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Kindler of Souls: The Story of Rabbi Henry Cohen of Texas

Allan C. Brownfeld
Summer 2007

by Rabbi Henry Cohen II,  
University of Texas Press,  
153 Pages,  
In September, 1930, the New York Times published a list of the clergy whom Rabbi Stephen Wise considered “the ten foremost religious leaders in this country.” The list included nine Christian clergymen and Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston, Texas. Little-known today, Henry Cohen was called “the foremost citizen of Texas” by President Woodrow Wilson. Cohen’s fleeting fame, however, was built not on powerful friendships but on a lifetime of service to needy Jews — and non-Jews — in London, South Africa, Jamaica, and for the last sixty-four years of his life in Galveston, Texas. He was a founding member and an early leader of the American Council for Judaism.  
Rabbi Cohen’s story is told in this new biography, written by his grandson, Rabbi Henry Cohen II of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. It is part of the Focus on American History Series of the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.  
How did Henry Cohen become a legend, one whose story was set to music by Irv Tunick, who wrote “An American Ballad,” produced on NBC’s religious program “Frontiers of Faith” in cooperation with the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1955? Three years after his death in 1952, Rabbi Cohen had become a folk hero:  
In all the state of Texas  
From Ft. Worth to San Anton’  
There’s not man who hasn’t heard  
Of Rabbi Henry Cohen  
The sick, the poor, the needy,  
No matter what their creed...  
His heart was always open  
To a fellow-man in need.  
Intervene with Those in Power  
There are numerous stories of how he would intervene with those in power on behalf of those in need. The most famous of those stories concerns the Russian stowaway Demchuk, who was about to be sent from the port of Galveston back to Russia, where he would surely be executed. There are several versions of the story, one of which the author describes this way:  
“In about 1911, an incident occurred that typifies the rabbinate of Henry Cohen and that has become part of the Texas legend ... Probably the first written account of the tale can be found in Meigs Frost’s 1936 article in the New Orleans Times Picayune. According to Frost, he witnessed several dramatic incidents involving the rabbi ... but Rabbi Cohen insisted that he not write about them. More than 20 years later, Frost felt free from the rabbinic restriction and so he wrote: ‘The immigration authorities ruled that Demchuk must be sent back to Europe; nobody but the Commissioner of Immigration or the President of the United States could reverse the ruling. ‘Will you hold him here until I can see the President?’ asked Dr. Cohen. The immigration authority in Galveston agreed to do that.”  
The article continues: “Dr. Cohen had about $100 in his pocket. He rode his bicycle down to the Santa Fe station and took the train to Washington, after telephoning his wife from the depot and buying a toothbrush there. From the Washington station he drove straight to the White House and was received by President William Howard Taft. Swiftly, in staccato sentences, he outlined the case to the President. ‘The man will be shot for political reasons the minute he is sent back to Europe,’ said Dr. Cohen. ‘I give you my personal word he is a worthy man and has committed no crime.’ ‘He can stay here,’ said President Taft, ‘since you vouch for him.’ Taft called a secretary reversing the immigration ruling. Then, ‘I’m sorry you were put to so much trouble for one of your co-religionists, Dr. Cohen,’ said the President. ‘Co-religionist, hell!’ said the weary rabbi, ‘The man is an Orthodox Greek Catholic.’”  
Reassures President Taft  
Later President Taft’s half-brother Charles, on whom the president depended for advice and financial support, was accused of profiting from a land grab in Alaska because of insider information. The president was viewed by some as benefiting from the transaction. Taft was stung by this attack on his reputation and on June 17, 1911, he wrote to Rabbi Cohen that he was not involved in any way with the transaction. Rabbi Cohen responded that he recognized immediately that the accusation in the local paper was “a canard.” He concluded by assuring the president’s personal secretary: “We have always felt that the high standard of integrity manifested by Mr. Taft warrants our thorough confidence in his personal unassailability.” The author notes that, “I found it quite significant that the president of the United States would write the rabbi of Galveston defending his own integrity, and that the rabbi would assure the president that he never doubted his moral character.”  
Henry Cohen grew up as a British Jew to the sounds of hazanut (cantorial chants) and the songs of Gilbert and Sullivan. He was born April 7, 1863. At that time, writes the author, “The most prominent Jew in Britain was the Sephardic businessman and philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore ... The Ashkenazic community was, from 1844 to 1890, led by Nathan Adler, chief rabbi of the Great Synagogue, who insisted on the preservation of traditional Judaism as interpreted by the halakhic (Jewish legal) authorities of Europe and himself. Not that all British Jews lived according to Jewish law ... Many individual Jews exercised their freedom to choose whatever traditions they found meaningful. Some historians suggest that this assertion of autonomy was a reflection of the prevailing capitalist economy, which required that entrepreneurs and consumers be free to make their own decisions. The gap between the official religion and the independence of congregants may also reflect the pattern of the Anglican church, many of whose members were neither ‘orthodox’ believers nor attenders, even though the clerical leadership held to traditional creed and practice.”  
Arriving in London  
Henry Cohen’s parents had come to London in the 1850s as part of an earlier trickle of immigrants from Russo-Poland. There being no public school system in Britain at that time, education was organized along sectarian lines. When Henry was nine he began attending Jews’ Hospital (also called N’veh Tzedek, or Habitation of Righteousness), a boarding school in West Norwood. Among his classmates was Israel Zangwill, who would become a novelist and playwright. Zangwill would coin the term “melting pot” and played a key role, with Henry, in the immigration of Jews through Galveston. The author reports that, “My grandfather told me that he mentioned to Zangwill that he was moved by a piyyut (liturgical poem), ‘Va-ye-esayu.’ Years later Zangwill composed a free translation in the form of a hymn, ‘All The World shall Come To Serve Thee,’ sung in American Reform congregations for decades. Years later Henry would send to Zangwill an Aztec head that he had found in Mexico and that bore a striking resemblance to his boyhood friend.”  
