Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
When the Texas legislature officially incorporated Beaumont in 1835, the city had little to offer to the expanding Western frontier. The city was in the backwoods of the West: ninety miles from Houston, and thirty miles from the Louisiana state line. Early Beaumont residents sustained a saw mill industry, using the Neches River to float logs down to the Gulf of Mexico where they would be sold. Beaumont developed a strong community and economy around the lumber trade, but the discovery of oil in January of 1901 made the city a much more attractive and viable place to live. Companies and individuals looking to make money in the oil business flocked to Beaumont, and soon companies were extracting around 75,000 barrels of oil a day from the Spindletop field. Around the turn of the century, Beaumont underwent a massive transition from a small town to a thriving city built on the oil industry.
Jews established an influential presence in Beaumont long before the discovery of oil and the expansion of retail markets. Jewish peddlers traveled throughout the Beaumont area, selling their wares to the families that settled in east Texas. Census records indicate that a merchant named Simon Wiess arrived to Beaumont in 1838, but Wiess married a Presbyterian woman and largely gave up his ties to Judaism. Beaumont Jews credit Morris J. Loeb with laying the foundation of the Jewish community in Beaumont. Loeb moved his family from New Orleans to Beaumont in 1878 and opened a small cigar shop. Numerous other Jewish merchants moved to Beaumont in the early 1880s to take advantage of the growing saw mill economy. Henry Solinsky and Morris Hecht opened a dry goods store in 1880, and a year later Sid and Leon Levy both opened their own stores. An 1881 New Orleans newspaper identified the opening of Jewish-owned stores as an indication of Beaumont’s economic vitality, reporting that “a number of Israelite merchants have settled here, a precursor of the prosperity which is to follow.”
Unlike in other small Texas towns in the 1880s, Jews in Beaumont engaged in many different professions besides retail trade. When Wolf Bluestein moved from Orange, Texas to Beaumont in 1881, he went into business with Solinsky and both men turned their attention to the performing arts. In August of 1881, Solinsky purchased the newly built opera house and traveled to New York to find vaudeville acts for the new performance space in Beaumont. Bluestein and Solinsky established their new business in a brick building on the corner of Tevis and Forsythe Streets, and Bluestein converted the second floor of the building into an opera house until the Crosby Opera House was completed in 1883. Several Jews also participated in the agricultural sector of east Texas. Bluestein was one of the first commercial rice growers in Orange County and continued to oversee his farm after he moved to Beaumont. In fact, the first boxcar of rice shipped from Orange County included 100 barrels of Bluestein’s rice. Sam Lederer moved to Beaumont in 1886 and shortly thereafter established a rice farm south of the city.
As more Jewish settlers made their way to Beaumont, Jewish religious life began to thrive. The earliest Jewish services took place in Wolf Bluestein’s home, but as Jews amassed more property, services moved into larger venues. Congregation records indicate that Beaumont Jews held services in the Bluestein Opera House, Lederer’s grocery store, Deuster’s furniture store, and in the Harmony Club located above the city’s fire station. Saul Feinberg and Wolf Bluestein served as unofficial leaders of services for Rosh Hashanah and Passover, using Bluestein’s Sefer Torah scroll to conduct the services.
The expansion of Jewish religious life in Beaumont also encouraged the development of Jewish philanthropy. Morris Loeb’s wife Delphine, her daughters, and Sarah Levy organized the Ladies’ Benevolent Society in 1895. The Society worked to provide for poor travelers passing through Beaumont and to secure a Jewish burial ground. In 1897, the Society purchased a plot of land fondly called “Hebrew Rest” and provided for the ground’s maintenance.
