The South Texas Jewish Archives oral history project consists of audio and video interviews with individuals and groups conducted by STJA staff and interns. The oral histories, along with other STJA materials, can be accessed via the STJA page in Fondren Library's Institutional Repository.
The finding aid for the South Texas Jewish Archives Oral History Collection can be accessed here.
Annette Betz & Jennifer Barnes oral history interview and transcript, 2020
The Medallion is an assisted living facility in Houston, Texas which is a part of Seven Acres, a Jewish senior care services nonprofit. This oral history with Annette Betz, executive director, and Jennifer Barnes, director of life enrichment, explores how The Medallion worked to adapt their practices for residents during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic.
Joe Buchanan oral history interview and transcript, 2020
This is an oral history with Joe Buchanan, a Jewish country musician who writes and performs songs about Judaism. In this interview Buchanan describes his conversion to Judaism as an adult, after struggling with searching for God in Christianity since his childhood. Buchanan further describes his musical influences, the process of creating his musical and educational Shabbat offerings, and how he feels representing Jewish Texans.
Linda Lait Burger oral history interview and transcript, 2020
In this interview, Burger describes how her family came to Texas, and then relates her experience growing up in a town with a relatively small but close-knit and engaged Jewish community. She then discusses her career path and the various organizations she worked for, including the Jewish Community Center of Houston, the Jewish Herald-Voice, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, leading to her current position at the head of Jewish Family Service.
Martin B. Cominsky is the President and CEO of Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston. He has been a community nonprofit professional since 1981, serving with Business Volunteers for the Arts, founding the SERVE HOUSTON Youth Corps, directing the Anti-Defamation League Southwest Region before leading IM’s Meals on Wheels, Refugee Services, and Volunteer and Civic Service efforts. As an active Reform Jew, Martin makes his spiritual homes at Congregation Emanu El and Congregation Shma Koleinu. He and his wife, Terry, are parents of two remarkable twins. In the interview, Martin recalls his childhood in Pasadena, Texas, and the Jewish-Christian relations there. He describes his time at the University of Houston and Southern Methodist University, and explains his professional transition from Business Volunteers for the Arts to the nonprofit sector. Martin describes some memorable projects he worked on at the Anti-Defamation League and, later, Interfaith Ministries, and speaks about the ways in which Houston non-profit organizations seek to unite the community. Lastly, Martin gives advice, based on his experience in the interfaith world, on how people can give back to their community and create a more tolerant society.
Rochella Cooper was born in South Africa in 1933. In her formative years as a musician she acquired a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Capetown (Dist. Hon.) and in 1956 left South Africa for further study at the Royal Academy of Music. Soon thereafter she moved to Paris where she continued her flute studies with Renee Rateau, (Boston Symphony 1944) and attended the salon in Nadia Boulanger's studio 1956-1958. Subsequently she accepted the position of First Flute in the Haifa Symphony Orchestra. In 1959 Rochella met and married Dr. Ben Cooper and they moved to Houston TX. where he joined the Dept. of Neurology at Baylor College of Medicine. In 1962 Rochella discovered The School of the Woods Montessori School and over the ensuing seven years served as Music Teacher, Principal, and President of the Board. She left to pursue a career as a Fiber Artist. She participated in art gallery exhibitions, received corporate commissions and exhibited in the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum. In 1979 she accepted the position of President of The Houston Festival Foundation culminating in the 1986 light and sound show “Rendezvous Houston – a City in Concert,” celebrating the Sesquicentennial of Texas, Houston and the 25th anniversary of NASA. In 1987 the call of the sea beckoned and Rochella launched her first commercial business Women at the Helm Sailing School followed by Transitions at the Helm, a program of Leadership and Team Building for corporations. 1998 She created The Artfull Garden Gallery, an outdoor sculpture gallery and also launched a non-profit organization Texans for Alternative to Pesticides TAP addressing the prolific use of pesticides by County, City and Independent School Districts. In the interview, Rochella Cooper describes her childhood growing up in Johannesburg during the apartheid era, and her early exposure to Judaism. She recounts how she met her husband and their journey from South Africa to Houston. She also talks about her first impressions of Houston and her experiences within the Houston arts community. Cooper chronicles her family’s involvement in the Jewish community and the houses she designed throughout Houston. She concludes with a discussion of her upcoming piano concert and her 35 year participation in The Houston Masterworks Chorus as singer and board director.
