April, 1952, Kol Israel members voted to embrace the Conservative tenets of worship instead of Orthodoxy. The next year, a new building site was purchased near IH-10, and in May, 1953, ground-breaking ceremonies were held as a result of the prodigious efforts of J. P. Freedman, Mose Goldstein, the Rogers families, and other members.
On May 23, 1965, Congregation Kol Israel celebrated its Golden Jubilee celebration under Rabbi Maurice Idell, whose magnificent cantorial voice is still remembered by many local Jews. The 1960’s were also years of signifiant social and economic change everywhere, and Beaumont was not immune to those movements which carried the shopping districts to the edge of town and doomed the inner-city business districts to slow death and decay. Hence, while the Rogers Brothers were building Gateway and Parkdale Malls, the passing of the “mom and pop” shops on Pearl and Orleans Streets, be they Jewish or orherwise, became imminent.
There were other social forces at work in the Jewish community as well. Jews have always educated their children far beyond the general American norm, but usually one offspring remained behind to operate the family store, or set up a new shop nearby. At the same moment, the national chain stores, such as Worth’s, Lerner’s and Tom McCann, in the malls were replacing the small shops downtown; Jewish teenagers were opting more and more for careers in law, medicine, business management, banking, real estate, insurance, and engineering, fields that eventually would carry them to Houston, Dallas, or elsewhere. Hence, Jewish horizontal and vertical mobility, coupled with a declining Jewish birth rate of much less than two per family, and linked to a non-proselyting religion that depends on its children for Jewish growth, small-town Judaism has a future about as retrogressive as that of the Shakers.
Finally the memberships of Congregation Kol Israel and Temple Emanuel agreed to merge into one congregation. All Jewish children, totaling 80 at this time (1988), attend one religious school, but members do have a choice of worship, either Reformed or Conservative, and a special chapel was built for Conservative worship. In 1971, the actual merger took place, and the Kol Israel synagogue and property were offered for sale.
Temple Emanuel also quickly felt the need for new quarters following the rapid Jewish growth after World War I. (The one million East European Jews who were reaching American shores every year for more than two decades were suddenly choked off by the National Origins Act of 1924, thus condemning millions more to death at Hitler’s bloody hands.) Under Dr. Rosinger and H. Perlstein, Temple Emanuel dedicated its new sanctuary, with the copper dome and the magnificent stained glass windows designed in Jerusalem, at 1120 Broadway in December, 1923. During the 1950’s, the synagogue witnessed additional construction activities. The Rosinger Center was completed in 1957, and in 1962, the Chinski school building and Jacob S. Gordon Chapel were added.
In 1960. Dr. Rosinger was declared rabbi emeritus and was succeeded by Dr. Newton Friedman. The new rabbi actually served the Temple congregation from 1957 until his sudden death in 1970. Long known as a most articulate speaker and proficient scholar, Dr. Friedman wholly immersed himself in synagogue and community affairs and was the first local rabbi to become president of the Beaumont Ministerial Alliance. About 1969, during an interview, he estimated to this writer that there were about 1,000 Jews living in Beaumont. After his death, his extensive library was donated to the Mary and John Gray Library at Lamar University.
Rabbi Beno Wallach, who served Temple Emanuel from 1970 until 1978, was the first to serve the unified congregation. He was replaced in the latter year by Rabbi Norman Lipson, who remained until 1982. The congregation was again fortunate to engage a young scholar, Rabbi Herbert Rutman, who also was very active in community affairs, but his tenure, like that of Dr. Friedman, was sadly cut short by his sudden and untimely death in 1984. He was replaced by Rabbi Peter Hyman of Florida, who remains to the present day (1988).
During an interview with Dr. Hyman in May, 1988, the new spiritual leader of Beaumont’s Jewish residents is quite optimistic about the future. He noted that although the same retrogressive forces are still active, they may have leveled off and at least are working both ways at times. In 1987, Temple Emanuel lost six families to other cities, but it also picked up six new families to balance the loss. There are now 225 families and perhaps 500 persons in Beaumont who are synagogue-affiliated, leaving perhaps 350 or more “secular” Jews who are not affiliated. There are now 80 children in Hebrew school, and perhaps altogether, 850 or 900 Jews left in Beaumont.
