The Uniqueness of Texan Jews

Sermon given April 30, 2004

by Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl


    We warmly welcome those who are attending the 25th annual convention of the Texas Jewish Historical Society to Temple Beth-El and want you to know how thrilled we are to have you with us. Tonight, I want to focus my remarks tonight on the uniqueness of Texas Jews.

    Not far from here, stands the impressive edifice, known as the Institute of Texan Cultures. I note that many of our conventioneers visited there this afternoon. In the Institute, there are hosts of exhibits honoring almost 30 different nationality and cultural communities that have enriched the great state of Texas.

    Among them are the Germans, the Italians, the Czechs, the Lebanese, the Japanese, the Greeks, and the Jews. But, at this point, I need to pose this critical question: Why are the Jews included? We don't find any other religious groups at the Institute of Texan Cultures. There is no Protestant exhibit. There is no Catholic exhibit. There is no Muslim exhibit. There is no Buddhist exhibit. The Jews seem to be the only religious group highlighted at the Institute.

    Obviously, there is a lot of confusion about what and who Jews really are. Perhaps the reason is that Jews can not be neatly pigeonholed into any one category. Are we part of a race, a nationality, or a religion? It seems almost impossible to define us. Some have erroneously called Jews a race.

    In fact, we once described ourselves as a race. In the older version of the Hanukkah hymn, “Maoz Tzur - Rock of Ages,” the third stanza begins: “Children of the martyred race.” The present version fortunately has been altered to begin: “Children of the Maccabees.” The most notorious example of declaring Jews a race was Hitler. Hitler was obsessed with creating a master Aryan race. He denigrated Jews as a sub-human race, a race that had to be totally exterminated. But Jews are emphatically not a race.

    In fact, Jews are represented in all the major races. When I was an Army chaplain in Korea, a few Koreans who were Jewish were in my congregation. Most of them were Buddhist or Confusionists at birth, but converted to Judaism later in life. Orientals, who are Jews, live in other Asian countries, as well. We even have Oriental Jews in our Temple. James Woo, a Chinese-American and a Temple member, was recently featured on the front cover of Reform Judaism.

    There are also myriads of Black Jews around the world. About 25,000 of them have lived in Israel for the past two decades. These Black Jews escaped from the squalor and persecution of Ethiopia, where they had practiced Judaism for centuries. So I hope that I have now established the fact that Jews are not a race. There are Jews with skin coloring of different shades: white, yellow, brown, and black.

    We are also not a nationality. Indeed, Jews are citizens of almost every country of the world. There is hardly a nation anywhere without at least one Jew. We have English Jews, French Jews, Italian Jews, Argentinean Jews, Australian Jews, and Canadian Jews.

    If we are not part of a race or a nationality, are we then a religion? Are we the counterparts of Catholics and Protestants? The answer is both yes and no. Jews are a religious community but much more. The late Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan crafted the most accurate definition of Jews I have ever encountered. He was one of America's towering Jewish religious leaders of the last century. Kaplan most perceptively described Jews as a “people with an evolving religious civilization.”

    Indeed, we are a people who embrace not simply a religion. We do much more than that. We are a religion-plus. We claim a vast religious civilization. We have Jewish languages, like Yiddish, which is not strictly religious. We have distinctive foods, like bagels, lox, and gefilte fish, which are not religious. We have other characteristics, which are best classified as ethnic. That is probably the reason that we are featured at the Institute of Texan Cultures, and Protestants and Catholics are not.

    Now that we have established who the Jews are, let us turn to the question of who Texas Jews are. What is our nature? What traits make us unique? When I visit family and friends up north and tell them that I live in Texas, their instantaneous response is: “Gee, I didn't know that there were any Jews down there.” We actually have been here a long time.

    I am not speaking about a certain group of Texans in the Hispanic community, who may have Jewish ancestors. They claim to be descended from the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 and ultimately landed in the New World. They may practice one or two Jewish customs like lighting two candles late Friday afternoon to prepare for the Jewish Sabbath. They are not even aware of why they are doing so, since they have been Roman Catholics for centuries. To them lighting candles on Friday afternoon is merely a family tradition, passed down from generation to generation.

    Rather I am speaking about Jews who came to Texas, beginning in the 1850's from Germany. Then, in the 1880's, they were followed by Jews from Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other lands of Eastern Europe. From time to time, someone will claim that Jews died at the Alamo. However, our Temple member, Frances Kallison, who is the acknowledged authority on the history of the Jews of San Antonio, emphatically insists that no Jews died at the Alamo. She has marshaled impressive evidence to prove it. And don't ever mess with Frances Kallison.

    The majority of Texas Jews live in five metropolitan areas: Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin and El Paso. In most of these places, the Jewish numbers are stable or growing. In smaller communities, with few exceptions, they are severely declining. In places like Galveston, Beaumont, and Corsicana, synagogues once flourished. Now their memberships are shrinking.

    In fact, not too long ago, Wharton finally closed its synagogue. It once had swelled to 100 family members. Now it has become a historical relic. The reason is that in these smaller Texas cities, Jewish merchants made up a large part of synagogue memberships. Eventually, they retired and either sold or closed their stores. For the most part, their children elected not to go into the family business, but chose other vocations and moved away.

    Jews are a tiny minority in Texas. In the United States, there are about 6,000,000 Jews. About a quarter of them live in the Greater New York area. In Texas, there are only about 120,000 Jews. Thus we Jews make up less than 1% of the total number of Texans. In spite of the fact that our numbers are small in this state, we love it here.

    Texas is a state to which Jews come, but rarely leave. Jewish children who grow up in Texas hardly ever want to spend the rest of their lives in another state. Upon reaching adulthood, they may choose not to return to the city in Texas they were raised. Yet they will usually take up residence in another city in Texas. Severe Northern winters have also caused more and more Jewish “snowbirds” to move to Texas and within a short time they, too, have fallen in love with it.