When Henry left Jews’ Hospital at fifteen he secured a job with the Board of Guardians and attended Jews’ College at night. He learned to translate the prayer book and the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and to chant from the Torah. He studied Hebrew grammar, Jewish history and Oriental and Classical languages. The kind of minister the College hoped to produce was described in the London Jewish Chronicle: “men of thorough English feeling and views, as conversant with the classics of their own language as with those of the sacred tongue, as acquainted with modern science as versed in ancient lore ... whose ardour and enthusiasm will break forth and rouse and kindle with Shakespearean vigor and Miltonian sweetness.”  
During weekdays, Henry worked for the Board of Guardians. There, an elderly Henry Cohen told the story, he would occasionally see the former prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who was so impressed that such a small lad could do so much that he affectionately called him “little Henry.”  
Different World in South Africa  
After three years at Jews’ College, at 18, Henry took a break from his studies and, before becoming a clergyman, experienced a totally different kind of world in South Africa. He left Southampton in June 1881 and found the diamond industry in full swing in Kimberly. There he began learning the click dialect of the African natives.  
The author reports that, “He discovered a companion in Moses Davis, owner of a dry goods store in Molteno. Davis not only hired Henry but also found time to study with him. It was while working in the store that Henry became so familiar with the click dialects of the Zulus that he decided to move to Robertson, a garrison town where he worked part-time as an interpreter. He learned to shoot a rifle at target practice with the soldiers. His paycheck was sent home to his parents. To support himself he found another part-time job at Steinman’s general store.”  
One day in February while the soldiers were out of town on maneuvers, a band of Zulus attacked the town, Henry found himself with only 16 men, rifle in hand, poised to repulse the natives. The next thing he remembered was regaining consciousness and feeling a searing pain on the top of his head. Mr. Steinman explained that a Zulu had seized his gun and cracked him on the head with it. There had not been much of a skirmish because the men were able to generate enough fire power to hold off the natives until the troops returned. Henry’s chief concern was: “Did I shoot anyone?” Mr. Steinman assured him that he had not. The evidence of the incident, other than Henry’s recollection, was a visible scar on the top of his head, a scar which for years he would show to visitors as he recounted the tale. “A poignant postscript,” writes the author, was that “the War Office had listed Henry among the dead, and his parents sat shivah for him. When the error was corrected, Henry’s mother gave an extra measure of charity to the poor.”  
Resumed Studies at Jews’ College  
Returning to England in June, 1883, Henry resumed his studies at Jews’ College, now more intent than ever to graduate as a Jewish “minister.” Before 1896, there was no way in England to receive semichah, ordination as a rabbi authorized to interpret Jewish law. A new kind of religious leader emerged: “a pastoral preaching Jewish clergyman, giving a unique cast to Anglo-Judaism ... The community needed leaders who would preach regularly in English, visit the sick and the poor, and more generally reflect the cultural level of the community.” Henry graduated from Jews’ College in 1881. He was soon sent to Jamaica, a 21-year-old minister.  
The situation within Jamaica’s Jewish community upon Henry’s arrival was increasingly contentious: “Two years before his arrival, a mighty fire had swept through Kingston, destroying both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic synagogues. The two congregations tried to put aside differences and merge. After all, they were both ‘orthodox,’ accepting the belief that God had revealed both the Written Law (the five books of Moses) and the Oral Law (interpretations rendered by traditional rabbis over the centuries). They differed ‘merely’ in their pronunciation of Hebrew, the melodies of their prayers, the layout of the synagogue interior, and other minor matters. However, the zealots from each community were unhappy with the merger, and so formed their own synagogues. The attempt to unify two congregations thus yielded three.”  
The Jews of Jamaica had a long and proud history. It is believed that the first Jews in the New World landed in Jamaica with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1494. In 1655, the British captured Jamaica from Spain. The pilot who helped guide the British attack was a Marrano, Capt. Campoo Sabbatha, and another pilot, named Acosta, was the chief negotiator in the Spanish surrender. The British troops were warmly welcomed by the Marranos already resident in Jamaica, who no longer had to disguise their Jewish identity. During the 18th century, there were as many Jews in Jamaica as in all the thirteen colonies plus Canada. Some of them developed the sugar and vanilla industries and prospered. It was Jews who produced the famous Myers’s Jamaican rum and at one time 18 of the 117 seats in the legislature were held by Jews.  
Challenge in Jamaica  
The challenge for Henry Cohen in Jamaica was how to meet the needs of both the Sephardic and Ashkenazim: “He opted to alternate between the two traditions. On one Shabbat, he would use the Sephardic Hebrew pronunciation and chant Sephardic melodies. On the next Shabbat, he would shift to Ashkenazic sounds and songs. To no avail. During the service itself, some would hiss or find other ways to harass the young minister, who was doing his best to find a compromise. Some Sephardic Jews considered themselves superior to the Ashkenazim, who were of a lower social and economic status ... Henry remembered his landlady telling him, ‘If I had one drop of Ashkenazic blood in me, I would kill myself.’”  
