It’s your last opportunity to catch an education and inspirational bit of Galveston’s history before it departs the Bryan Museum, 1315 21st St. on Monday.
Titled “Forgotten Gateway: Coming to America Through Galveston Island,” this traveling exhibition is being presented in collaboration with the Bullock Texas State History Museum and recalls the time when 10,000 Eastern European Jews arrived in the U.S., not at the more celebrated New York’s Ellis Island, but instead right here in Galveston.
Rabbi Marshal Klaven of Congregation Beth Israel explained.
“There was a concerted effort by those within the American Jewish community to make sure that Jews did not become too concentrated in any one place, in America which could prevent their successful acculturation, and also, as a by-product, introduce more Americans to the eternal values of Judaism by meeting our people. This became known as ‘The Galveston Plan.’”
But in the late 1800s, immigration was a given and not the hot-button topic it is now, said Rabbi Jimmy Kessler, former head of Beth Israel.
“Let me begin by saying that immigration wasn’t quite the issue in Texas, then, as it was in New York,” he said. “More over, Galveston did not do anything for the Galveston Plan. It was just the port used. Jacob Schiff, probably one of the wealthiest Jews in America in the late 1800s and early 1900s, saw the significant number of Jewish immigrants coming through Ellis Island as a potential source of anti-Semitism and perhaps even worse. Reactions like those in Europe where violence was not uncommon.”
So the plan arose to disperse the arriving immigrants. They would deboard in Galveston, but it was just considered as a gateway, not a destination. Why here? Because of our most illustrious rabbi of the era, or arguably any era: Henry Cohen.
Cohen was a well-respected Englishman with the kind of connections that could help get things done.
It actually worked like this: Jews selected for their desirable skill sets, ones that were needed in America’s small towns, would travel to Galveston on non-stop steamship service from Breman, Germany to Galveston. The island was intended just as a way point. Those immigrating would stay a brief period, assisted by Cohen, and then take trains to the Midwest for permanent settlement.
And, of course, some of them may have “missed” their trains — to Texas’ benefit.
Immigration really matters, said Klaven.
“If this and other parts of America’s immigration stories have been forgotten, then I am happy that there are those who remember and also that the Bryan Museum is helping us recall that nearly every one of us here is part of this continuing story,” Klaven said.
“That the great blessings we have found in this country are themselves byproducts of such perilous journeys, as well as the opened or closed hands that we found along the way,” Klaven. “Today, we have a choice. Do we keep our hands closed or do we choose to open them and extend them to others, sharing those blessings once shared with us so many generations ago?”