Today is February 26, 2024 ()
History of The Jewish Community in Brownsville
and The Hebrew Cemetery
The earliest Jewish settlers came to the Brownsville area during the time of the Mexican American War around 1846. Benjamin Moses was a steamboat captain carrying freight for General Taylor’s army. Settling after the war in Clarksville, at the mouth of the river, he served as the auctioneer who sold the fleet of surplus U. S. Government steamboats that formed the nucleus of the Kenedy and King River Transportation Company. When Cameron County was established in 1848, one of the original County Commissioners was Jacob Schlanger, a lumber dealer.
Joseph Alexander was among prominent Jewish community leaders who formed the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Brownsville and Matamoros who endeavored to secure land for a Jewish Cemetery. On May 21, 1868, Charles Stillman deeded land (in consideration of one dollar) to the Society. Little did Joseph Alexander realize that he would be among the first to be buried there. Just over 4 years later, in 1872, he was the victim of a bandito’s bullet while on his way to Rio Grande City. He was the senior member of the wholesale dry goods firm of Alexander and Company of Brownsville.
In the mid-1850’s, Brownsville suffered from a siege of yellow fever. Joseph Moses, son of Benjamin and Maria Moses, died in 1858. John Alsbach, died in 1858 at the age of 30 as did his daughter Lea Alsbach, 1 years old. The 3 had been buried first in the Brownsville City Cemetery before the Hebrew Cemetery was established and later their bodies were moved.
The body of Joseph Moses was moved to the Hebrew Cemetery soon after it was established. The bodies of John and Lea Alsbach were not located until 1995, when they too were moved to the Hebrew Cemetery due to the efforts of Ruben Edelstein.
The Jewish population grew during the Civil War. Most lived in Matamoros where they were engaged in foreign trade, primarily buying and selling cotton for foreign export and buying and selling foodstuffs, fabrics, apparel, etc. to the people in Matamoros and Brownsville. Although Jewish families resided on both sides of the river, most of the Jewish settlers who resided in Matamoros were Union sympathizers. Following the Civil War, the sudden drop in the cotton trade caused almost all the families to move to Brownsville or leave the area completely.
There are Jewish veterans of many wars buried in the Hebrew Cemetery. There is 1 who fought in the Mexican American War, 3 from the Civil War (1 Confederate Army and 2 Union Army), 1 from the Spanish American War, 6 from World War 1, 21 from World War II and 2 from the Vietnam War. Also buried in the cemetery are survivors of the Holocaust.
The Cemetery is enclosed by a 100 year old, 5-foot, triple brick wall and is about ½ acre in size. It is used to this day as the Hebrew Cemetery of Brownsville for the exclusive use of individuals of the Jewish faith and their spouses, not necessarily of the Jewish faith. Jewish people from as far away as Rio Grande City used this cemetery through the 1950’s until the McAllen Jewish Cemetery was established. The Cemetery is beautifully maintained and landscaped with trees and other vegetation native to the area. The inscriptions on the tombstones give the name, birth and death date in English and sometimes in Hebrew. Some markers have a quotation from scripture written in Hebrew.
After the Civil War, a few Jewish members from both sides of the war settled in Brownsville. Dr. Arthur Wolff, a surgeon who served in the Union Forces at Fort Brown and his wife Sarah Ansell located in Brownsville in 1876. He was active in the 1882 yellow fever epidemic and later became Quarantine Officer at Padre Island. Dr. Wolff’s grandson, Dr. Harry Leow had a private practice in Brownsville, was appointed City Health Officer, served in World War I and founded the Brownsville Rotary Club.
Another Union soldier who settled in Brownsville was Louis Wise. At first Mr. Wise joined with Don Pancho Yturria in a money exchange business, and later opened a general merchandise store. Louis Wise married Anne Hornstein, who along with her sister, Rose, was visiting their brother who was a river pilot working between Bagdad and Brownsville. Rose married William Neale, son of a very early settler. They two couples are buried at the Hebrew Cemetery.
Solomon Ashheim and his wife Pauline established a store in 1865. Their son, Adolph, served as Post Master in 1898 and later helped organize the one Brownsville bank which survived the depression. The Ashheim and Bollack families intermarried.
Adolph Bollack and wife, Yetta Fellman, were the earliest Bollacks to come to this area. He had served in the Confederate forces and participated in the last battle of the Civil War outside of Brownsville at the Palmito Ranch, on May 19, 1865. Adolph moved to Brownsville in 1869 to trade in cattle and land. He brought the original Torah Scroll to the Jewish community which his family had brought from their native France.
Henry Bollack and wife, Pauline Wormser, came from Bavaria, Germany, and established a store in 1878, opposite the City Market. Henry died in 1882. His wife and daughter, Julia Bollack Wood, greatly increased the business and in 1909 built Brownsville’s first 3 story “modern” department store with the first electric elevator in the Rio Grande Valley. The outside of the building has been restored and can be seen at 1223 E. Elizabeth St.
