Imperialist Russia, including what is today much of Eastern Europe, was a dangerous and oppressive homeland for millions of Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Hundreds of programs, organized for destruction and massacre, were conducted by Russian workers against the Jews during this time period, and the authorities did little to nothing to curb them. As a result, a tremendous wave of Jewish immigration flooded the cities of the eastern seaboard in the United States, most notably New York City. Fear grew that U.S. anti-Semitism might become prevalent because of such a massive influx into an already-overcrowded metropolis, and that at a time of economic crisis. Were that to happen, Jews fleeing a repressive Russia might lose their welcome to an American Promised Land.
In 1907 a wealthy New York Jew named Jacob Schiff spearheaded (and largely financed) a movement to divert such a potential crisis by channeling Jewish immigrants into the United States interior, bypassing the Jewish communities of New York altogether. Ports such as Charleston, South Carolina, and New Orleans were considered, but the immigrants were unwanted at Charleston, and they were too likely to stay in New Orleans rather than disperse to other locations. Finally, Schiff’s agent Morris Waldman selected the Port of Galveston, Texas, with its strong transportation network with Midwestern and Western United States, as the best place to introduce the Jews to Middle America. Galveston was small enough that it would merely be a stopping off point for the newcomers, and it was a passenger port for Lloyds Shipping Company, which served the German port of Bremen through which Eastern European Jews normally left the continent of Europe.
The first shipload of Jewish refugees arrived in July 1907. Two days before they arrived a warehouse that had been converted into a reception center for the immigrants burned to the ground, which raised fears about their welcome. But the mayor of Galveston received them with a warm speech, and a Russian schoolteacher responded with a speech expressing the gratitude of the group. The Jewish Immigrants Information Bureau took over from there, providing connections to jobs in towns and cities from Texas to South Dakota and from the Mississippi River to the West Coast.
Also welcoming the immigrants was the energetic and compassionate Rabbi Henry Cohen of Temple B’nai Israel. Over the course of the next seven years that the Galveston Movement was in operation, Cohen met every ship without fail, got to know the passengers, spoke in their familiar Yiddish, and helped locate food, shelter, transportation, and jobs for the displaced individuals and families. When a ship arrived in 1913 on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jews’ holiest day of the year, Cohen boarded the ship and conducted a service for the immigrants.
From 1907 to 1914, when the Galveston Movement was discontinued as World War I began, 10,000 Jews found their new homes in America with the help of the Galveston Movement, a small percentage of the two million displaced Jews worldwide. But the dispersion of the Jews throughout the western United States through the Port of Galveston not only strengthened the many small communities in which they established themselves but gave the Jewish people a much stronger presence in American commerce, government, media, and academia than would have existed were they to have remained concentrated in the cities of the eastern seaboard.