Most of the Jews who came to Texas in the early 1800s were merchants or peddlers, But, Jews filled every facet of the population as teachers, politicians, lawyers, landowners and doctors.
One of the pioneer merchants to come to El Paso was Solomon Schutz (1846 -?) who arrived with his uncles Samuel and Joseph in 1854 and opened Schutz Brother's Store. Solomon, a native of Westphalia, Germany, also founded El Paso's first international rail line in 1887, the Old Mule Line, which crossed the Rio Grande to Mexico. He was also elected mayor of El Paso in 1880.
Ernst Kohlberg, (1857-1910) also an immigrant from Westphalia, Germany, came to El Paso in 1875. Ernst was an entrepreneur whose International Cigar Factory (founded, 1886) was the first such business in the southwest. His civic contributions include being a city council member and founder of El Paso's Electric Light Company. He was also a deputy U.S. consul in Juarez, Mexico. His life was cut short by a bullet from the gun of a drunken tenant in 1910. Tom Lea modeled his character Ludwig Sterner from the novelWonderful Country after Ernst Kohlberg.
Ernst's wife, Olga Bernstein Kohlberg (1864-1935) was a civic leader in her own right. She established the state's first free public kindergarten in 1892 and founded The El Paso Public Library in 1895. She also contributed to the establishment of El Paso's first public hospital. Both Olga and her husband were active members of Temple Mount Sinai, as they were two of its founding members in 1898.
Many with the entrepreneurial spirit came to Juarez, Mexico, to take advantage of the tariff-free trade zone there. One such person was Adolf Schwartz (1866-1941), originally from Stropko, Hungary,who established himself there as a successful merchant. He moved across the border to El Paso because of its flourishing Jewish community and opened The Fair store. He became ill in 1902 and closed The Fair, but became a silent partner in his nephew, Maurice's, Popular Dry Goods Company. Maurice and Adolf did not share the same political beliefs and supported opposite sides of the Mexican Revolution. It is said that, on the same day, Pancho Villa's soldiers and the government Maderistas both shopped at their store, unbeknownst to the other, each having been given credit by a different brother. The Popular was an excellent employer, employing many Hispanics and was also the first store in El Paso to employ black clerks. It closed in 1995, having grown over the decades to include several locations.
A special story of hard work and family dedication made all the more remarkable because of the strict U.S. immigration policies of the times, is that of Joseph Hillel Goodman (1868-1958). He arrived in New York in 1893 from Lithuania and began work in one of the city's notorious sweatshops and also found work as a peddler. He made his way south, eventually settling in El Paso in 1902. Through hard work, he established a very successful mercantile business and, by 1925, was able to sponsor the emigration of 47 family members to Texas.
The turn of the century also saw many changes in the Jewish community as a whole. Jews began to come together as their communities grew. They needed communal things like cemeteries and places of worship to accommodate their growing populations.
Around this time, the city of El Paso was populated with approximately 16,000 citizens. The central point in the east-west rail line connecting St. Louis with San Francisco, El Paso had both sophistication and squalor. Mules pulled trolleys along tracks in the urban areas and the St. Regis Hotel (run by Ernst Kohlberg) hosted President Howard Taft and Mexican President Porfirio Diaz in 1909. Neither was it unusual for a gunfight to break out in the street.
In 1887 the Mount Sinai Association was created to care for a community cemetery and provide aid to the needy. Regular religious worship came to El Paso in 1898 when Alabama Rabbi Oscar J. Cohn moved here to recuperate from a health condition. In 1900, the El Paso Hebrew Sunday School began with classes at the county courthouse. The Mount Sinai Association constructed its first synagogue in 1900. In 1916, El Paso opened its new Temple Mount Sinai building, which boasted a gym with showers, a stage, a billiard room, a library, a moving picture booth, a large kitchen and a social hall, one of the first ‘modern' temple buildings West of the Mississippi.
This time saw the arrival of one of El Paso's most colorful Jewish characters, Rabbi Martin Zielonka (1877-1938). A native of Berlin, Germany, he came to El Paso in 1900 to fill the vacancy at Temple Mount Sinai left when Rabbi Oscar Cohn moved to a pulpit in Dallas. He quickly established a reputation as a no nonsense disciplinarian who was outraged by the vices of the times. He helped form a citizen's league to regulate such things as saloon hours and gambling establishments. What he is most widely regarded for was his work to help organize Jews in Mexico whose travel to the U.S. was stopped by U.S. immigration laws.
The years after World War I saw a tremendous influx of Jews into Mexico. Rabbi Zielonka took to task the job of helping these Jews establish themselves with work and places to live. He worked hard for years to gain the assistance of the national offices of B'nai B'rith for his efforts in Mexico. Finally, the Dallas leadership council gave approval to his ideas and granted him the aid he needed in 1921. By the 1930s, Mexico City had a B'nai B'rith bureau to support its viable Jewish community with many of its members having been personally assisted by Rabbi Zielonka.
Jewish El Pasoans were even wildcatters. Haymon Krupp (1874-1949) came to El Paso in 1890 and established himself as a pawnbroker. Soon, he had learned the dry goods business and apparel manufacturing. He also incorporated and sold stock in his companies. In 1919, he and his partner formed the Texon Oil & Land Company. He bought 430,000 acres of University of Texas land in the Permian Basin because geological studies showed in might contain oil. After two and a half years of drilling, the Santa Rita #1 well struck oil. The millions of dollars generated in income established UT and Texas A&M as major institutions.