Bernard Kowalski and wife Sophia established a general mercantile business in 1850 in Matamoros. Bernard served under General Taylor in 1845 as an officer in the Quartermaster Corp. at Point Isabel and remained with Taylor all the way to Mexico City. Their children served Brownsville in various civic capacities. Their son, Benjamin Kowalski, served as Mayor from 1912-1914.
Max Stein and wife were for many years’ prominent merchants in Hidalgo County. Well liked and popular, he became involved in a political squabble when he was appointed to replace a suspended Hidalgo County Judge. While Mr. Stein and his wife were strolling at the Reynosa Plaza during a festival he was shot and killed in 1890. The murderer was the wife of the suspended judge. His body was taken to Brownsville and buried in the Hebrew Cemetery.
Another active Jewish participant in the Brownsville community was Morris Stein, who purchased the Brownsville Herald in 1916 and was its owner and publisher until 1934.
Morris Edelstein was working for his brother in Eagle Pass. After hearing traveling salesmen extol Brownsville, he moved to Brownsville in 1913 with 2 suitcases which had his entire stock of merchandise and his clothes. His merchandise sold well and he prospered and was the founder of Edelstein’s Better Funiture in the Valley. He married Yetta Wiesenthal in 1916 in Galveston. They are buried in the Hebrew Cemetery along with other family members. Ruben Edelstein, the former director of the cemetery, is a son of Morris and Yetta.
Sam and Leon Perl arrived in Brownsville in 1920 and established the popular Perl Brothers Store for Men. Sam was a constant promoter of Brownsville, being known as “Mr. Brownsville” and had a street dedicated in his name, Sam Perl Blvd. He served as Lay Rabbi of the Brownsville Jewish community for many years. Sam and his wife Stella are buried in San Antonio. Leon and his wife Corrine are buried here.
In the 1920’s the Jewish community held services in the Masonic Hall and the American Legion Hall. A new house of worship, called Temple Beth-El was built in 1931 in West Brownsville on a corner lot donated by Mr. Ben Freudenstein who operated a custom brokerage business. He was a Jewish graduate of Notre Dame and enjoyed practical jokes which could be a subject of another history.
Isadore Dorfman established the first jewelry business in Brownsville in 1924 on Elizabeth Street and later developed the first shopping center in Brownsville on Palm Blvd. called Palm Village in the 1950’s. He purchased the land from William Abraham Leiberman, a Jewish man who called himself Snake King because he sold rattlesnakes caught in south Texas to carnivals.
In the 1940’s, a considerable number of young Jewish men were stationed at the two nearby military bases. The Temple Beth-El community opened its arms to them and offered hospitality for Shabbat and festivals throughout the year
At the onset of the U.S. involvement in the Second World War, Ely Holtzman, A Russian Jewish immigrant, who arrived in Brownsville in 1936 and established the first junk yard in town, Brownsville Iron & Metal Co., became the driving force behind a scrap campaign. At his own expense, he had a team of workers who worked seven days a week and coordinated a combined city effort which resulted in the shipment of thousands of tons of metal and rubber for the war effort. He was honored with a Navy “E” Award. He and his wife Ann are buried at the cemetery. They were the parents of Larry Holtzman, Director of the Hebrew Cemetery.
With the U.S. involvement in World War II, Uncle Sam called upon the youth of Brownsville to fight. Among the many Brownsvillians who went to war were: Ruben Edelstein, Marcel Sommer and Louis Stein.
Due to his bilingual abilities, Capt. Ruben Edelstein, who later served as Mayor of Brownsville from 1975 to 1979, was assigned to a company in Puerto Rico to train Spanish speaking soldiers. He was later sent with the VII Corp. heavy artillery and took part in the liberation of the notorious Nordhausen concentration camp, makers of V-2 missile bombs.
Sergeant Marcel Sommer was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “Extraordinary Achievement” while serving as radio operator gunner on an 8th Air Force B-17 Flying Fortress on many high altitude attacks on targets within Nazi Germany.
Private First Class Lewis A. Stein was awarded the Purple Heart for Military Merit for wounds received in action resulting in his death on January 8, 1945. His photograph, Purple Heart and citation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt can be seen on the wall at Temple Beth-El. His mother’s will left a sum of money to Temple Beth-El for construction of a religious school wing in Lewis Stein’s memory when the present Temple building was built.
The present Temple Beth-El building at 24 Coveway Dr. was erected in 1989 with the help of the funds bequeathed by Mrs. Stein and donations from congregants. On August 6, 1989, the entire congregation of Temple Beth-El took part in the ‘walking of the Torahs’ from St. Francis Street, approximately 5 miles to the new synagogue on Coveway. The walk took place on a Sunday, and many of the local churches on the route greeted the Jewish congregation with lemonade and water on their religious journey to take the sacred Torahs to their new home.