Though Jews in Beaumont worshipped informally for about a decade, the community decided in 1895 that it should establish an official congregation. In 1895, Lorraine-born Dr. Aaron Levy left Beth-El Temple in Austin and moved to Beaumont to take over as the rabbi of the growing congregation, braving Beaumont’s muddy streets and wooden sidewalks to help the congregation in its formative years. Under the guidance of Rabbi Levy, the congregation of around fifty members chose the name Temple Emanuel and began holding services in a small wooden building near the corner of Pine and Crockett Streets. Beyond leading the Jewish community through the process of establishing an official congregation, Rabbi Levy was a strong public figure in Beaumont. Levy increased his small rabbinical salary by opening a Latin school on Pine Street, teaching forty students- both Jewish and Gentile- the basics of classical education. When the Spanish American War broke out in 1898, Rabbi Levy headed a committee that put on a banquet for the Beaumont National Guard in the old opera house, giving troops from Beaumont a heartfelt sendoff. As the turn of the century neared, Beaumont Jews enjoyed a more organized religious life and a greater participation in civic life.
As with much of Texas history, the story of Beaumont’s Jewish community followed the ebb and flow of oil. On January 10, 1901, a geyser of oil at Spindletop field broke through the surface and continued to gush for a week. The population of Beaumont doubled almost overnight, as investors and workers flocked to the city to profit from the nearby oil reserves. The construction of a permanent house of worship had been in the works for quite some time, but the discovery of oil provided the necessary population and finances for Beaumont’s Jews to achieve their goal. Women played a crucial role in this effort. In 1900, Pauline Schwerin, who had owned a boarding house in town, purchased a lot on Broadway and Willow for $1600 and donated the land as the future site of a synagogue. With a lot on which to build a synagogue, the building committee moved ahead and hired a Mr. Spaulding to build the temple. The Ladies Benevolent Society made a $3000 donation to the construction of the temple, providing the necessary funds for electric lighting and attractive interior furnishings. The structure accommodated 300 worshippers, a space large enough to house the sixty families and numerous young men attracted to the area by the Spindletop Oil boom. The building committee staged a dedication ceremony for the new temple on December 1, 1901, and invited Rabbi Max Heller from New Orleans and Rabbi Henry Cohen from Galveston to speak at the ceremony. By 1902, Beaumont’s Jewish population reached about 300, and the pews of the ambitiously large temple were filled to capacity.
The discovery of oil near Beaumont also expanded the population and the power of Jewish businessmen. Hyman Asher Perlstein came to Beaumont in 1889 with $11.90 in his pocket, and landed a job working for the local blacksmith for fifty cents a day. Perlstein bought out his employer after several years, and used the money he made in that business to invest in the oil boom with the Jewish jewelry store owner R.M. Mothner, who had moved to Beaumont the same year as Perlstein. The success of the oil industry in Beaumont provided Perlstein with the necessary funds to build Beaumont’s first sky scraper in 1907, which at the time was the largest structure between Houston and New Orleans. The oil boom also provided Beaumont residents with more disposable income than ever before, and many Jewish merchants profited in their retail endeavors. J.J. Nathan, who had moved to the Beaumont area around 1900, found his niche by adding an extensive toy section to his department store. Joe and Leon Rosenthal cornered the women’s fashion market, and Loeb’s cigar shop did good business as men celebrated their success with fine cigars. Jake Abelman came into Beaumont in 1901 after the discovery of oil, and opened a store to provide Jefferson County’s horses with the finest factory-made saddles, harnesses, and reigns. Oil made Beaumont a lucrative place in the early twentieth century, and Jewish merchants claimed a spot for themselves in the cityscape of new buildings and storefronts.
Multimedia: Charlie Weinbaum, the grandson of Hyman Asher Perlstein, was born in Beaumont, Texas, in 1926. In this video, Mr. Weinbaum talks about the family's relationship with Rabbi Samuel Rosinger and his grandfather's leadership in Temple Emanuel.
