The Jewish congregation last week decided that they would buy themselves a lot and shortly build a brick Synagogue on it. They had no funds on hand, but two or three of the most sanguine members stated that they would get it, and after a canvass of just an hour or so handed in enough cash to buy the lot and have something like $346 over.
The site purchased is a lot on which formerly stood the home of “Three-Legged” Willie, a noted character of early Wharton days. This lot is opposite the Baptist Church, and the price paid therefor was $900.
March 28, 1979
By Tara Dooley
Courtesy of Meyer Denn
They arrived from Eastern Europe mostly, men who chose to make lives in this agricultural county of economic promise in the shrinking shadow of the Civil War.
Among the first generation was Joe Schwartz, who opened a clothing store on the county courthouse square and, as vice president of the synagogue, worked to foster Jewish community life in Wharton and nearby town.
More than a century later, his grandson, Larry Wadler, is among the last of the synagogue members.
Today, Wadler and the other 38 remaining members of the once vibrant Shearith Israel pray together at a final Sabbath service.
They gather one last time in the red-brick synagogue, shaped like a Star of David and planted right by the green marker that reminds travelers that Wharton is home to about 9,000.
They will be joined by many of their children—baby boomers who transplanted their small-town roots into the urban centers of Texas and the world, taking with them the future of the Jewish community of their youth.
“This isn’t just the history of Joe Schwartz and family,” Wadler said. “…I think it has been the history of small-town Jewry.”
Throughout Texas and the South, towns such as Corsicana, Schulenburg, Brenham, Marshall and Wharton had thriving Jewish communities that have dwindled in recent decades, said Stuart Rockoff, historian at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Miss. Some of these town’s synagogues struggle to stay open, with few members and resources. Many have closed.
“A lot of it has to do with different generations,” Rockoff said. “…Small-store-owning, entrepreneurial Jewish immigrants have given way to the third generation of Jewish professionals.
“I would imagine that Wharton would be among the last generation that is still around in small towns,” Rockoff said.
But legacy of these towns continues in the Jewish lives and practices of the children who were raised here, said Fred Zeidman, a grandson of Schwartz and a Houstonian whom President Bush recently appointed to the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Council.
“I have deep roots, great roots in Wharton,” Zeidman said. “Our family obviously have been there forever.”
Not quite forever, but since the latter half of the 1880s.
Shortly before the end of that century, Schwartz arrived to find an active Jewish community in Wharton, El Campo and Bay City.
The Jews from these cities began meeting for worship services in the 1890s. They gathered in homes and in the Masonic Lodge.
“The community grew and prospered because the gentile community welcomed them,” Wadler said. “You don’t have to go far from here to find that, that is not what always happened.”
The congregation incorporated in 1913 with the goal of hiring a rabbi “because education was very important.” Wadler said.
By 1921, a brick building with an arched entry opened its doors on South Rusk Street, a block from the courthouse square. Eventually, it would be sold, destroyed and replace to accommodate hundreds of worshippers. The Jewish cemetery took shape on North Alabama Road.
A synagogue was visible coming-of-age for any nascent Jewish community, said Hollace Welner, president of the Southern Jewish Historical Society.
“A building gives the Jewish community visibility and a sense of permanence and prominence,” he said.
The synagogue was not the Jewish community’s only brick-and-mortar evidence of prominence. The majority of businesses that lined the square around the county courthouse were owned by Jewish retailers, said Merle Hudgins, a longtime member of the Wharton County Historical Commission and history columnist for the Wharton Journal-Spectator and El Campo Leader-News.
Maureen Staller’s family history is perhaps more typical.
Staller’s grandfather, Max Bishkin, came to El Campo in 1905 and set out to earn his living on a horse and buggy, peddling wares and news from town to area farmers, Staller said. Eventually, he opened a store in El Campo, and his son, Abe Bishkin, Staller’s father, went to work as a cotton buyer.
Staller married a young Jewish Army officer from Philadelphia stationed at Camp Hulen, Sol Staller. After World War II, the Stallers remained in El Campo and became increasingly active in synagogue life.
“I wanted to live in a small town, whether it was Minnesota or Texas, and she was here, so that was it,” said Sol Staller, who is the longtime president of the synagogue.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the Jewish community grew with new members, new babies and new traditions.
The congregation’s signature event was the annual barbecue, which drew thousands in its heyday, said Arline Holland, who has been a synagogue member since her family moved to Wharton in 1925.
The 1940s were the heydays of the congregation, with 77 families on the synagogue membership rolls. The new synagogue building was completed in 1956, and at least a hundred children filled the classrooms for Sunday religious education classes.
Rabbi Israel Rosenberg was the spiritual leader of the congregation and educator of a generation of children, traveling to residents’ homes in nearby towns where his congregation lived.
On Tuesdays he was in El Campo, Staller’s daughter Sue Peixotto remembered.
“We would sit around the dining room table, and Rabbi Rosenberg would give us our Hebrew lessons,” she said.
As a member of a much larger congregation in Austin, Peixotto has been able to provide her children with a selection of opportunities for Jewish learning. But Shearith Israel also offered an experience she cannot replicate for them, she said.
“What you miss is the feeling that you know everybody and are an intimate part of their lives,” she said.
After Rosenberg died in the late 1970s, the number of families slowly began to dwindle as children moved away from town. In 1987 there were only 70 families and few children, Peixotto said.
A succession of rabbis followed Rosenberg. Eventually services were held biweekly, then monthly. The congregation could no longer afford to pay a full-time rabbi. The religious education classes ceased, and the classroom building was eventually razed.
The remaining 39 members of Shearith Israel plan to sell the synagogue and vote to decide on a Jewish organization to receive the proceeds. The group that accepts the money will be charged with upkeep of the cemetery, Wadler said.