The year Henry Cohen left Jamaica, 1885, the author points out, “was the same year that a gathering of ... Reform rabbis met in Pittsburgh to formulate what came to be regarded as the fundamental principles of Classical Reform Judaism. ... The rabbis maintained that ethical monotheism is the essence of Judaism, that the Bible, while ‘a potent instrument of religious and moral instruction,’ also reflects ‘primitive ideas of its own age’ and that we should consider binding ‘only the moral laws and only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives.’ Israel was defined as strictly a religious community, not a nation ... These American reformers emphasized more than did most German reformers the theme of social justice: ‘We deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve on the basis of justice and righteousness the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.’”  
Henry Cohen was returning to London and a Jewish religious establishment which would surely be sending him to an Orthodox congregation. “But while he was in New York,” writes the author, “waiting for passage across the Atlantic, a Rev. Henry Jacobs met him, spoke with him, and suggested that he might be more compatible with a congregation in Woodville, Mississippi, that was — by a fortunate coincidence — looking for a rabbi. For American Jews, even though a graduate of Jews’ College was not authorized to rule on issues of Jewish law, such a graduate, trained to be a minister, pastor, preacher, and teacher, was considered to be a rabbi, though he was often referred to as ‘Reverend Mr.’ At the age of 22, Henry Cohen made one of the most crucial decisions in his life. He went South.”  
No One More Popular  
In its centennial edition of 1924, the Woodville Republican reported: “No minister who ever served a church in Woodville was more popular than was Rabbi Henry Cohen.” The distinguished American Jewish historian Jacob Marcus explained the warm feeling felt by Christians in the South for Jews: “The welcome given to the immigrant Jews from Germany was enthusiastic for a very clear reason: Jews represent a numerically and politically powerless substitute for the independent middle class feared by plantation owners as a potential political rival for economic and political power. Also, the Jewish immigrant’s sense of civic responsibility and social consciousness was similar to that of the Southern elite.” The Wilkinson County museum director, David Abner Smith, reports that when Henry Cohen arrived in Woodville, it was more acceptable for Protestants to socialize with or marry Jews than Catholics. Among the reasons: most Jews were from France or Germany, closer culturally than Catholic immigrants from Italy.  
Despite the small number of Jews in Woodville (there were 18 families in the congregation when Cohen left in 1888), Woodville was called “little Jerusalem,” a testimony to the larger community’s warm welcome to its new Jewish citizens. Because so many of Woodville’s merchants were Jews, the farmers delayed their arrival into Woodville on Saturday and Christian businessmen decided that they, too, would close on Saturday morning until the Jewish services had ended. Beyond this, notes the author, “More than a few of these good Christians attended Sabbath services, and the rabbi became known as one of the finest speakers in the region, despite a slight stutter.”  
Rabbi Cohen’s sermon on immortality, states the author, “is reminiscent of the 18th century Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn’s widely read Phaedon, in which Mendelssohn appealed to reason to affirm the immortality of the soul.” Cohen preached: “Many forget that there is a hereafter. The body descends to conception. The spirit returns to its Author to answer for deeds done in the flesh ... Is it reasonable to believe that the man who has been truthful and righteous will meet the same end as the wicked? A just and omnipotent God will provide reward and punishment.” This faith in the hereafter remained with Cohen throughout his life, and almost half a century later gave him strength to bear the untimely loss of his daughter, Ruth, to cancer.  
Congregation in Galveston  
In the spring of 1888, Cohen was invited to speak before B’nai Israel, the congregation in Galveston, Texas, which was looking for a rabbi. While Cohen was attracted by the prospect of moving to what was a thriving city of 22,000, with about 1,000 Jews, he found it emotionally difficult to say goodby to the people of Woodville, the community that had so warmly embraced him. The author writes that, “After moving to Galveston in 1888, Rabbi Cohen stayed in touch with his Woodville friends. He even wrote a poetic version of the Lord’s Prayer, which, he several times explained to me, reflected the kaddish (said by mourners and also to divide portions of the service) as well as other rabbinic sentiments regarding gratitude for the bread that God brings forth from the earth and God’s forgiveness. Compare the opening lines of the kaddish with those of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘May the great name (of God) be magnified and hallowed in this world ... and may His kingdom come ...’ So when Rabbi Cohen’s poem, ‘A Christian Call,’ was published on November 8, 1899 in the Woodville Courier, surely he considered it to be a prayer not only consistent with but also based upon the Judaism of the first century C.E. ... In 1995, a museum in Woodville displayed an exhibit with the following title: ‘Jewish Life In Wilkinson County, 1820-1920: Views of a Vanished Community.’”  
The Jewish community in Galveston can be traced back to 1852, when the Jewish citizens established a cemetery association. By 1856, religious services were being held in private homes. In 1866, the Hebrew Benevolent Society was formed to care for the cemetery and to dispense charity to those in need. In 1868, Congregation B’nai Israel was organized and received its charter. Henry Cohen was its fourth rabbi.  
Author of Monographs  
Henry Cohen, among other things, was the author of many monographs. One published in 1894, was entitled “National Loyalty: A Jewish Characteristic.” In the author’s view, “The monograph reflects the view widely held that every people (nation or race) has one or more inherent traits, an inner spirit, or Volkgeist. For the cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am, the essence of the Jewish nation was a sense of morality and a commitment to justice. But Henry Cohen did not consider the Jews to be a nation. Reflecting the principles of Classical Reform Judaism, he held that a Jew is distinguished by his religion: ‘Jew is analogous to Christian, Mahometan or Brahmin, but not to American, Englishman or German. One of the strongest characteristics of Jews is love of country ... With us, loyalty to the Government is inherent. We have always been advocates of law and order, and have invariably been deferential to the national policy, notwithstanding that in some countries our civil disabilities have made our lot hard to bear ... The natural bent of the Jewish mind is towards freedom and liberty; therefore, a republic appeals to Israel’s sense of loyalty and justice in a far greater degree than a monarchy.’”  
