23.9.11

First Citizen of Texas

Friday, 26 June 1896 - Galveston, Texas

Today I ran into the man Woodrow Wilson would one day call “the First Citizen of Texas.” Perhaps more accurately he nearly ran into me. I’m afraid I wasn’t paying attention when I stepped off the curb. A bicyclist smoking a cigar and wearing a dark mustache, frock coat and fedora came around the corner and nearly ran over me!

Henry Cohen
The poor fellow swerved in time and missed me. He stopped, apologizing profusely. His accent was part Southern without out the slow drawl. He spoke so quickly his tongue tripped over it in a slight stutter. There was also something very familiar about his accent.

“No please,” I said. “It was all my fault. I do apologize, my good man.”

He peered at me with those bright eyes. “I-Is that an English accent?”

“Yes, Cambridge.” I stuck out my hand.

He took it and shook it. “London, myself. Born and raised there. Name is Henry Cohen.”

“Wait a tick!” I peered at him. “I thought you looked familiar. Aren’t you the Rabbi?”

“Yes, I am.”

Temple B'nai Israel in Galveston
“I attended your service at the synagogue about two weeks ago. Erm, where is your prayer shawl and kippah?”

“I’m not presiding over a service now, am I? I’m a Reform Jew.”

“How in the world did a London Jew wind up in Galveston, Texas?”

“Now that is a long story. What do you say I buy a fellow Englishman a spot of tea?”

I followed the friendly chap to a nearby café. He had to tip his hat and say hello to almost everyone we passed. Everyone seemed to know him.

“Is this the Jewish section of town?” I asked.

He gave me an odd look. “No, I don’t know if any group of folks dominates in this neighborhood.” He tipped his hat to an African-American gentleman. As we passed by, Cohen grinned at me. “Now, I know Reverend Jefferson is not Jewish.”

“Everyone seems to know you.”

“I am a Jewish Rabbi but first I’m a citizen of Galveston. I believe it’s my duty to help out anyone where I can. And everyone seems to bring their problems to me. I believe I am what you would call a Yenta.”

“Yenta?”

“Busybody.” He chuckled. “I’m sorry, but if I see someone in trouble I just feel obliged to help them.”

Benjamin Disraeli
1st Earl of Beaconsfield
We made it to the café. I got Cohen to tell me his life story, which was anything but dull. Born is London in 1863, he was the son immigrants from Poland. While only fifteen Cohen got a job with the Board of Guardians who administered relief to the poor. At night he attended Jews College. One chap who frequented the Board was so impressed with the boy’s hard work that he nicknamed him “Little Henry.” Needless to say, Cohen was awestruck that the former Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli even noticed him.

“I grew up in a country where a Jewish boy could grow-up to become anything--even an English lord.”

“Why did you leave England?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Sense of adventure maybe. I decided to become a Rabbi, but when I was 18, I decided to take a break from my studies. So I went to Kimberly, South Africa and got a job in a dry goods store to pay my expenses. I’ve always been good with languages, so I picked up Zulu. I got so good the British army hired be as a part-time interpreter. But they insisted I learn how to use a rifle.

“Once when they troops were gone, the Zulus attacked the town. I was handed a rifle and drafted as a defender to hold off the natives until the army could return. I made a terrible soldier. I couldn’t bring myself to shoot anyone. So a Zulu warrior grabbed my rifle out of my hands and hit me over the head with it. Left a scar--see?” He pulled back his hair to show me.

“I take it you survived.”

“Yes, but unfortunately I found out I was on the list of fatalities. My parents had given me a shivah--a mourning ceremony. Needless to say my parents were overjoyed to find out I was still alive.

“Exactly two years later I returned to London and finished out my studies. I graduated a year later and got my first assignment down in Jamaica.” He shook his head. “It was there I learned what anti-Semitism was.”

“Oh dear. Was it the folks of European or African descent that were anti-Semitic?”

“Neither. It was the Jews themselves.” Cohen looked disgusted. “Kingston had just had a terrible fire that had destroyed both of it’s synagogues. The two congregations decided to pool their resources. And I wound up in the middle.”

“Were they Reform and Orthodox?”

“I think that would have been easier. They would have tried to work out their differences and respect each other. No, this was Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. I would give a service in Sephardic one Sabbath and then Ashkenazi the next. That didn’t make them happy. They both wanted it their way all the time. When I told my landlady that my parents were from Poland, she said she would kill herself if she found out she had one drop of Ashkenazi in her.”

“That’s horrible!”

“Yes, I couldn’t believe the stupidity. What is really strange it’s not religion they argued about, but slight variations in customs. I was so glad to get away from there. Problem was I really didn’t want to return home. My parents were Orthodox and I was leaning toward Reform. Then I heard a congregation in Woodville, Mississippi was looking for a rabbi--even one who was only a minister.”

“You’re not really a rabbi.”

“Not officially. England didn’t have any schools that could ordain a rabbi--a legal translator of the law. I couldn’t afford to go overseas to a school that could. In America in the South and out West, the Jewish communities are just so glad to have a teacher. Minister is close enough to a true Rabbi for them. However, they do call me rabbi anyway.”

“But Mississippi? Aren’t they prejudice there?”