In addition, the Torahs and Torah breastplates will be donated to Jewish organizations in need.
Congregation members have various plans for future worship. Still, they feel bereft by the closing of Shearith Israel.
“I feel when it is over and done with, we are
going to feel a loss, and I think our children will feel that way
even though they don’t live here anymore,” Maureen Staller said. “It
has been a part of our lives, and it will be something missing.”
Mr. and Mrs. Max Sprung were his hosts for the evening, and they made him comfortable. Children from the five Jewish families in Edna appeared almost as soon as the car pulled up in front of the Sprung’s door—as if they had watched for his coming. And soon Charles Peters came in from neighboring Ganado.
It wasn’t long before Eli Gottesman—Rabbi Eli Gottesman—had a class in Hebrew studying busily as the children exerted themselves to learn the language and the history of their religious forebears.
Rabbi Gottesman is a modern-day circuit rider. Throughout Texas there are still many ministers making the rounds of rural communities, small towns with too few members of one faith to support a church.
Rev. Billie B. Bonner won the title this year of outstanding rural minister of the Methodists’ Texas conference, he rides the Winfield circuit of the Texarkana district.
Rabbi Gottesman is probably the newest circuit rider in this part of Texas. When he came to Wharton in June, 1952, he decided the time was ripe to bring Judaism to all its followers in the surrounding area, rather than require them to make the long journey to Wharton from Edna, Ganado, Victoria, Bay City, Newgulf and Palacios.
As the circuit-riding ministers of early Texas were akin to the judges and peddlers on horseback, so Rabbi Gottesman and his circuit-riding brethren of other denominations are no strangers to the problems of the circuit judge and the traveling salesman.
Conditions are more comfortable than 100 years ago—they travel in upholstered auto seats instead of unsteady saddles. They sleep in air-conditioned motel rooms instead of open air sleeping bags. But the spirit of Texans, of hospitality and eagerness to participate in religion is unchanged. Frequently, the rabbi arrives in the morning, holds classes for children in the afternoon, eats supper with one of the families of worshippers, conducts evening services, then a late class, and sleeps in the family’s spare room.
He averages some 4000 miles a month, bringing religion to places where observance—though not faith—is a stranger, since Texas was founded. Rabbi Gottesman found that he was the first rabbi to come to town and teach and hold services in many of the small communities. Jews in his area formerly came to Wharton or Victoria or Bay City for services, sometimes under lay leadership. But this was difficult for the elderly.
The five families at Edna have never had services held here before when Rabbi Gottesman began making his rounds. Some of the children had never been to synagogue services. Now they are studying Hebrew, the prayers, the proud history of Judaism, and preparing for confirmation.
At El Campo, the dozen Jewish families used to drive to Wharton on Sundays for Sunday school or a service. Now many of the children attend Hebrew school every Wednesday afternoon in their home town.
Bay City was more fortunate, the score of families had built a community hall, Beth David Center, at which they held services weekly with a lay reader. Now the children study their religion one afternoon a week, and Rabbi Gottesman periodically conducts the services. An adult class meets twice a month, after services, to study Jewish history and customs.
There is just one Jew in Boling, near Wharton, and Rabbi Gottesman visits him periodically. A woman in Newgulf, who came to Wharton once a year to maintain her faith, now receives regular visits from her rabbit. At Palacios, the one Jewish family used to drive 80 miles for fellowship with other Jews in religious services, but now the rabbi is a regular caller in their home.
Victoria’s 30 Jewish families have regular services, with a lay reader from among their number, in a frame temple. Now they also have lessons in religion regularly through Rabbi Gottesman’s calls. En route to Victoria, Rabbi Gottesman stops at Foster Air Force Base, where he is the accredited Jewish chaplain to counsel and visit the Jewish airmen stationed there.
Many of the circuits of various faiths have been served for many years. Rabbi Gottesman’s visits, still a novelty, have uncovered many people hungering for the chance to learn and demonstrate their religion.
A 17-year-old boy in Ganado had not been bar-mitzvah at 13, the traditional age when a boy publicly in temple takes the vow and responsibilities of manhood upon himself. He came to Rabbi Gottesman’s Edna classes to prepare himself. A married man in another community studied for a bar-mitzvah ceremony as a surprise for his devout wife.
An El Campo girl learned Hebrew through weekly classes well enough to correct her parents in the traditional blessing recited in the ancient language.
In Rabbi Gottesman’s “home” city of Wharton, a 15-year-old girl was confirmed in the synagogue in May—the first Wharton Jewess who did not have to go to Houston to prepare for the ceremony, and go through it in the big city 70 miles from her home.
Often the families of the smaller cities have visited Houston, Dallas or San Antonio and watched (sometimes with unconscious and unwilling envy) as the Jewish congregations worshipped—dozens, hundreds, together in fellowship—in a fine large building, and then they have returned to their own humble buildings, where one of their own number led them through the hymns and prayers as best he understood them.
But, that state of affairs is changing. For circuit-riding ministers, powered by 100 horses under the hood of a modern car, are covering many times the distances of their brethren of a century ago in Texas, and they are keeping faith alive and aggressive.
Regularly, when Rabbi Gottesman made his weekly stop for Hebrew classes at the Sprung home in Edna, young Allen Spring would hang around the edge of the room. His mother did not make him go out and play with his bicycle and his toys, because he kept quiet.
“What do you want for your sixth birthday?” Mrs. Spring asked Allen once, as the Rabbi was preparing to leave after a class.
Allen was shy, silent. Then he asked softly, “Mother, for a birthday present, may I join the Hebrew class?”
Houston Chronicle Rotogravure Magazine, August 23, 1953