The 20s and 30s brought new challenges for Jews and other Americans alike. The resurgent popularity of the Ku Klux Klan coupled with the Great Depression made life more difficult for Jews in particular. These years also saw a tremendous growth of the Jewish community in El Paso.
In 1921, El Paso's orthodox congregation, B'nai Zion hired their first rabbi, Charles Blumenthal. The congregation's second Rabbi, Dr. Joseph Roth (1894-1986), served for thirty years from 1923-1953. Dr. Roth was an educated man who was ordained at New York Theological Seminary and who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from New York University. During the depression, Rabbi Roth officiated without pay and sought employment with the El Paso College of Mines (now UTEP) as the chairman of the philosophy and psychology department.
The Jewish Relief Society, established with the help of Rabbi Roth, helped those affected by the depression with interest-free loans. The Jewish Community Council of El Paso (the present-day Jewish Federation of El Paso) was born of this group in 1937.
Women were also becoming much more active in politics and in social causes. The old-time Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Societies, based in charitable works, had evolved into more modern groups like the National Council of Jewish Women and Hadassah whose mission was to fulfill the educational and fund-raising needs of their congregations. They also reached out to the less fortunate in their communities. The first president of NCJW in El Paso was Mrs. Max Mayer who served from 1917-1918.
El Paso finally joined Hadassah in 1943 after the death of Rabbi Martin Zielonka, a staunch opponent of Zionism who actively crushed any efforts by El Paso women to join.
Of course, World War II and the arrival of Adolph Hitler was one of the darkest chapters in the history of Jews. Many Texas Jews turned their attention to bringing family members over from Germany. Here in El Paso, Jewish servicemen stationed at Ft. Bliss, were welcomed to weekly Oneg Shabbats and High Holy Day services. The local hangout for Jewish servicemen was the old Temple Mount Sinai building on Oregon Street where parties of all kinds were organized.
During the time just following the war, Floyd Fierman (1916-1989) was the leader of the congregation at Temple Mount Sinai. Rabbi from 1949 to 1979, he documented the history of Jews in the Southwest in a number of books and articles. From 1979 until his death, he was resident scholar and rabbi emeritus at Temple Mount Sinai and a visiting lecturer in philosophy at UTEP.
Dr. Vincent Ravel (1914 -1969), a member of B'nai Zion Synagogue, was a true community servant whose dedication to helping and caring for the El Paso community will be felt forever. A director of radiology at two El Paso hospitals, Dr. Ravel contributed to the Cancer Society and served on many area boards such as the El Paso Museum of Art, Liberty Hall and the El Paso Coliseum. He also served on the board of the El Paso Symphony and was instrumental in bringing the Israeli Symphony, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, to El Paso to perform.
The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 reflected the feelings of most Texas Jews at the time and they responded with a generous torrent of donations. El Paso fund drives raised in excess of $400,000 for the new Jewish State. Another memorable drive was organized through the efforts of Rabbi Fierman and Rabbi Leo Heim in 1967; $700,000 was raised in one night for the State of Israel following its victory in the 1967 War.
In 1967, El Paso's Jewish Community Center, featuring offices, meeting rooms, gymnasium, swimming pool and softball field opened its doors at 405 Wallenberg Drive. The opening of the JCC Preschool came not far after in 1970 and is still in operation. Today, el Paso is home to many Jewish organizations:
Jewish Federation of Greater El Paso
El Paso Holocaust Museum
Inter American Jewish Studies Program at UTEP
El Paso Jewish Academy
Temple Mount Sinai
Congregation B'nai Zion
Chabad Lubavitch of El Paso
Jewish El Pasoans have made varied contributions to their community like entertainer Jack Earle (born Jacob Ehrlich) who, at 8 feet, 7 inches tall worked in silent films. There were brothers Andy and Syd Cohen who started playing baseball in El Paso in 1922 at the Rio Grande Park and later both played baseball in the Major Leagues.
Today, business people like Gerald Rubin, former Chairman, CEO and President of Helen of Troy, manufacturer of consumer products by Revlon and Vidal Sassoon and whose U.S. operations are headquartered in El Paso, are making valuable contributions to their city and their Jewish community.
Since the days of the first Jewish settlers from Mexico, the evolution of Jewish life in El Paso continues. History is still being made by Jews in El Paso, while Jewish heritage continues to grow. As Rabbi Joseph Roth said many years ago, El Paso is ‘our oasis in the desert'. El Paso's Jewish population is a thriving community that has found its refuge in the traditions laid down by so many of our ancestors and in the open hearts and minds of its present-day congregations. We welcome you and your family to our community.
Sources for this article and great resources for those interested in Jewish, El Paso and Texas history are:
Winegarten, Ruthe and Schechter, Cathy. Deep in the Heart; The Lives & Legends of Texas Jews. Eakin Press. Austin, Texas, 1990.
Weiner, Hollace Ava. Jewish Starts in Texas; Rabbis and Their Work. Texas A & M Press. College Station, Texas, 1999.
Rose, Hymer Elias. ‘Joe' H. Goodman; Patriarch and Pioneer. Privately Published, 1978.
Goodman, Mrs. I.B. (Fanny Sattinger). In The Beginning; The Jewish Community of El Paso Texas. Privately Published, 1970.
House Congretional Record, Published February 27, 1969.
www.epcc.edu. El Paso Community College website's Boarderlands section.
www.tsha.utexas.edu. Texas State Historical Association website produced in partnership with the College of Liberal Arts and General Libraries of The University of Texas.