“No. The Jews got along with each other and they got along with their Christian neighbors. In fact, the Christian businessmen wouldn’t open their shops on Saturday until after the Sabbath service. Some of them would even attend. They didn’t want to convert, they just liked my sermons. They were polite, so we welcomed them. I really liked Woodville, but it was a small town. They only had eighteen Jewish families. So in ‘88 when I got an offer from Congregation B’nai Israel here in Galveston, I would be a fool not to take it.

“Galveston is a very nice place, too. People accept Jews here. Did you know I was recently invited to a banquet for Cardinal Satelli to say the blessing? I did it in Latin. I think I was the only non-Catholic there. How many places would do that? I’m part of the community. They like me, I like them. I’ll probably stay here the rest of my life.”

Yes, Henry Cohen will. He will be very lucky in the 1900 hurricane. Not only will he and his wife and two children survive, but his home and synagogue will suffer minimal damage. In fact he will offer it to four ministers who had their churches destroyed, so they can have services on Sundays until they can rebuild. That will be the least of his help in rebuilding Galveston.

Galveston After the 1900 Hurricane
As soon as the storm let up, Henry Cohen was out to help the less fortunate. He found a wagon and mules and started scrounging for food and medical supplies, and headed for the hospitals. He helped Clara Barton and the Red Cross set up tents. When the Governor created an official Central Relief Committee several days later, he appointed Cohen the head. Why not? He was already the unofficial head.

As I mentioned before it will be estimated that 6,000 to 12,000 died in the 1900 hurricane. There was never an accurate count of the dead bodies. No one knows how many were swept out to sea. Also add to that those who just up and left, fleeing from the horror or just out of necessity, having lost their home and livelihood. Most buildings were smashed and the few standing were damaged. Galveston was quickly becoming a ghost town.

What Galveston needed was labor to clean up and rebuild. Poor Jews from Eastern Europe were pouring into New York, only to find crowded slums and no jobs. Cohen campaigned to bring them to Galveston. 10,000 came and he shook hands with everyone of them and helped them get settled. He helped other immigrants as well from Greece, Italy and Mexico.
Rabbi Cohen greeting immigrants
as they step off the ship
(that's him, second from the left)

Here is an example to give you an idea of the lengths Cohen would go to help out an immigrant. A ship came in from Russia full of Jews. However, they found a stow away onboard. Having no papers and coming into the country illegally, he faced immediate deportation. The poor fellow begged them not to. He was a political refuge. He would be shot for the crime of not agreeing with the government if they sent him back.

Cohen told the authorities to postpone deportation and he would get him amnesty. The rabbi, without stopping to pack, jumped on the first train to Washington, D.C. When he got there he jumped into a cab and went straight to the White House. At this point Henry Cohen was probably the most famous rabbi in America, so President Taft agreed to see him. Cohen pleaded the stowaway’s case. Taft shook his head. “If I make an exception for a Jew I will have to make it for everyone.” “Jew, hell,” Cohen responded. “The man is Greek Orthodox.” The amazed President Taft allowed the stowaway to stay in the country.

Henry Cohen
 years from now
Cohen will go on to be appointed on the state commission for prisons, bringing about many reforms. He will help raise the State’s age of consent from ten years to eighteen, making seducing ten years old statutory rape. In World War One he will join the army as a lieutenant, and help convince them of the need for Jewish Chaplains. In the 1920’s he will take on the Klu Klux Klan. (They never had a chance.)

He will work on so many committees and organizations, both locally and nationally, that he will become the most famous rabbi in America. Indeed, the U.S. Post Office will reroute all overseas mail addressed to “Rabbi Henry Cohen--United States of America” directly to Galveston.

Meanwhile he will remain rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel for 64 years, until his death in 1952 at the age of 89. He will also remain a “busybody” helping anyone who needs it, no matter their religion, race, or social station.

Rabbi Henry Cohen pulled out his watch and shook his head. “I best be going. I have to a lot to do.” And he was off and running.

I watched him jump on his bicycle and speed away. I had to smile. Yes, he does have a lot to do--and somehow he will get it all done.



Here is a lecture Rabbi Henry Cohen gave at the Medical Department, University of Texas:
Hygiene and Medicine of the Talmud
(Did I mention Cohen took it upon himself to create the medical school’s first student loan fund?)

One of the many monographs Cohen wrote on the history of Jews in Texas: The Settlement of Jews in Texas


This plaque was erected in 1980 by the State of Texas in front of the Galveston Courthouse. It reads:
Rabbi Henry Cohen (1863-1952), called the "First Citizen of Texas" by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, Rabbi Henry Cohen, an internationally known humanitarian, was born in London, England. He came to Galveston in 1888 as spiritual leader of Congregation B'Nai Israel and served for 64 years until his death.

In 1889 he married Mollie Levy (1862-1951) and they had two children. After the disastrous storm of 1900, Texas Governor Joseph D. Sayers appointed Rabbi Cohen to head the Central Relief Committee. From 1907 until World War I he helped shiploads of immigrants become settled in cities around the country. During World War I he was instrumental in influencing congress to provide Jewish Naval Chaplains. Appointed to the Texas Prison Board by Governor Dan Moody, Rabbi Cohen introduced measures for more humane treatment of prisoners. He assisted New York slum residents in Galveston today.

When Rabbi Cohen died, the Commissioners Court of Galveston County called him one of the country's greatest humanitarians and spiritual leaders.

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