As their community prospered, Beaumont Jews sought to integrate into Beaumont city life. In 1910, H.A. Perlstein ran an ad in the American Israelite looking for a “Reform Rabbi, native of America or England, agreeable to both Orthodox and Reform, good mixer.” Although he would later make jokes about whether the congregation wanted a rabbi or a bartender, Dr. Samuel Rosinger understood his work as promoting a cooperative relationship between Christians and Jews in Beaumont. After hearing a trial sermon in August 1910, the congregation hired Rosinger as its new rabbi. Rosinger took his charge of “mixing” with Beaumont’s religious groups seriously, serving as the chairman of the Red Cross and Tuberculosis Association, a director of the Round Table Conference of Christians and Jews, and as president of Beaumont High School’s parent-teacher association. In a variety of spaces—the religious, the medical, and the educational—Rosinger helped to integrate Beaumont’s Jewish community more fully into the larger community. Rosinger also spearheaded a campaign to integrate the Jefferson County Tuberculosis Hospital, though the Ku Klux Klan thwarted his efforts. Despite being unable to integrate the clinic, Rosinger coordinated an alliance between prominent Jewish and Catholic families to take on the Beaumont Ku Klux Klan, using religious harmony as a tool against racism. While Rabbi Levy laid the foundations of the congregation, Rosinger guided Beaumont’s Reform Jewish community for 47 years, leading them into the mainstream through his pursuit of religious cooperation and community action.
Rabbi RosingerJewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe began to make their way to the area in the early 1900s, and as a result an Orthodox congregation took shape in Beaumont. Although Rabbi Rosinger was tolerant of more traditional Jewish practice, and even kept kosher himself, some Jews in Beaumont preferred Orthodoxy to the Reform worship style at Temple Emanuel. Accordingly, several Orthodox Jews in Beaumont founded Congregation Kol Israel in 1917 and soon built a house of worship on the corner of Park and Elizabeth streets. By 1919, Kol Israel had 35 members and a daily Talmud Torah that taught Hebrew and Jewish traditions to 28 students. They also had a full-time spiritual leader, Morris Levin, who had come to the United States from Russia in 1905. Post-World War II conversations about Orthodox Judaism significantly influenced Kol Israel congregants, and in April of 1952 the congregation voted to switch its religious identification from Orthodoxy to Conservatism, affiliating with the United Synagogues of America. The congregation continued operating out of the west end building until May 17, 1955, when the congregation moved into a new synagogue.
Temple EmanuelRabbi Rosinger spoke to the members of Temple Emanuel about building a new temple before the outbreak of World War I, but the war’s demand for resources and men put the temple building project on the backburner. After the war ended, the congregation decided to move forward with the new building project and secured a lot near Broadway and Forrest Streets. The building committee hired S. Gottlieb from Chicago to design the new temple, and hired Herman Weber to build the structure. Gottlieb designed the building in a Byzantine architectural style, with a large copper dome inscribed with a Star of David at its summit. The dome provided good acoustics to the house of worship and intensified the sound of the Pilcher pipe organ in the choir balcony. The building committee furnished the inside of the temple with ornate decorations like a bronze tablet made in Jerusalem and six stained glass memorial windows. The new temple seated 600, and provided a rabbi’s study, rooms in the basement for Sunday school, a stage, and a large kitchen toprepare the food for social functions. The temple was finally dedicated in 1923, and an article in the local newspaper claimed that the new “Temple Emanuel is one of the most complete and comfortable, as well as one of the most handsome houses of worship in the city.” The ornately designed temple symbolized the prominence and acceptance Jews enjoyed in Beaumont as the building earned a respected place among Beaumont’s other houses of worship.
When the Great Depression brought hunger and scarcity to Beaumont, Jewish merchants were among those who helped the poor in Beaumont. Max Feinberg, who moved to Beaumont and opened a store in 1905, established a “Depression Lunch Counter” on the second floor of his building. For a nickel, Feinberg provided local laid-off workers with a hearty meal consisting of a hot dog with chili, a glass of milk, and an ice cream cone. A black school teacher brought her class of 25 students to Feinberg’s and bought each student an ice cream cone for only one cent a piece. Unlike other food providers at the time, Feinberg did not turn away black customers, though he did enforce segregation laws and sat black customers at different tables. Because Feinberg’s store was considered by many in Beaumont to be one of the finest, patrons could take advantage of the low-priced food without sacrificing their pride or dignity. Jewish merchants like Feinberg made a living from the people of Beaumont, but did not hesitate to give back to the community when the economic downturn struck hard.
