It was an unlikely premise, Jews escaping the pogroms of Tsarist Russia for a safe haven in Texas. Yet from 1907 to 1914, the “Galveston Movement” brought 10,000 Jews to the US — not through Ellis Island, but through Galveston Island and its eponymous port on the Gulf of Mexico.
The movement was extensively planned, and resettled Jews across Texas and the Midwest, found new homes and jobs for them, and created Jewish communities – all despite immigration restrictions. In short, it’s a story that some experts say offers lessons for today’s US immigration debate.
“One of the big points that the Galveston Movement helps to illustrate is that immigration is beneficial to both sides of the equation,” said Bryan Stone, a history professor at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi and editor of the movement’s only memoir from an immigrant’s perspective.
“Immigrants come in, not as refugees exactly, and in the end they’ve been certainly better off. Immigrants benefit the country as well, the cities and states where they settled. All around, it’s a good story,” said Stone.
The story is preserved through “Forgotten Gateway: Coming to America Through Galveston Island,” an exhibit about Galveston’s role as an immigrant port from 1845 to 1924 at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. A traveling version of “Forgotten Gateway” is at The Bryan Museum in Galveston through April 24.
“In terms of a facet of American immigration, [the Galveston Movement is] sort of overlooked,” Stone said. “There’s a presumption that immigrants from Europe, Jews, only went to the East Coast, New York. But there was a pretty significant wave of immigration elsewhere in the country, which history has for the most part left out.”
The Galveston Movement begins
Jews had been fleeing persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe when the Galveston Movement was founded by American Jewish philanthropist Jacob Schiff — himself a German immigrant.
“The premise Schiff had was that the New York entry, Ellis Island, the Lower East Side, all that area, around Manhattan Island, had too dense a Jewish population, that would ultimately give rise to more anti-Semitism,” said Rabbi Jimmy Kessler, rabbi emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Galveston and a former president of the Texas Jewish Historical Society.
Schiff felt that “if Jews were more scattered around the country, it would not create such an issue,” Kessler said.
Schiff’s list of potential destinations away from New York included Charleston and New Orleans. But Galveston won out, in part because of B’nai Israel’s rabbi at the time, Henry Cohen, who would be an “all-purpose protector, director, welcomer, and friendly face for people in a new destination,” Stone said.
The movement faced an unfriendly political climate.
The Immigration Act of 1907, signed into law by president Theodore Roosevelt, “tried to make it a little bit harder for immigrants to come in,” said Stuart Rockoff, executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council and former director of the history department at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute for Southern Jewish Life.
“They couldn’t already have a job [from a company]. They couldn’t be ‘idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded, paupers, persons likely to become a public charge.’”
Nevertheless, that summer, ships carrying Jewish immigrants began docking at Galveston.
“They would be cared for one day or so in Galveston, then put on trains to various towns in Texas and the Midwest,” Rockoff said. “A local settlement agent would take them in and get them a place to live and find a job.”
Some 25% of the 10,000 Jews who came through the Galveston Movement stayed in Texas. They included Belarus native Alexander Gurwitz, whose autobiographical account, “Memories of Two Generations: A Yiddish Life in Russia and Texas,” was edited by Stone, and published by the University of Alabama Press last year.
Unlike fellow Galveston immigrants, Gurwitz was older at 51, and financially better-off — he was a teacher and ritual slaughterer, and owned a house. He was also on his second family. The Gurwitzes settled in San Antonio.
“His wife’s sister was already living there,” said Stone, who is also the author of “The Chosen Folks: Jews on the Frontiers of Texas.”
“It was a reasonable place to come and raise kids. He died there in 1947. Obviously he liked it. He earned a living with the same kind of work. He taught Hebrew and Talmud, and slaughtered meat. He had enough of an audience and found a community there,” Stone said.
When Gurwitz’s memoir was published, “I was invited to a party in San Antonio, and met all the family at a packed house,” said Stone. “His four kids all stayed in the area, raised families in the area.”
Of the movement immigrants who traveled beyond Texas, 15% went to Iowa, 13% to Missouri and 12% to Minnesota.
“If part of Schiff’s original idea was to make them more invisible, Jews became much more visible in communities with synagogues throughout the Midwest and Southwest,” Rockoff said. “That’s a good thing. They became part of the communities, part of mainstream religious life in America.”
‘If part of Schiff’s original idea was to make them more invisible, Jews became much more visible’
However, World War I spelled the end of the Galveston Movement.
“Going from Russia to Germany after 1914 was impossible,” Stone said. “Transatlantic travel became much more dangerous.”
Throughout its existence, the movement “did not catch on the way Schiff wanted,” Stone said. “He set some benchmarks, how many [immigrants] were needed to be attracted. It was not near [those benchmarks]. He worried about funding it from his own pocket. There was no payback.”
“From 1907 through 1914, one percent of Jewish immigrants came to Galveston,” Rockoff said. “The vast majority went to New York. From that perspective, it was a dismal failure.”
After Schiff’s death in 1920, “the country made permanent, really tight immigration restrictions,” Rockoff said. “If Schiff’s goal was to keep [the doors] open, they closed in 1924.”
Learning from history
Restrictions are back in the news today.
“Certainly, there are rising concerns about immigration and certain types of immigrants, a focus of efforts on the part of the new administration — keep out those who would change the culture of America,” Rockoff said, noting that these arguments were made 100 years ago against Jews, Italians and Catholics.
Last September, when Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton were still locked in a tight presidential campaign, the Bryan Museum decided that it would host the traveling version of the “Forgotten Gateway” exhibit for the first time.
The exhibit opened on February 2. Shortly beforehand, on January 27, President Trump issued an executive order suspending general entry from Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Iraq and Sudan for 90 days, and suspending the US Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days.
‘It’s a refugee story. The congregation understands this more intimately. It’s our story, male and female, our grandparents’ story’
Trump’s immigration policy has not gone unnoticed at another Galveston landmark, Congregation B’nai Israel. The congregation was the Lone Star State’s first Reform synagogue, established in 1869.
“Congregation B’nai Israel understands that the immigrant story is our story,” said current Rabbi Marshal Klaven. “We are immigrants… Abraham was a wandering Aramean.
“It’s a refugee story. The congregation understands this more intimately. It’s our story, male and female, our grandparents’ story. It’s the same lesson offered to us. We are tasked with sharing it with whatever the next round of immigrants and refugees might be.”
“The 150th anniversary of our congregation is in 2018, and we’re strategizing right now on some large mitzvah project. We wanted to work at bringing in, potentially, some Syrian refugees,” Klaven added.
For these Texans, while immigration restrictions are tightening once more, the lessons of the Galveston Movement may provide hope.
“[It’s] good to remember there are creative ways to accommodate immigrants, not restrictionism… creative ways to keep the doors open,” Stone said. “If you have a concern, if you shut it down, it’s unwise. There are always other alternatives.”
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