Joel Dinkin, a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. He also earned master’s degrees in social work from Yeshiva University, and in business administration from the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Joel initially moved to Houston, Texas in 1979 to work at the Jewish Community Center (JCC). After leaving in 1990 to serve as the executive director of the Leo Yasenoff JCC in Columbus, Ohio, Joel returned to Houston in 2006 and has since become the CEO of the JCC here, which was re-named the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center (ERJCC) in 2011. In this interview, Dinkin shares details about his upbringing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and narrates his path toward becoming a career-long professional in the Jewish Community Center world in both Houston and Columbus, Ohio.
Richard Elbein has been the CEO of the Houston & Southeast Texas Alzheimer’s Association since 2002. He grew up in the Meyerland area, where his family was a member of Congregation Beth Israel. Richard, always involved in the Jewish community, has served on the Boards of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, Congregation Beth Yeshurun, and a founding member of LGBT congregation Mishpachat Alizim. Richard is a member of Congregation Beth Yeshurun and Congregation Shma Koleinu. He and his husband, Jerry, were the first same-sex couple to be married at Congregation Beth Yeshurun in 2015. In this interview, Richard Elbein shares both his personal story of growing up gay and Jewish in Texas from the 1960s through the 2010s, as well as his experience with LGBTQ+ Jewish organizations that operated in Houston in the ‘80s during the AIDS crisis, as well as ones that worked to better integrate LGBTQ+ Jews into the Houston Jewish community through the ‘90’s and 2000s. Richard also shares how much has changed for the LGBTQ+ Jewish Community in Houston, along with his perspective on how the wider Jewish community has evolved on the issue of LGBTQ+ rights.
Inez and Sheryl Eskowitz oral history interview and transcript, 2018
Inez Kaufman Eskowitz was born on October 15, 1929 and lived her entire life in Houston. In this interview, joined by daughter Sheryl Eskowitz, Inez reflects on her family’s history, on growing up in The Heights, and on her involvement in Jewish activities through Congregation Beth El and various youth clubs. Inez passed away in March 2019.
Rabbi Gideon Estes oral history interview and transcript, 2020
Rabbi Gideon Estes is the rabbi at Congregation Or Ami in Houston. In 2015 he came out to his congregation and became the first openly gay rabbi in Houston, a process which he describes in this interview. He also discusses his role as a rabbi and the president of the Houston Rabbinical Association during the COVID-19 crisis.
Aubrey and Sylvia Farb oral history interview and transcript, 2018
Aubrey Meyer Farb was born in Galveston, Texas in September 1922. He graduated from Houston’s San Jacinto High School and then from the Rice Institute. During World War II, Farb served as a Japanese language officer stationed at Guam and Iwo Jima. Sylvia Lensky Farb was born April 1926, also in Galveston. She met Aubrey on a blind date in 1947, and they were married a year later. Aubrey went on to enjoy a successful career as an accountant in the Houston area, as a founder of the Farb, Miller & Beerman accounting firm, and he taught accounting at both Rice University and the University of Houston. In this interview, Aubrey and Sylvia discuss their family histories, and Aubrey reflects on his time at Rice and his service during World War II as a Japanese language interpreter, while Sylvia discusses growing up in Galveston. Aubrey also recalls the circumstances under which Congregation Emanu El was founded in the 1940s, and describes the creation of the Aubrey and Sylvia Farb Community Fund. Aubrey Farb passed away on January 19, 2020.
Rabbi Sarah Fort oral history interview and transcript, 2020
Rabbi Sarah Fort is an associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, the largest Conservative synagogue in the United States. Rabbi Fort is currently the only female rabbi at Congregation Beth Yeshurun, and she describes the positive impact of female clergy in her interview. She also explains her own journey leading to the rabbinate, including her childhood and education. Rabbi Fort examines the impact Hurricane Harvey had on her community and how the storm and the Covid-19 crisis have both shaped her career.