The writer would likewise suggest that the year 1950 was probably the apex year of Jewish progress and enumeration in Beaumont, when perhaps as many as 1,500 to 1,700 Jews resided locally. The beginning of that decade would have been marked by the high “baby boom” birth rate, and also would have predated the decline of the “mom and pop” Jewish shopkeepers as well as the rapid demise via death of Beaumont’s original Jewish immigrant population.
The remnants remaining of former Jewish communities in Port Arthur and Orange paint a much more dismal picture. Certainly, economic opportunities at Orange were much less during the early years of the century, and between the World Wars, the town’s population hovered at about 7,000 persons, the residents tied economically to a couple of sawmills, as well as two or three shipyards that built wooden boats.
Despite economic boom times between 1940 and 1980 that saw Orange’s permanent population skyrocket to about 50,000 and a number of chemical and rubber plants locate there, it does not appear that the small Jewish community there was greatly enhanced thereby. Perhaps as many as 20 or 25 Jewish familes may have lived there after World War II, but if so, no attempt was made to organize a congregation or build a synagogue. Some Orange Jews undoubtedly attended Sabbath services in Beaumont or Port Arthur in earlier times, but neither synagogue has any recollection of Orange Jews attending or belonging in recent years. The writer has no knowledge of lay services conducted in private homes there. Mrs. Lothar Goldstein of Temple Rodef Shalom added that it was her understanding that about three Jewish families survived there, and perhaps as many as two of those were intermarried with non-Jews. Hence, Judaism in Orange, which at no time was ever robust and sinewy, is effectively deceased.
Almost from its beginning in 1895, Port Arthur has had a nucleus of Jewish merchants that once lined both Proctor Street, Houston Avenue, and connecting thoroughfares. At its peak, a colony of perhaps 400 or 500 Jews resided in Port Arthur between 1920 and 1960. For forty years or more until it closed, Bluestein’s Department Store on Proctor Street was the equivalent of Beaumont’s White House Dry Goods Co. Temple Rodef Shalom began about 1920 in the downtown shopping district of that seaport, and as ethnic residential pattern began to change, in fact explode, after 1950, the Temple relocated in the then eastern edge of town (although black residential neighborhoods have encircled it again).
In discussing the plight of the Jewish community there with Mrs. Goldstein, the current spiritual leader and widow of the former rabbi, there is very little historical information available about the Temple, and the congregation there has grown so small, about 30 families, that it has long been unable to afford a rabbi. The last rabbi, Dr. Lothar Goldstein, who died in 1984, was already retired and had to supplement his income by working as a clinical psychologist.
The present congregation are all middle-aged or older, mostly retired, and there is only one child in Hebrew school. Only one of the thirty families is young enough to have children in the home. Hence, with all of the present-day social forces in action which have worked so devastatingly against the survival of small town Judaism — extremely low birth rate, loss of all young people to Houston, the passing of the inner-city business district and the “mom and pop” Jewish shopkeepers, Port Arthur Judaism, too, will one day wither and die, and some might add that it already has.
It would be historically remiss for the writer to omit some mention of the social, economic, and cultural contributions of the Golden Triangle Jews, past and present, for these contributions far exceed the Jewish pro rata population in the three counties. In the economic realm, members of the Greenberg family founded The Fair Stores chain about seven decades ago, and that first store has since mushroomed many times over to cover now all points in Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana.
Two of the four Rogers brothers, S. J., N. J., Ben and Victor, were optometrists, who long ago founded the Texas State Optical Company, which now has expanded over the same geographic area as the The Fair. Rogers Brothers Investments built and developed Gateway Shopping Center and Parkdale Mall. That firm’s real estate and business dealings would extend from Beaumont to the East Coast, and they have created thousands of new jobs as a result.
Concerning local charities and the fine arts, the names of Mrs. Julie Rogers and Mrs. Betty Greenberg come readily to mind. When the city of Beaumont remodeled the old city hall into a theatre and fine arts center, its name was changed to the Julie Rogers Theatre. Years ago, members of the Miller family presented the R. C. Miller Library building in the westend to the city of Beaumont. And Jewish names have long been associated with presentations of the Beaumont Music Commission, the Beaumont Civic Ballet, and Beaumont Civic Opera.
