HOUSTON — Rome’s enclosed Jewish ghetto was built in a flood zone along the Tiber River in the 16th century after Pope Paul IV forced the Jewish community into the worst real estate in town. The community was subject to constant devastation due to flooding until allowed to live outside the ghetto over 300 years later.
In Houston, it wasn’t an anti-Semitic pope that caused the Jewish community to build in a flood zone. Rather, according to Dr. Joshua Furman, a professor of Jewish studies at Rice University, it was good schools, attractive housing and proximity to a new mall and the downtown area that brought the bulk of Houston’s Jewish community to flood-prone Meyerland 50 years ago.
Meyerland is a southwest Houston suburb straddling both sides of Brays Bayou, a long concrete dip in the ground which tends to overflow with any major rainfall. The neighborhood was particularly devastated when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in late August last year.
According to Houston’s Jewish Federation, nearly three-quarters of the city’s Jewish population live in areas that experienced severe flooding. Jewish homes and institutions across the community, along with evidence of Houston’s Jewish history — photographs, flyers, signs and prayer books tucked away in storage closets and garages — were left damaged and wet.
As the community continues to recover, Furman created an initiative to collect and preserve Houston’s Jewish history by building a permanent archive at Rice University.
The summer before Hurricane Harvey, Furman began looking into his community’s history only to discover that very little scholarship exists on the subject.
So when the storm hit, Furman immediately understood that if he didn’t act fast to save evidence of Houston’s Jewish history, it would be thrown out with the rest of the debris.
“It became quickly apparent to me that if we didn’t do something right away to rescue the documentary record of Houston Jewish history, it would be lost forever,” Furman said, speaking to The Times of Israel in Rice University’s Woodson Research Institute, the archive’s home.
Once the rain stopped, Furman, his colleague, Dr. Melissa Kean, and his wife, Alisha, seven months pregnant at the time, went to United Orthodox Synagogue (UOS), an Orthodox community whose building has flooded three times in three years. With masks and gloves, Furman and his team began separating out documents page by page.
“[We] went into a storage closet that had five to six inches of water in it and were pulling out the history of the synagogue, cemetery maps, membership directories, commemorative books, board minutes — the history of a Houston Jewish institution that goes back to the 20th century,” Furman said.
“Stuff was wet and it was smelly and it even had mold on it from prior floods… So we lay [the pages] out on tables to dry and put sheets of dry white computer paper between each page, trying to dry them out,” said Furman, a UOS member.
From there, the team went to the Conservative synagogue, Congregation Beth Yeshuran, as well as the JCC, and called on the Jewish community to donate their own family’s historical memorabilia.
Furman said these materials are now waiting to be shared with students, academics and the public.
Furman received a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) to cover the preservation costs and donations from the Joan and Stanford Alexander Foundation, the Texas Jewish Historical Society and several other donors to establish the archive.
Furman showed The Times of Israel some of his favorite pieces from the collection one humid Friday morning in April at Fondren Library on the Rice campus.
The historian delicately placed pages and objects on the table while discussing the process of collecting the items.
“Families are interested in trusting their papers here for preservation and we’re happy to do that,” he said.
“We’ve been able to recover some pretty remarkable stuff mostly from 1940s and on, [though] we do have some things from the 19th century.”
“I’m most excited [about items] in the collection related to World War II,” he said while carefully laying out a canvas replica of a WWII flag made for the Orthodox Beth Jacob Synagogue in 1942 and dedicated in 1945.
The flag features the names of 220 Jewish men and women from the Houston area who fought in the US Armed Forces during the war. Yellow stars represent those killed in action.
The flag is a “testament to Jewish patriotism and war service,” said Furman. “It’s a real treasure.”
The large piece of cloth was sitting in a Jewish woman’s garage when she read about Furman’s project on Facebook and reached out to him.
This is typical of how Furman has been collecting items; each piece of information discovered and shared with him sparks the memory of another community member with a similar family relic of their own, he said.
The initiative has been featured in Houston’s press, and Furman is using his own Facebook page to post updates on the collection.
After one man read about the flag, he sent Furman an email about his uncle, WWII veteran Hyman Rosenzweig, whose name is on the banner, and donated all of Rosenzweig’s US army memorabilia to the archive.
In this way, the collection continues to grow.
A community resource
The official launch of the archive is July 1 and Furman will serve as its inaugural director.
In addition to preparing the physical collection, Furman is building a website which will include taped oral histories and information on the archive. He hopes to eventually create an exhibit on Houston’s Jewish history in the library and host lectures and events for the community. Furman is also writing a book on Houston’s Jewish history.
With all of these projects going on, Furman concluded, “People now understand the urgency of the mission to make sure that these stories don’t get washed away.”