J. Kent "Kenny" Friedman oral history interview and transcript, 2020
J. Kent Friedman has recently retired as the General Counsel and Chief Administrative Officer of Morae Legal Corporation, an international legal consulting firm. Kenny has served as president of the Mickey Leland Kibbutzim Internship Foundation, president of the Southwest Region of the American Jewish Committee, and chairman of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, among many other positions in Jewish communal and Houston lay leadership. He discusses his secondary education and career, exploring how his Jewish identity adapted to and influenced his development as a lawyer and prominent community leader. Kenny speaks of his move to Houston and his involvement with the city’s political and social organizations, especially the Harris County -Houston Sports Authority.
Joyce Gilbert oral history interview and transcript, 2018
Joyce Gilbert is a Houstonian who was active with the Houston Action for Soviet Jewry (HASJ). Gilbert was born in New York City and moved to Houston with her family in 1967. She directed HASJ and served as a Vice President of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews and made her first trip to the USSR in 1984. In this interview she discusses her involvement with HASJ, her two trips to the USSR, and her work domestically to raise awareness of refuseniks. Throughout the interview she reads from a diary she kept during her two trips which is partially written in code, which she explains to the interviewers throughout.
Marilyn Hassid oral history interview and transcript, 2020
In this August 2020 interview, Marilyn Levitch Hassid reflects on growing up in Houston’s Jewish community in the 1960s and her involvement in the Jewish student boycott of the Bellaire High School graduation in 1969. She describes her time at the University of Oklahoma, where she was an active member of the Jewish student community and hosted Rabbi Meir Kahane for a memorable visit in the early 1970s. Hassid explains how Rafael Arbisser inspired her to become a Jewish educator, and how she became involved with what became the I. Weiner Jewish Secondary School (today, the Emery-Weiner School). From there, she narrates her journey to leading the arts and culture department at Houston’s Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center, shares memories of some of her favorite programs over the years, and reflects on how artists and audiences have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic
Dr. W. Ken Horwitz and Annette Sondock are siblings and natives of Beaumont, Texas. Ken is a former basketball player for the University of Texas at Austin Longhorns where he played in the 1950’s a veteran of the United States Air Force, as well as a doctor in the field of Dentistry. Annette is a musician and performer, who spent much of her early life performing and touring with groups such as the Melody Maids, and studied voice at the University of Texas at Austin. Both Ken and Annette have long careers and histories of volunteering and serving in leadership positions in a myriad of Jewish institutions and organizations, as well as at the Conservative temple Beth Yeshurun in Houston, Texas. In this Interview, Ken and Annette recount their life stories of growing up in Beaumont, Texas, and what Jewish life looked like in extreme Southeast Texas at the time, and how they were treated and seen in a city just a stone’s throw away from the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan in the state. As well as a look into what Jewish life was like on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin during the Civil Rights Movement, and what type of community was available to Jewish students at that time. Ken and Annette also give intricate insight as to what Jewish life looked like in the US Armed Forces during the 1960’s with Ken’s time in the US Air Force during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as Annette being stationed with her husband in rural Germany, and her experience of living alongside former members of the NAZI Party. The interview concludes with both Ken and Annette painting a detailed picture of their experience in the Houston Jewish community once they both moved to the city, how involved they were, and how much the Houston Jewish community has changed and evolved over the course of more than a half century.
Suzanne Shulman Jacobson was born in Stamford, Connecticut. She moved to Houston in 1975 and started working for the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston the very week she arrived. At the Federation, Jacobson has held numerous positions, including Women’s Division Director, Young Leadership Director, and many positions in the Development Department, including Vice President of Development and Senior Vice President of Major Gifts. During her career she has been the senior staff on all of the Federation’s community missions to Israel. She has traveled on behalf of the Federation also to Ethiopia, Cuba, the Former Soviet Union, Argentina, Romania, Poland and other destinations. Suzanne is married to David Jacobson, and they have three children and seven grandchildren living in Houston, New York, and Israel. In the interview, Suzanne describes her upbringing in Connecticut, in an active Jewish family connected to a tight-knit community. She narrates the circumstances that brought her to Houston and narrates the story of meeting her husband David. Jacobson explains why they, along with some other young couples, left the United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) community to form a new Orthodox congregation in the Fondren Southwest area in the early 1980s, which became Young Israel of Houston. She describes how the congregation persevered in the early years, and how it has grown and evolved in more recent decades. She also reflects on what the coronavirus pandemic was like for her community and her family, in terms of changes to patterns of religious observance and daily life. As the interview concludes, Jacobson reflects on her philosophy of fundraising as an experienced development professional and offers her view on what makes the Houston Jewish community unique.