Rabbi Cohen became particularly interested in the history of Jews in Texas and wrote three monographs on this subject, “The Settlement of the Jews in Texas” (1894), “The Jews in Texas” (1895), and “Henry Castro: Pioneer and Colonist” (1896).  
The first Jew of whom any record has been preserved was Samuel Isaacs, who moved to Texas in 1821, with Stephen Austin’s first colony of 300. He received a grant of land in Ft. Bend County, and served in the Texas army from 1836 through 1837. For this service, he was given another 320 acres in Polk County. The most important Jewish pioneer in Texas was Adolphus Sterne. Born in 1801 in Cologne, Sterne served in both the upper and lower houses of the Texas legislature after Texas became a republic. “Once,” wrote Rabbi Cohen “when the house had been bored with long-winded harangues over some inconsequential matters, he arose and delivered a very solemn address, of a few minutes length, in Choctaw. The effect ... awoke the sleepers and relieved the monotony, bringing the members back to business.”  
Story of Henry Castro  
“Among the rabbi’s favorite pioneers,” writes the author, “was Henry Castro, a Jew of Marrano background from France who negotiated a contract with President Sam Houston and established a colony west of Media. President Houston appointed Castro as Consul General to France ... Between 1841 and 1846, he managed to bring about the migration of 5,000 French Jews who settled a dangerous area between San Antonio and the Rio Grande. According to a contemporary, during his surveying tour, Castro would retire to the forest ‘for the purpose of binding his phylacteries (tefillin).”  
Rabbi Cohen quickly became involved in almost all aspects of Galveston life. In 1896, prominent Catholic cleric Cardinal Satelli visited the city. Rabbi Cohen attended the banquet held in the cardinal’s honor and was asked to say the blessing before the meal. The rabbi delivered a grace in Latin. The cardinal responded by offering a blessing in Hebrew. According to the Galveston Daily News, Cardinal Satelli invited the rabbi, the only non-Catholic at the banquet, to deliver the benediction. The rabbi did so in English and Latin “giving the magnificat in Hebrew, following it with a short speech to which the cardinal responded and reached his hand across the table to the rabbi to show his personal esteem.”  
Tropical Storm of 1900  
In 1900, Galveston was virtually destroyed by a tropical storm. Estimates of the dead began at 6,000 and soon reached 8,000 to 10,000, approximately a fourth of the citizens of the city. The U.S. sent in units to set up tents for the homeless. The Red Cross, led by Clara Barton, was there to meet emergency needs. Rabbi Cohen aided Barton in bringing the elderly ladies of the House for Indigent Colored People down from near the steeple to the ground floor, where he gave them a tent.  
“The rabbi’s main concern was the hospitals,” notes the author. “He somehow found a wagon, two mules, and medical supplies. He headed toward the hospitals. Someone put a pistol in his pocket, just in case. He never used it. He did go about the city distributing food and giving comfort to those who had lost homes and loved ones. He was the first to reach the hospitals with food. At the foot of 23rd Street, he supervised hospital tents, kitchen tents, and the dining room. When he finally got to his synagogue, he was surprised to find that miraculously the building was intact except for one of the stained glass windows, from which Abraham’s foot had been amputated. B’nai Israel would become the sanctuary where four Protestant churches held services until they were able to rebuild.”  
In the short term, Galveston arose from the storm with buildings restored, the construction of a seawall 17 feet above the beach, and businesses resumed. But in the long run, Galveston would see a gradual exodus of some of her wealthier citizens. To the northwest, the city fathers of Houston developed a ship channel that would connect Houston to the Gulf of Mexico. Galveston eventually grew to 50,000 and it became again a vital community, with its cotton warehouses, its retail stores and its cultural events. By the 1930s, however, Galveston had been eclipsed by its neighbor to northwest, whose population had risen to 300,000.  
“The impact of this decline on the life and career of Rabbi Cohen was major,” the author declares. “Houston expanded, Galveston did not, and the Jewish community remained relatively small. This left the rabbi with the choice of making a ‘career move’ and finding a larger synagogue, or staying in Galveston, where he felt he belonged. We know that Henry Cohen became ‘the man who stayed in Texas.’ The 20th century would reveal the reasons why.”  
Medical School Loan Fund  
Henry Cohen’s life was filled with the various events he confronted each day both within the Jewish community and Galveston itself. He remained involved with the University of Texas Medical School at Galveston and took it upon himself to develop the school’s first loan fund. There was a much publicized incident involving two heavy-weight boxers, Joe Choynski, son of Polish Jewish immigrants, and young Jack Johnson, Galveston-born son of African American slaves. Choynski was the first Jewish American athlete to win an international reputation. Although he never weighed more than 175 pounds, Choynski packed such a powerful punch that heavyweight title holders refused to face him. By 1901, Choynski was known as an “old warhorse” and was sent to Galveston to demonstrate that the 22-year-old Johnson still had much to learn about boxing.  
The author describes the event: “Even though boxing was illegal in the state of Texas, the two pugilists staged an exhibition bout in Harmony Hall on February 25, 1901. Texas Ranger Capt. J.A. Brooks was sent to arrest them. Having arrived before the fight, Brooks watched them through the third round when Choynski knocked out Johnson. After enjoying the fight, the captain arrested the two men and put them in jail. Choynski demanded to see not a lawyer but Rabbi Cohen. He protested to the rabbi that the bail, set at $5,000 for each man, was unreasonably high. The rabbi met with Henry Thomas, sheriff of Galveston County, and proposed that the men be allowed to spend their nights outside of jail. The rabbi would make sure that the boxers returned to jail in the morning. Sheriff Thomas agreed. Choynski was convinced that the young black boxer had the makings of a champion. Indeed, Jackson would win the heavyweight title in 1908 ... On March 8, the grand jury dismissed the case.”  