    Most Texas Rabbis also love it here. Texas is distinguished for its rabbinical longevity. For example, here at Temple Beth-El, Rabbi Barry Block, my successor, is only the fourth Senior Rabbi of the congregation in over 80 years. Rabbi Henry Cohen, my predecessor in Galveston, served Temple B'nai Israel there for 62 years. This was one of the longest tenures of any rabbi in the United States.

    We are also privileged to have with us tonight and throughout the weekend the grandson of Rabbi Henry Cohen, who is also Rabbi Henry Cohen. He will speak at tomorrow night's dinner on his grandfather's life and legacy.

    Throughout Texas, Rabbis of the different denominations within Judaism generally enjoy harmonious relations. My dear friend in San Antonio is Rabbi Arnold Scheinberg. He has been with San Antonio's Orthodox congregation, Rodfei Sholom, for almost 35years. He honored me two years ago by speaking at my testimonial dinner when I retired. Such respect and collegiality among rabbis of different branches of Judaism is not found in most other states.

    In the interfaith sphere, Jewish-Christian relations have also been exemplary throughout Texas. Let me focus on San Antonio alone. All of us are the beneficiaries of the labors of the interfaith clergy triumvirate of Rabbi David Jacobson, my predecessor: Episcopal Bishop Everett Jones; and Roman Catholic Archbishop Robert Lucey.

    As a united religious voice, they frequently spoke out boldly and courageously on the pressing moral issues of their day. Working in concert, these three towering religious figures succeeded in dismantling racial segregation here in the 1960's. Remarkably, they did so without igniting any riots and protests.

    Even today, such interfaith harmony flourishes. For two years, Christ Episcopal Church graciously offered its facilities to Temple Beth-El for worship services and educational programs, while the Temple was undergoing a massive renovation.

    The Temple and First Presbyterian Church for several consecutive years sponsored Mitzvah Day. During this all-day program, members of both congregations worked side-by-side to provide humanitarian outreach to the needy in our city. Such amity and good will between Christians and Jews can be found elsewhere in Texas, as well.

    Let me now return to my prior question: How should we describe the hybrid known as a Jewish Texan? There is an adage that Jews are like everyone else- only more so. Most Jewish Texans have fully absorbed the ethos and culture of their surroundings. Some speak with the Texas drawl. In fact, they have coined an idiom merging both Texas and Jewish languages: It is “Shalom, y'all!”

    Even their recreational tastes are conditioned by Texas values. Jews, like the Halffs, have been some of the foremost ranchers of the state. They are among its most avid football fans. In addition, even though hunting is not traditionally a Jewish pursuit, Jewish Texans are among the most enthusiastic hunters.

    Throughout Texas, Jews have been well integrated into the wider community. Hardly any city in Texas has an exclusively Jewish neighborhood. Jews in Texas live by side by side with their non-Jewish neighbors. Indeed, Texas Jews have fully participated in the civic life of their communities. In San Antonio alone, Jews like Jack Kaufman, of blessed memory, and Bob Ross have sat on our City Council. At least four Jewish mayors have led Galveston. Annette Strauss served as mayor of Dallas and its current mayor is also Jewish.

    Anti-Semitism has not been as pronounced in Texas as in other places. Years ago, it is unfortunately painfully true that Jews were not welcome in certain exclusive Texas country clubs, corporate executive suites, and law firms. However, today, such subtle prejudice is practically non-existent. With few exceptions, today Jews can live anywhere, join anywhere, and work anywhere in the state.

    Today, Jewish Texans are very much at home in Texas and look forward to a bright future here. So we must ask the question: Why, in the Sanctuary of Temple Beth-El, for example, do we display three flags: United States, Texas, and Israel? Such a pattern is common in almost all Texas synagogues.

    Why is the flag of Israel among them? We Texas Jews believe that the United States is our country. We vote in its elections, we serve in its military, and we express our political allegiance to it. However, we also have another tie, and that is to the State of Israel. Our bond with Israel is primarily historical, cultural and religious. It is not political.

    Yet, at one time, it would have been inconceivable to post an Israeli flag in this sanctuary. Some Texas Jews did not always feel a bond with Israel. Until the Six Day War in 1967, anti-Zionism was a factor is several Texas Jewish communities.

    The American Council for Judaism had a strong presence in Texas. Its members believed that American Jews are Jews by religion alone and owe their loyalty only to the United States. American Jews, in their view, should have no ties to any other nation, like Israel. Since 1967, the American Council has lost its influence and credibility.

    We Texas Jews now see no contradiction between our attachment to Israel and our allegiance to the United States. Let me suggest an analogy. We can love both our spouses and our children equally. But we love each differently. Loving one does not diminish our love for the other.

    Let me emphasize that loving Israel does not mean that we uncritically accept everything Israel does. Some Texas Jews may take disagree with some of Israel's government policies and actions. Yet, we all agree that we must labor zealously and tirelessly to ensure that Israel will survive, thrive and flourish, as an independent sovereign Jewish state.

    That is why we Texas Jews enthusiastically give our time, energy and resources to defend Israel and enable it to survive and thrive. We join advocacy groups. We write op-ed pieces and letters to the editor. We contribute generously of our material resources so that Israel will always be safe and secure.

    So here we are, we Texas Jews, small in numbers but intense in commitment. We are loyal to the United States. We are supportive of Israel. And we are proud of Texas. We try to blend the best of Texas values with the loftiest wisdom of our Jewish heritage. I thank God that I have been blessed to live and serve in Texas for 35 years. Though not born in Texas, I personally call it my home and I forward to remaining here for many years to come. Amen.