Stephen Kaufman oral history interview and transcript, 2021
Stephen Kaufman is retired Chairman of Comiskey Kaufman Consulting and a prominent leader in the Houston Jewish community, as well as the general community. He has served most notably as President of the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center, of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, as General Campaign Co-Chair of the United Way of Greater Houston, Board Chair of the Greater Houston Community Foundation, Founder of Citizens for Good Schools, and Houston Chapter Chair of the American Jewish Committee. In this interview, Stephen details both sides of his familial history and their migrations, explaining how his parents ended up in Houston. He delves into the Jewish community of the Old Braeswood neighborhood and how it influenced his childhood, and touches on his education at Harvard and his entry into the Navy. Stephen recounts his transition into a career selling life insurance and engaging in community service in Houston.
Lewis family oral history interview and transcript, 2021
In the interview, Hanna Lewis recalls her memories of growing up in Berlin in the 1930s and her family’s escape from the Nazis. Bernard relates stories from his Houston upbringing, including anecdotes about racism and antisemitism. Hanna and Bernard explain how they met, married, and moved to Texas, and Hanna describes her experiences as one of the only Jewish students at the Rice Institute and recalls some of her favorite classes at Rice. Bernard explains the difficulties he faced as a member of the Cleveland, Texas school board during the era of desegregation. Hanna, Bernard, and their daughter, Anne Lewis, discuss their experiences as one of the only Jewish families in Cleveland and the nature of their relationships with their non-Jewish neighbors.
Libby Marvins oral history interview and transcript, 2018
Libby Marvins was born and raised in the small town of Wharton, Texas, located about sixty miles southwest of Houston. Wharton was home to a large Jewish population and to Congregation Shearith Israel, which was founded in 1899 and closed in 2002. Libby attended the University of Texas at Austin, married Edward “Buz” Zelman Marvins, and the two settled in Houston where she has been very active in Congregation Emanu El.
Julia Wolf Mazow oral history interview and transcript, 2020
Julia Wolf Mazow was born in Houston in 1937, and graduated from San Jacinto High School in 1955. She attended Brandeis University, from which she graduated with a degree in English in 1959, and went on to receive her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Houston, where she taught English and American Literature for many years. In the interview, Julia explains her family’s multi-generational affiliation with Temple Beth Israel and Congregation Beth Yeshurun. She recalls her experiences growing up as a Jewish girl in Houston, and the importance of her participation in Young Judaea. She explains how she got the inspiration for The Woman Who Lost Her Names, began to work with Lilith, organized both of Texas’ Jewish Feminist Conferences, and Mazow 2 her motivation to study and teach the work of Jewish female writers.
Sherry Merfish oral history interview and transcript, 2019
A native of San Antonio, Texas, Sherry Matusoff Merfish has had a long career in advocacy and fundraising. She received a BA in literature from University of Texas at Austin, an MA in American Studies from the University of Southern California at Los Angeles in 1975 and a JD from the University of Houston in 1981. She has spent a majority of her career advocating against the Jewish American Princess stereotype, which resulted in widespread press attention and a significant cultural shift. In this interview with Amanda Lopatin ‘21, Merfish discusses why she felt drawn to become an activist, and how she became motivated to combat the Jewish American Princess stereotype. She shares her experience combating the JAP stereotype in the past, and how the stereotype continues to influence society today.
Michael Moore oral history interview and transcript, 2020
Michael Moore is an attorney who spends much of his time actively participating in Houston's Jewish community. He grew up in El Paso, Texas, attended Rice University (Baker College, class of 1989), and eventually went to law school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Michael and his husband, Kevin Taylor, moved to Houston 21 years ago. Michael is a private pilot, an amateur chef, and a bookworm. He spends much of his time studying the Yiddish language, playing soccer, and bicycling. In the interview, Michael explains the influences which led him to explore his Jewish roots further, and he remembers his experiences as a gay Jewish student at Rice. He describes various Jewish LGBT organizations that he has participated in, and what drove him to found Keshet Houston, an organization which serves a diverse group of LGBT Jews and draws support from several synagogues in the Houston area. He explains how, along with his efforts to raise awareness for LGBT issues in the Houston Jewish community, he also advocates for the learning and teaching of Yiddish through Yiddish bay Nakht. Lastly, Michael explains how Keshet and Yiddish bay Nakht have continued meeting virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic.
