29 April 2009

Texas: Oldest Jewish cemetery

Family historians looking for their Texas connections may find it in Houston. Established in 1844 - 165 years go - the city's oldest Jewish cemetery is the oldest Jewish burial ground in the state.

About 20 Jewish families joined in the 1840s to create the cemetery, about a decade prior to founding a congregation, according to this Houston Chronicle story.

The cemetery looks, presumably, better than it did in the 1800s, when one of its first capital improvement projects called for iron fences to keep out the wild hogs.

Congregation Beth Israel’s 1844 cemetery lies along West Dallas, in the shadow of downtown’s skyscrapers, between rows of newly built townhouses and the few remaining tenements that characterize much of the Fourth Ward.

On Sunday, marble headstones gleamed in the sun and a breeze ruffled kippahs as officials unveiled a plaque naming it a historic cemetery, certified by the Texas Historical Commission.

History buffs and members of the Beth Israel congregation reflected at the afternoon ceremony on the legacy of what is Texas’ oldest Jewish cemetery.

According to Jewish law, a new Jewish community must first organize a cemetery. Beth Israel Rabbi David Lyon said, "The reality was that death waits for no one."

Some of the names on the stones carry famous names: Westheimer, Sakowitz, Meyer.
“I just think it’s wonderful,” said Marsha Gilbert, a Beth Israel member who has four generations of relatives buried on the grounds. “We’ve got such a rich history, so many founders of Houston. People who immigrated from France and Germany, which I didn’t even know until I walked the grounds.”

She unlocked the door to the cool mausoleum, dimly lit by stained glass, which her great-grandparents had built in the 1930s, when her great-aunt died.
The oldest graves demonstrate how hard life was in early Houston, including yellow fever epidemics. An 1874 stone remembers a young mother, Nannie Raphael, 18, and her son Samuel, 5 months old.

Read the complete story at the link above.

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