Soon after this, reports the author, “One of the young women (prostitutes) working the street suddenly became ill and died. Her last wish was to have a decent Christian funeral. Why the Madam who ran the establishment where the deceased had lived went to Rabbi Cohen is not known. As the tale has been told, the rabbi did not ask if a Christian minister had been sought. He simply went out to the cemetery and, in the presence of a large crowd from Post Office Street, conducted the service.”  
Challenge of Reform Judaism  
In 1902, Rabbi Cohen delivered the Sabbath eve lecture for the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) at the convention in New Orleans. He observed that many of the new Jewish immigrants were Orthodox in theory only. They did not practice traditional Judaism. He warned that their children would grow up without an appreciation of their heritage and that it was the challenge of Reform to meet the religious needs of this second generation or, as he put it, “to gather the flock before the sheep have scattered.” He appealed to his colleagues to give much greater support to the Hebrew Union College, which, he said, would give us “enlightened teachers and preachers ... textbooks for our schools, prayer books for our synagogues and reading matter for our homes.” He concluded that, “Judaism contains all the elements of Universal religion ... One God, who promises a far-off divine event to which the whole creation moves ... the glorious Messianic time in which righteousness will prevail in all the earth.”  
After the Russian pogroms of 1903, Rabbi Cohen gave a passionate sermon denouncing religious intolerance. Women took off their jewels. Husbands offered large sums. According to the author, “The rabbi said that he would not take money ‘on Shabbos,’ but the next day there would be a mass meeting. They should be there. The rabbi persuaded Galveston’s bishop, Nicholas Gallagher, considered by his parishioners distant and authoritarian, to sign a petition protesting the pogrom ... The atrocity at Kishineff was followed by other massacres. Russian Jews reacted in different ways. Some joined the Russian Social Democratic Party, led by Lenin, and, like Trotsky, tried to assimilate. Others favored a socialist revolution but insisted on retaining their Jewish identity ... A smaller group, centered in Ukraine, where the violence was most intense, saw no hope for Jews in Russia, but they still wanted to build socialism. Where? In Palestine. Their Jewish nationalism would be controlled by the workers and farmers in kibbutzim. A much larger number — some 2 million Jews from Russia and Poland — gave up on Russia and turned to America, a land where they could be free from oppression, free to build a new life ... These Jews poured into the poorer neighborhoods of the East Coast cities: Philadelphia, Baltimore, but especially the East Side of New York. Of those 2 million, about 10,000 found their way to the Port of Galveston.”  
Galveston Movement  
What became known as Galveston Movement engaged Rabbi Cohen’s enthusiastic participation. After the pogroms and the beginning of large-scale emigration of Eastern European Jews to the United States, wealthy German Jews in New York were, according to Bernard Marinbach’s definitive history of the Galveston Movement, “embarrassed” by having so many Jews living in the squalor of the East Side. At the same time, opposition to immigration was growing within the American society. Jacob M. Schiff, successful investment banker and generous philanthropist, believed that if a significant portion of Jews could be settled in the Southwest and Midwest, where employment was more readily available than in urban ghettos of the East Coast, then those who sought to restrict immigration would no longer be able to argue convincingly that immigration costs American jobs.  
Support was sought from Israel Zangwill’s Jewish Territorial Organization, which had as its goal finding a region where Jews could establish an autonomous entity, and to reroute Russian Jews from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast required the cooperation of Hilfsverein de Deutschen Juden, the major German Jewish relief organization which was coordinating the exodus of Jews from Russia through Hamburg and Bremen. Zangwill agreed to work with Schiff, perhaps because his attempt to establish a Jewish nation in Uganda had failed.  
“Galveston was ideal,” states the author, “too small to offer economic opportunities that would tempt immigrants to stay there, and close to the West, with railroad lines going through Texas to the Midwest and Southwest. And, of course, Rabbi Henry Cohen, whose energetic humanitarianism was not unknown to Schiff ... David Bressler of the Industrial Removal Office sent his assistant, a highly qualified social worker, Morris Waldman, to Galveston to become general agent of the Jewish Immigrants’ Information Bureau. It was responsible to the Galveston Committee, made up of Schiff, Bressler, Waldman, Cyrus Sulzberger and other prominent German Jews as well as Rabbi Cohen.”  
First Boatload of Immigrants  
The first boatload of immigrants arrived in Galveston on July 1, 1907. In A History of the Jews in America, Howard N. Sachar describes the arrival: “One of those who awaited the newcomers to the United States was the local Galveston rabbi, Henry Cohen ... Cohen’s responsibilities transcended those of the local congregation. He functioned as a circuit-riding rabbi for some 12,000 Jews scattered throughout Texas in towns from Nacodoches to Brownsville. When any person was in need, for that matter, whether Jew or Gentile, white or black, it was often Cohen who was consulted first; and, when called, he was off on his bicycle to help ... And now, in 1907, alerted to the proposed Galveston Plan ... the ubiquitous Rabbi Cohen characteristically shared in arrangements for receiving the first immigrants. By the time the Cassel docked in July, 1907, Cohen’s spadework was well evident. A brass band serenaded the disembarking Jews. The mayor of Galveston gave a speech of welcome (with Cohen simultaneously translating into Yiddish), then insisted on shaking the hand of each arriving Jew. The immigrants were overwhelmed. Afterward, from headquarters established in a local hotel, Cohen personally ensured that the newcomers received hot meals and baths. The next day ... they received their travel instructions and railroad tickets.”  