It would be physically impossible to name everyone who perhaps deserves some recognition, but a few names should be mentioned. Dr. L. Goldsltein was Beaumont’s first Jewish physician around 1900, and since then, many others in the medical field, among them Drs. H. A. Phillipson, Harris Hosen, Gus Scheps, Sigmund Blum, H. J. Kaplan, and P. Greenberg, have walked in his foot steps. Certainly, some of Beaumont’s Jewish attorneys, namely, Carl Waldman, Jerry Nathan, Joel Grossman, and Regiona Rogers, should be mentioned, the latter only recently serving a term as regent of Lamar University. The Jewish educators on the faculty of Lamar University include Drs. Monte Sontag, Robert Swerdlow, Saul Aronow, and Ralph Brookner.
In summary, Judaism in the Golden Triangle arrived relatively late, but has now passed the century mark of its existence. At one time, Beaumont and Port Arthur provided ideal settings for the small Jewish shopkeepers; and many of them, principally recent immigrants from Europe, came to take advantage of the opportunities offered. However, with the changing times, the shifting residential patterns, the old business districts, and the “mom and pop” Jewish merchants who once thrived there are now relics of a long gone past. In Orange and Port Arthur, Judaism has already become an “endangered species,” already virtually extinct, and sadly the writers sees no change there except continued retrogression. Beaumont’s Jewish community does show promise of survival, even though the community probably totals only one-half of its former size. Coupled with the very low Jewish birth rate (from which all new members are derived) and the modern propensity of Jewish young people to relocate elsewhere, the writer predicts that, by the turn of the century, 99 or more percent of the Texas Jews will be relocated in the five largest cities, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio.
W. T. Block, “A Brief History of The Early Beaumont Jewish Community,” TEXAS GULF HISTORICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL RECORD, XX (Nov., 1984), 42-54; IBID, Block, “From Cotton Bales To Black Gold: A History of The Pioneer Wiess Families of Southeast, Texas,” VIII (Nov., 1972), 39-61; HISTORY OF THE BEAUMONT JEWISH COMMUNITY, Oct. 17, 1987, pamphlet, pp. 1-11; TEMPLE EMANUEL; THE FIRST 75 YEARS, anniversary program, pp. 1-6; Lawrence Blum et al, “Beaumont’s Jewish Founders and Builders, 1878-1923,” unpub. MSS, n. d., pp. 1-14; W. T. Block, “The Hebrew Frontier Experience: An Account of The Mosaic Faith in Colonial American Society,” Unpub. MSS, 1970, 1-27 (also contains an extensive bibliography); New Orleans DEMOCRAT,1881; Galveston DAILY NEWS, 1889-1898; W. T. Block, EMERALD OF THE NECHES: THE CHRONICLES OF BEAUMONT, TEXAS, FROM RECONSTRUCTION TO SPINDLETOP (Nederland: 1980), 1-576; also the following Beaumont Chamber of Commerce bulletins, which contain many biographies, Jewish advertisements and pictures, and histories of Jewish synagogue auxiliaries and social clubs, as follows: SOUVENIR, BEAUMONT, TEXAS, 1903; ADVANTAGES AND CONDITIONS OF BEAUMONT AND PORT ARTHUR TODAY, 1902; THE BEAUMONT COUNTRY, 1913; BEAUMONT, THE CITY AWAKE, 1906; BEAUMONT, THE TWENTIETH CENTURY CITY, 1912; and STATISTICAL REVIEW OF THE PROGRESS OF BEAUMONT, 1925; also, STANDARD BLUE BOOK OF TEXAS, 1908-1909, (Houston: 1908), devoted entirely to Beaumont; Sabine Pass NEWS, May 5, 1900; E. P. Weinbaum, SHALOM, AMERICA: THE PERLSTEIN STORY (San Antonio: 1969); O. Handlin, ADVENTURE IN FREEDOM: 300 YEARS OF JEWISH LIFE IN AMERICA (New York: 1954); L. Levinger, HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN THE UNITED STATES (Cincinnati: 1930); J. R. Marcus, EARLY AMERICAN JEWRY (3 vols.; Philadelphia, 1951); A. J. Karp, THE JEWISH EXPERIENCE IN AMERICA (5 vols.; New York, 1969; and Beaumont ENTERPRISE, 1880-1881.