Updated: May 10, 2022
Galveston Port 1912
This article was previously published in edited form in JHSUM Fall 2021 newsletter
Between 1899 and 1914, 1.7 million Jews emigrated from Europe with the vast majority coming to America. With this influx of Jewish immigrants, there were several efforts to move them out of New York and into the central United States. The impetus was to avoid drawing attention to this seemingly foreign population and triggering antisemitism, never far beneath the surface.
I had previously written about the Industrial Removal Office, a program that assisted with jobs and transportation out of New York. Jacob Schiff, its founder and a noted philanthropist, also founded another point of entry for Jews through Galveston, Texas, providing $500,000 to support the effort. He had observed that once Jews arrived in New York the familiarity of the Jewish immigrant community often held them there. He realized the point of intervention needed to come before they got to New York.
Why Galveston? Galveston already was a busy port and train terminal so it could easily move immigrants across the country. It also had another advantage, Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston’s B’nai Israel, a highly respected British-American rabbi, was committed to helping the new Jewish immigrants. Over a seven-year period, he and his assistants greeted each ship of immigrants. Often he would board the ship to speak with the immigrants and personally welcome them in their own language and when a ship arrived in 1913 on Yom Kippur, he came on board and conducted the Kol Nidre service. Shiploads arrived every two to three weeks after a twenty-three day journey, lengthier than the ten to fifteen days to Ellis Island.
There were several partners in this effort. The London-based Jewish Territorial Organization and the Jewish Emigration Society of Kiev recruited immigrants. The Jewish Immigration Information Bureau was responsible for helping to place these new immigrants into employment, making use of a network of field representatives throughout the United States.
After docking, the immigrants would undergo a medical examination. For those that passed, the next step was an interrogation by the Immigration Inspector and a bag inspection. Bags were then transported to the nearby Bureau headquarters where the immigrants received a bath, a kosher meal and the distribution of mail. Jewish immigrants were given Yiddish newspapers and leaflets that addressed how to behave in America as well as the core tenets of the US Constitution. They were then interviewed about occupation and desired location. Their skills were matched with requests for occupational skills from the Bureau’s network. Railroad tickets were purchased, supper provided and the immigrant was provided with enough food to last to his destination, usually departing on the night train. The first ship arrived July 1, 1907. By the following day all 86 Jews were on their way to their destination. Thirteen of them were headed for Minnesota.
The Jews who came through Galveston were often more pioneering in nature, coming to communities with a much smaller Jewish presence. The program sought Jews with useful skills and a willingness to work on the Sabbath. Upon arrival, they began to focus on earning a living to save money to bring family over. They did this through jobs such as tailors and dressmakers, clerks, shoemakers, merchants, carpenters, butchers and blacksmiths. While they typically made a few dollars a month in Russia, in America a shoemaker could make $10 a week while carpenters could make between $12-$25 weekly.
Ten thousand Jews came through Galveston and 997 of them found their way to Minnesota. Aside from those who remained in Texas, only Missouri and Iowa received more.
One of the challenges was that deportations were higher than in New York, in part because of the longer sea voyage. The lower volume allowed for more scrutiny and it was felt that the Department of Commerce and Labor was unsympathetic, holding up boatloads and deporting larger numbers for often questionable reasons. Ultimately WWI forced the closure of the program.
While the original objective of 20,000 immigrants was not reached, those 10,000 who were supported by the program often became the seed of a larger community as they earned good wages, bringing their family and often drawing friends from Europe.