Galveston Mayor H.A. Landes told the newcomers: “You have come to a great country. With industry and economy all of you will meet with success. Obey the laws and try to make good citizens.” One of the immigrants, a former school-teacher, responded in halting English, with the assistance of Rabbi Cohen. His words were reported in the Galveston Daily News: “We are overwhelmed that the ruler of the city should greet us. We have never been spoken to by the officials of our country except in terms of harshness, and although we have heard of the great land of freedom, it is very hard to realize that we are permitted to grasp the hand of the great man. We will do all we can to make good citizens.”  
From July 1907 through September 1914, approximately 10,000 Jewish immigrants entered the U.S. through Galveston. They were sent to 21 cities in Missouri and Minnesota (the states that received the largest numbers), as well as cities in Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Nebraska, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. Fewer than 300 remained in Galveston.  
Blow to Galveston Movement  
The fatal blow to the Galveston Movement came when Woodrow Wilson, with the ardent support of restrictionist labor leaders, was elected president, Jacob Schiff, whose Washington contacts were all Republicans, lost much of his influence. Schiff called a special meeting of the Galveston Committee on April 17, 1914 and proposed ending the Galveston Movement. Bernard Marinbach argues that the scattering of Jews throughout the country made it possible for Judaism to be accepted as one of America’s three great religious traditions. “For Rabbi Cohen,” writes the author, “success was measured not by numbers but by the enormous impact that the movement had on each individual Jew who was able to begin life anew in a land where there truly was opportunity.”  
Rabbi Cohen’s impact on one family was conveyed to his grandson in a letter from Milton Harelik, whose father, Haskell, landed in Galveston in 1909 at the age of 19. Haskell spoke eloquently to Milton of how Rabbi Cohen, speaking in Yiddish, made him feel “at home.” In 1913, Haskell married Milton’s mother, Matley, with whom he had traveled from Russia in 1912. They had three sons: Sam, Louis, and Milton. Haskell became a banana peddler and later owned a grocery store and then a dry goods store in Hamilton, 70 miles west of Waco. After serving in the military during World War II, Sam and Louis opened stores in Waco and Comanche. Milton inherited the family store in Hamilton. He had three children. The oldest, Mark, wrote a play, “The Immigrant, A Hamilton County Album,” based on his family’s history and performed in many theaters throughout the country. Though his is the only Jewish family remaining in Hamilton, Milton writes that, “The city has just recently built a hospital on land that Poppa donated ... We belong to Agudath Jacob synagogue in Waco ... I like to think that fate and Rabbi Cohen each combined to steer us to this magic life we lead.”  
General Huerta’s Regime in Mexico  
With the end of the Galveston Movement, new challenges repeatedly appeared for Rabbi Cohen. When President Wilson refused to recognize the military regime of General Huerta in Mexico, marines landed in Vera Cruz and 600 U.S. citizens rushed home through the port of Galveston. Throughout 1914-15, at the request of Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, the rabbi administered a relief fund of $75,000 provided by the Red Cross. Now a veteran welfare worker, he was making such decisions as whether or not to purchase 25,000 pounds of Manchurian lima beans which a Louisiana company wanted “to move at a cheap price, in order to get out from them before the next crop begins to come in.” It is not known if the rabbi came to the aid of the Lake Charles wholesaler, but it is known that he helped hundreds of American citizens in distress. To cite one instance: the rabbi was instrumental in securing the release of a Mr. Richardson from a firing squad. The details are obscure, but when Mr. Richardson returned to the U.S. via Galveston, he went directly to the rabbi to thank him for his life.  
In June, 1916, Rabbi Cohen delivered the Baccalaureate Address to newly ordained rabbis at Hebrew Union College. He warned the graduates not to enter the rabbinate for materialistic reasons: “Other callings and professions are chosen and followed for the comfort that may accrue to the material side of life ... (But) woe to the rabbi whose choice of his profession is based on the belief that his life’s work will give him ease and comfort, social preferment or more than a living for himself and his nearest household. The rabbi is at all times the cynosure of all eyes, a lawful object of criticism, whether he serve his community for one year or for thirty.”  
Many rabbis, then as now, are disappointed if they must remain in smaller communities. Rabbi Cohen’s response: “If contentment is a virtue, the virtue is enhanced a thousand-fold when the rabbi, particularly the young rabbi, is content to remain in a small city and to visit, in circuit, towns and hamlets, faithfully to minister to the needs of his people, seeking that promotion only to which he is entitled by his ability and actual work ... All sociological service finds in him a ready help according to his ability, social conditions otherwise give him a distinct place. The intimate relationship between priest and people may not obtain to as great an extent in populous centers as it does in towns, but even in large cities the Jewish leader is from time to time called upon to exercise these very functions — and he would not be found wanting.”  
Pulpit Must Stand for Spirituality  
Finally, Rabbi Cohen sounded as though he was referring to religious trends in the 1990s: “But above all, the Jewish pulpit must stand for spirituality. Lectures in their place, but sermons — spiritual outpourings — always! Book reviews, topical subjects in due season, calls to social welfare as occasion demands, the tocsin against political — these may be in place, and who shall deny the pulpit a voice for the upkeep of educational and charitable institutions? Above all else, however, the rabbi must minister to the heartbroken and sorrow-laden; he must cheer the bruised of spirit and encourage the weary; he must bring God’s comfort to the bereaved and console the failures in life’s battles. His clarion call to duty must be lifted in no uncertain voice, drawing on the wisdom of the ages and the trials and triumphs of his people to serve the purpose of a spiritual renascence.”  
