Jewish History On The Gulf
Spring blows into Galveston Island on a warm Gulf breeze. By April, these peaceful golden shores are basking in 70-degree afternoons, with native seabirds circling overhead and lazy ripples spreading from the fishermen’s lines. Weekend traffic is starting to get heavy: Houston is just a 40-minute drive away.
It’s all so peaceful that it can be hard to imagine that Galveston is most famous for the Category 4 hurricane that walloped it — unforeseen — in 1900, still the deadliest natural disaster on record in the U.S. By the time Hurricane Ike came along 108 years later, at least it wasn’t a surprise. But waves crashed right over the 17-foot Galveston seawall, flooding the city center and greatly transforming the island.
Amazingly, this vulnerable barrier island survives along with the landmarks that define it: no fewer than six historic districts of Victorian-era buildings, literally thousands of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. When the tide is low and the sun is shining, the combination of grandeur and Gulf Shore beaches makes this resort something of a throwback American idyll.
Thirty-two miles long and just two miles wide, Galveston Island was thought to be the ideal destination for European Jews a century ago. That was when the so-called Galveston Movement diverted thousands of new Jewish immigrants from oversaturated Ellis Island to this convenient Southern port. The idea was to ease overcrowding in the East Coast cities, taking advantage of Galveston’s access to the rapidly expanding American West.
Today, Galveston Island still has plenty of allure, especially for Houston residents, who have rediscovered the once-neglected resort as a weekend getaway. Many Jewish Houstonians proudly trace their lineage to the movement; you’ll still hear references to Galveston as “Ellis Island West,” as it was at one point the second-biggest point of entry for European immigrants.
Those immigrants joined an already-established Jewish community. The Reform Temple B’nai Israel was founded in 1868; still thriving today, it is one of the oldest synagogues in Texas. The “shul by the shore,” Congregation Beth Jacob, is a Conservative temple whose elegant home dates to the early 1930s.
Both temples are located in the city of Galveston, centered on the island’s eastern end. Lacey ironwork adorns buildings in the Strand, a onetime hub of Texan commerce; the East End, a nearby historic district, is dotted with candy-colored Victorians. Many of the historic structures were flooded and badly damaged by Ike, but restoration has been vigorous, and the grandest homes have lately reopened for tours.
Moody Mansion is one longtime favorite. The red-gabled villa, with its arched white porticoes and palm-shaded gardens, was built by the Moody family (of Moody financial fame). Visitors can take a 20-room tour and see what Texan wealth looked like circa 1895.
Another landmark to survive both hurricanes is the Grand 1894 Opera House. Lavish and very slightly gaudy in that Wild West way, the theater is everything its name promises. Serious opera is more of a Houston thing, but the Grand is full of ambience and hosts the Galveston Symphony Orchestra, the Texas Tenors and plenty of lighter fare.
Compared to its late-19th-century heyday, downtown Galveston seems fairly sleepy. It has a distinctly Southern pace that suits its humid climate; the entire Strand is easily covered on foot. Art galleries, boutiques and seafood restaurants provide air-conditioned respite.
Or you could head out to the shore: virtually every bit of Galveston’s Gulf coast is beach. The other side is a swampy, unspoiled string of bayous and coves perfect for bird watching or fishing. Swimmers will find the waters delightfully warm compared to the Atlantic, with gentler currents.
A short drive outside the city, Galveston Island State Park covers 2,000 acres, with hiking trails, kayak launches, and other facilities. Its shoreline was recently voted one of Texas’s top beaches by the Travel Channel.
There is certainly a lot more beach than there used to be — or more accurately, more beach where other things used to be. Dunes, buildings, and parking lots were all swept away by Ike, leaving new expanses of sand. The park website documents this metamorphosis in a series of fascinating before-and-after photos and videos.
This landscape may seem pastoral, even timeless, but the message is stark: Yesterday’s dunes are tomorrow’s sandbar. Given the fragility of this spot, it is remarkable — and fortunate — that so much Galveston history is left to share.