Wanted: Rabbi. Young man, native of America or England, that is a good lecturer who can make himself agreeable with either Orthodox or Reform Congregation. In other words, we want a MIXER. We pay $1,500 a year. 1
Rabbi Samuel Rosinger was uncertain whether Beaumont’s Temple Emanuel wanted a rabbi or a bartender. Intrigued by the Texas mystique and charmed by the colloquial ad, the Midwestern rabbi was among a handful of clergy who responded to the synagogue’s search in 1910. Other rabbis who answered the call were more educated and experienced than Rosinger, a 32-year-old with only two years in a pulpit. Yet only Rosinger was invited to deliver a trial sermon in the Texas oil town. After a weekend of preaching in his thick Hungarian accent, the darkly handsome Rosinger signed a two-year contract that stretched into a lifetime.
Months after he was hired the rabbi asked temple President Hyman Perlstein, “What made you decide to invite me?” Perlstein replied, “I liked your beautiful handwriting.” 2
Forget theology. Forget philosophy. Forget erudition. Forget credentials. During Texas’ post-frontier, turn-of-the-century years the Lone Star State’s remote Jewish congregations wanted their rabbis to be mixers—ethnic brokers who could “bridge the gap between different cultures,” ambassadors-at-large to the gentiles, envoys who would mix and blend and make a good first impression. 3 They wanted men with personality and presence, leaders able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the pastors at the First Baptist Church and the Catholic priests of the plains. A rabbi’s views, ritual practices, oratorical style, scholarship, and piety were secondary to human relations. Small in numbers, Texas Jews sought not spiritual guidance but role models who could dispel unvoiced prejudices and act as representatives to the larger community. In the opinion of Rabbi David Rosenbaum, leader at Austin’s Beth Israel temple from 1911 to 1922, Texas Jews had grown self-conscious about [End Page 289] Judaism and wanted each rabbi to be “the Honorable Ambassador and Minister Plenipotentiary of the Synagog [sic].” Writing for The Jewish Monitor, the rabbi added: “We no longer live in the Ghetto world of our own. . . . The Christians’ favorable view of the rabbi is of paramount importance to us.” 4
Given such scant selection criteria, rabbis who gravitated to Texas were generally not at the top of their rabbinical classes, if indeed they had attended a seminary. Many were “free-lancers,” never ordained. 5 They tended to be mavericks. Some, particularly those from Europe, wished to break with religious traditions and believed it possible in a place with little Jewish history. Others had no better pulpit offers. Many reluctantly came to a state that seemed virtual exile with its dirt roads and dearth of Jews. Ironically, rabbis who remained any appreciable length of time excelled in the face of challenge. In a young state with little hierarchy or caste, they stepped into a leadership vacuum and left footprints that helped shape twentieth-century Texas.
Texas was Bible Belt territory where assimilated Jews called themselves Hebrews and were respected as people of the Book. Rabbis, no matter how small their fiocks, often achieved the eminence of bishops as they moved to meet the basic human and communal needs in the sparsely populated state. Their Old Testament roots gave them a “degree of prestige” as leaders of the chosen people. 6 Schooled outside the region, rabbis represented erudition and an exotic addition to the frontier. Having assumed a seat at the table, rabbis became community leaders whose opinions mattered. Elsewhere they may have been perceived as mediocre or parochial, but in Texas these clergy had moral clout. A rabbi’s sense of social justice, honed through centuries of Jewish thought, gave him sway in a dominion where most Christian clergy emphasized salvation in the next world rather than on earthly turf.
From the start, Texas proudly distinguished itself from the Deep South and the rest of the nation. Its history harks back to 1836 and a war for independence from Mexico, not England. During the...