The day after America entered World War I, Rabbi Cohen’s son, Harry, volunteered and was sent to France with General Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force. The rabbi learned that there was no provision for Jewish chaplains in the U.S. Navy. He urged Congress to pass and the president to sign the Naval Chaplain Bill. President Wilson, recognizing the rabbi’s role, sent him the pen with which he had signed the legislation. Rabbi Cohen also functioned as unofficial chaplain to the Jewish soldiers at Fort Crockett in Galveston.  
Reminiscing about the war, the author writes, “The rabbi told his son and daughter-in-law that he once received a visit from a soldier named Mandel, who was stationed at Camp Logan in Houston. Rabbi Cohen recognized him as one of the immigrants who had come to the U.S. through the Galveston Movement. It was Mandel who had to remind the rabbi that he had arrived on the S.S. Cassel and was the man who had responded to the mayor’a greeting: ‘A time may come when your country will need us; we will not hesitate to serve you with our blood.”  
Revival of Ku Klux Klan  
In the years after 1915, the Ku Klux Klan experienced a revival. In the l920s, the Klan broadened its attack to include not just blacks but Catholics, Jews and immigrants. The Klan came to Texas and George Kimbre, former Harris County deputy sheriff, became the State Kleagle and Houston became the base of statewide Klan operations. In 1920, the Texas Klan led the nation with ten lynchings. Klan candidate Earle Phyfield was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1922 and by 1923 at least a third of the Texas legislators were Klansmen or Klan sympathizers. In 1924, Texas voters gave Miriam “Ma” Ferguson a decisive victory over Klan candidate Felix Robertson. In 1926, Dan Moody was elected governor. Moody, as the state’s attorney general, had successfully prosecuted Klansmen. In 1927, Governor Moody would proclaim, “The Klan in Texas is as dead as a doornail.”  
In Galveston, Klan activity was minimal. The author reports that, ”Among the reasons for such minimal Klan activity in Galveston was the high regard with which Galvestonians viewed Rabbi Cohen and Father Kirwin, hometown heroes, especially since their work to revive the city after the storm of 1900. Through the influence of Cohen and Kirwin, the Klan was denied a permit to march through the city. Father Kirwin and Father Marius Chataignoon threatened to bring a cadre of parishioners to break up any such event with tear gas. Because of the efforts of Rabbi Cohen, the pro-Klan film ‘Birth of a Nation’ was not shown in Galveston. The Klan was also vigorously opposed by the Galveston press, particularly the afternoon paper, the Tribune, which happened to be published by Harry, the rabbi’s son.”  
Even as the Klan was in decline in 1926, the rabbi lost his closest friend, Father Jim Kirwin. The two had been partners in their battle against prejudice and intolerance for more than 25 years. The rabbi’s son, Harry, wrote in the Galveston Tribune: “Suffice it to say that was the saddest day in the rabbi’s life ... when bareheaded with unconcealed tears flowing down his cheek, he followed behind the bier of his dearest friend through the streets of a city they had loved and served so well.”  
The author recalls that, “Eight years after Father Kirwin’s death, Harry I. Cohen, my father, kept the priest’s memory alive in a beautiful tribute published in the Catholic periodical America, July 31, 1934. In conclusion, he related an incident that occurred when the Klan was holding a parade in Houston: ‘Yet the most courageous act which he (Kirwin) performed, and the one that had the most far-reaching consequences, was his refusal to salute an American flag flying on the corner of Main and McKinney in Houston, the raising of which the Klan had sponsored. ‘That flag,’ said Father Kirwin, ‘has a dirty spot on it.’”  
Prison Reform  
Another passion of Rabbi Cohen was prison reform. In 1917, he was chairman of a state commission on the aftercare of prisoners. The rabbi deplored the sometimes cruel treatment of prisoners, who were still being whipped into obedience. He wrote in 1917: “For upwards of a quarter-century, I have asked friendless men, incarcerated in the State penitentiaries, to come to Galveston on their discharge. My plan is to find work for them — work that they can do best — and persuade them to report to me weekly.”  
Rabbi Cohen’s humanitarian work, from the Galveston Movement to prison reform, had earned him a high place in the esteem of his Reform Jewish colleagues. In 1921, the Hebrew Union College lost its president, the respected theologian Kaufmann Kohler. The board of the college was searching for a successor. Its president, Carl Pritz, wrote Rabbi Cohen, asking if he would be willing to be considered for the position. The rabbi replied that he appreciated the honor of being asked, but he must decline, because “among other reasons, I have not the adequate scholarship to be the successor of Dr. Kohler.”  
A bill was passed by the Texas legislature authorizing the governor to appoint a state prison board to oversee the reorganization of the prison system. Rabbi Cohen was one of eight members of the board. To support the legislation, Rabbi Cohen addressed a joint session of the legislature. The author reports that, “In committee, the rabbi was criticized by a legislator for allowing the state board to make extravagant purchases. He cited eyeglasses made for a prisoner, as an unnecessary luxury. The rabbi replied that an optometrist friend had received no fee for examining the prisoner, and the lenses were purchased at cost. When the legislator became caustic and insulting, Governor Moody arose and told the critic, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Instead of criticizing Dr. Cohen, you should get down on your knees and thank God we have a man like him in the state of Texas’ ... Finally, in 1929, I.J. Holbrook’s excellent reform bill was passed.”  