The 1930s did not bring economic hardship to everyone in Beaumont, especially not the Rogers brothers. After moving to Beaumont in the late 1930s, Ben Rogers and his brothers Sol, Vic, and Nate opened up the Texas State Optical Company. The enterprise spread quickly throughout eastern Texas, and branches popped up throughout the 1940s in cities like Houston and Austin. The Rogers brothers used the money they made in the optical business to fund the construction of Gateway Shopping City and later Parkdale Mall, commercial centers that brought new businesses to the Beaumont area. Like their predecessors in the Jewish merchant class, the Rogers donated substantially to the city that made them wealthy. The Rogers brothers helped to fund the Babe Zaharias Memorial Museum in the 1970s, and spearheaded a campaign to beautify Orleans Plaza with trees, benches, and old fashioned street lights. The beautification project also encouraged more businesses to move to the Beaumont commercial district. According to Charlie Weinbaum, the Rogers brothers also extended their philanthropy to the Beaumont Jewish community by using their fortune to help out the struggling Congregation Kol Israel.
With a position firmly established in the Beaumont mainstream, Jewish residents began to take on larger roles in local politics. Maurice Meyers served two terms as mayor of Beaumont, from 1978 to 1982 and from 1986 to 1988. Because of the Rogers brothers careful economic planning and Myer’s political leadership, Beaumont was able to largely avoid the economic downturn in the late 1970s. In fact, Money magazine named Beaumont the city with the most potential for economic growth in 1978. One of Meyer’s largest contributions to the Beaumont economy was his handling of labor strikes. Beaumont was not a cost-efficient city to build in because union members and contractors regularly participated in strikes and walk-outs that made construction costs exorbitant. Meyers put together a meeting of 38 leaders from management and labor to devise ways to please both parties by negotiation and communication rather than costly strikes and walk-outs. Such efforts allowed for easier and more cost-efficient building in Beaumont, and brought a new economic vitality to the city.
Originally founded by Sam Night and now run by his sons, Harvey and Ralph, Night's Uniform Company is the only Jewish retail business still operating in downtown Beaumont.
The influence that Beaumont’s Jewish residents had on the larger community was surprising given the demographic trends affecting Beaumont’s Jews. From a peak of 1,280 Jews in 1937, the city’s Jewish population had fallen to only 500 by 1997. Despite the efforts of the Rogers brothers and Meyers, the economic climate of Beaumont was not as strong as it had once been, and many Jews belonging to both Temple Emanuel and Kol Israel left Beaumont looking for professional careers in larger cities. The two congregations decided to merge in 1971 to consolidate the dwindling Jewish population. Kol Israel constructed a separate chapel in the Sunday school building of the Temple Emanuel complex. Due to this merger, Temple Emanuel grew from 175 contributing members in 1970 to 223 in 1976.
The drop in Beaumont’s Jewish population was small compared to the decline in the Jewish population in Port Arthur during the 1980s and 1990s. In April of 1995, the members of Port Arthur’s Rodef Shalom voted to merge with Temple Emanuel. Port Arthur congregants brought one torah from Temple Rodef Shalom and placed it in Temple Emanuel’s ark, thereby symbolizing the union of the two temples. The merger of Kol Israel and Rodef Shalom with Temple Emanuel brought a new vitality to Temple Emanuel, and the Temple held a rededication ceremony in 2006 to highlight the $1.7 million renovations of the building. While the Beaumont Jewish community is now relatively small, Temple Emanuel remains strong, with an active religious school and full-time rabbi Joshua Taub.
At the 2006 rededication ceremony, congregants put pieces from the old stained glass windows and old ledger books into a time capsule and buried it near the Temple. Though fragments of Temple Emanuel’s history may be entombed for 100 years, one need only observe Beaumont’s landscape and economic past to uncover the many ways that Beaumont’s Jewish population shaped the city from the 1880s onward.