Rabbi’s Good Works  
The stories about Rabbi Cohen’s good works are legion. The author writes: “Some stories are told about the length the rabbi would go to right a wrong in the judicial system have become part of Texas lore. There was the case of a juvenile who was flogged in a state institution. Rabbi Cohen knew the boy would be better off with his parents, so he went to the judge to ask for his release. The judge refused. The rabbi locked the door to the judge’s office and lectured him: ‘Remember how many times we picked you up out of the gutter. Of all people, you should give that boy a second chance.’ The judge released the boy into the custody of the rabbi.”  
Henry Cohen II remembers that, “It was not until 1938 that I realized how important a celebrity my grandfather was. Then it was, on April 27, that I was among the approximately 5,000 admirers who jammed the city auditorium to celebrate his 50th anniversary as rabbi of B’Nai Israel and his 75th birthday. ... The mayor of Galveston, Adrian Levy, a close friend of the rabbi and a member of B’nai Israel, welcomed the throng, speaking from his heart. An address was given by Judge Joseph C. Hutcheson of the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Hutcheson knew the rabbi well from earlier years when he was a federal judge sitting in Galveston and Houston.”  
Rabbi Stephen Wise sent a message declaring that, “... there is no man in the American rabbinate who has rendered more notable and distinguished service to his people and to the city and state of which he is a great part.” Rabbi Victor Reichert of Cincinnati, also an early leader of the American Council for Judaism, declared that, “Were he a non-Jew I am certain he would be handed down to posterity as a saint before whom men and women stand in humble adoration. Galveston, although of relatively small significance among the metropolises of America, has become through the ministry of Henry Cohen the spiritual capital of America.” Clinton Quin, Bishop of the Diocese of Texas, declared that, “While Dr. Cohen’s ecclesiastical relationship has been identified with your congregation and the people in Galveston, yet his ministry has spread itself over the length and breadth of this state and nation.”  
Universal Religion  
Henry Cohen, who became a Reform rabbi in the very year (1885) that the Pittsburgh Platform was adopted, maintained his belief in a universal religion free of nationalism. The author writes that, “Among the principles of Classical Reform Judaism was its opposition to Jewish nationalism ... These reformers considered the Jews to be a religious community ... Rabbi Cohen reflected this view in an undated paragraph from his papers: ‘The large majority of American Jews belonging to the Reform wing of Judaism ... are opposed to Zionism ... Practically all Jews who ally themselves with Reform Judaism have but one flag — the Stars and Stripes ... We are American citizens of the Jewish faith as others are American citizens of the Christian faith.”  
In 1943, after the Central Conference of American Rabbis passed a resolution in support of a Jewish army, Rabbi Cohen, believing Jews should enlist in the armies in the land where they lived, became an early leader of the American Council for Judaism. Nevertheless, as a non-Zionist member of the Jewish Agency, Rabbi Cohen did favor Jewish settlement in Palestine, and in 1945, he wrote to his friend Judge Hutcheson, then chairman of the American delegation of the Anglo-American Commission on Palestine, urging abrogation of the British White Paper and allowing “unlimited immigration to Palestine for those who wish to settle there.” His grandson notes that, “Still, he did not favor the establishment of a Jewish state. He told me and others that he feared the Arab world would never accept a Jewish state in its midst, and there would inevitably be war after war.”  
Center of Civic Life  
Rabbi Cohen’s home in Galveston was, for more than fifty years, a center of civic life and intellectual exchange. Among the guests who came to visit and voice their admiration were a number of well-known nonconformists. Clarence Darrow, the brilliant defender of unpopular causes, was a welcome guest. The author recalls that, “When in Galveston for a debate on prohibition, Darrow joined the Cohens for dinner. The rabbi quickly gave him a drink, for the other expected guest was Dr. Clarence Wilson, proponent of prohibition. In his later years, Darrow returned to the rabbinage and listened with satisfaction as the rabbi spoke of his efforts for prison reform. Another guest was Maury Maverick, appropriately named as he was a maverick mayor of San Antonio. Yes, ‘the man who stayed in Texas’ often found admirers among nonconformists who questioned the conventional wisdom.”  
In his 80s, Rabbi Cohen was attending a special service at Trinity Episcopal Church, at which the son of his good friend, the Rev, Edmund H. Gibson, was to deliver his very first sermon as a clergyman before his father’s congregation. The rabbi was seated in the rear of the sanctuary: “After Robert had spoken, Rabbi Cohen, who was not on the program, to the surprise of the worshippers, made his way down the aisle to the pulpit. He turned to the young man, and, as though no one else was present, assured the cleric that he would do well in his ministry. After concluding his unsolicited remarks, the rabbi offered a closing prayer and went home for Sunday dinner. A woman later wrote that she had seen Jesus walking with him to the chancel. For Henry Cohen, walking up to the pulpit to encourage the young man was simply the natural thing to do. That afternoon, young Robert Gibson called at the Cohen home. The rabbi greeted him warmly and launched into a lecture on certain mistranslations of the King James version of the Hebrew Bible.”  
61 Years as Congregation’s Rabbi  
On September 13, 1949, at the age of 86, Rabbi Cohen announced his retirement. He had served as the congregation’s only rabbi since May 13, 1888: for 61 years and seven and a half months. His grandson believes that is a record for rabbinic longevity in one synagogue. After the rabbi’s funeral, flags in Galveston and Houston were flown at half staff.  
There is much in this book about Henry Cohen’s family, his long and happy marriage, and the influence he had upon Henry Cohen, II, the author of this book and his loving grandson. It is a fitting tribute to an extraordinary man and brings alive an earlier period both in American history and in the history of Reform Judaism. Henry Cohen was a unique individual, fittingly described by Rabbi Stephen Wise as “a soul who touches and kindles souls.” Now, his story has been made available to a new generation, one which is seeking the very spirituality and public spiritedness which so distinguished his life and career.

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.