William Nathan oral history interview and transcript, 1977
William Max Nathan was born in Luling, Texas in 1895, and moved to Houston with his family when he was eight years old. As a member of the inaugural class at the Rice Institute, Nathan was the first Jewish student to graduate and the first student to graduate with distinction in 1916. His son, Charles Nathan, was the first son of a four-year Rice alum to also graduate from the same institution. From the time he graduated from the University of Texas Law School in 1921, Nathan was a practicing attorney in Houston until his death in 1979 at age 84. William Nathan was among the founders of Congregation Emanu El in 1943 and served as one of its early presidents. In this 1977 interview with Dede Mayer and Florence Blum, Nathan talks about his childhood and his family life in Luling, recalls the circumstances under which Emanu El was formed out of a controversy inside Houston’s Congregation Beth Israel in the 1940s, and gives his opinions about contemporary matters at Emanu El in the late 1970s.
Rabbi Shaul Osadchey was born in Los Angeles in 1950. He became involved with the Soviet Jewry movement while a student at Los Angeles Hebrew High and continued his activism while a student at the University of California, Berkeley. Osadchey participated in a number of protests, including a peaceful disruption of a performance by the Soviet Moiseyev Ballet. In 1971, he joined a fellow Berkeley student on a trip to the Soviet Union, meeting with Soviet Jewish activists in Kiev, Odessa, and Moscow. When he returned to the United States, he formed the group Chevra for Soviet Jewry on the Berkeley campus. Osadchey attended rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College and went on to become the Associate Hillel Director at Washington University in St. Louis. In 1979, he founded the Houston Hillel and served as the director of the program for several years. In 1983, Osadchey became the rabbi of Congregation Brith Shalom in Houston, Texas. That year, during the week that coincided with Simchat Torah, he brought six congregants from Brith Shalom to the Soviet Union to meet with the prominent leaders of the Soviet Jewry movement. After returning from the USSR, Osadchey co-founded Houston Action for Soviet Jewry with several members of the Congregation. Later, he became the Rabbi at Congregation Or Hadash and Congregation Or Ami. Rabbi Osadchey also served the Houston interfaith community and participated in numerous social justice causes. While living in Calgary, Canada and serving as rabbi of Congregation Beth Tzedec, Osadchey continued his work as an activist, later creating the Calgary Interfaith Council. Osadchey’s program for the 2017 United Nations World Interfaith Harmony Week won first prize, which was presented by King Abdullah II of Jordan, the sponsor of the program. Rabbi Osadchey returned to Houston with his wife Bobbie in late 2019.
Estelle Panzer and Janis Odensky oral history interview and transcript, 2019
Estelle Panzer and Janis Odensky are two of the three Houston women, along with Judy Jordon, who created the Tradition Board Game. Modeled on Trivial Pursuit and released in 1985, Tradition is a game of “Jewish facts, trivia, and humor.” It was very popular in the mid-eighties and was sold in department stores around the United States, United Kingdom, and South Africa.
Hyman Penn was born in Houston to Holocaust survivors Linda and Morris I. Penn in 1954. Penn attended the University of Texas Medical School, and was a pediatrician at Texas Children’s for 35 years, until retiring in 2020. Penn has been a member of Temple Beth Torah (TBT) for the last 35 years. He has served as the president, vice president and Men’s Club president, and chaired the Ritual, Membership and Fundraising committees. In 2020, Penn was awarded the first Ner Tamid Award for his service to TBT. He was also recently named to the board of trustees of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. Since 2009, Penn has been a docent at the Holocaust Museum Houston and a member of the museum’s board of trustees. In the interview, Hyman Penn narrates the story of how his family survived the Holocaust and their journey from Eastern Europe to Texas. His mother Linda and grandmother Riva lived through nine different concentration camps, while his father Morris was hidden by Christian farmers in his hometown of Vilkaviskis, Lithuania. Linda and Morris met in a displaced persons’ camp in Austria and later reunited in the United States, eventually settling down in Houston in 1951 after their marriage. Penn recounts his childhood growing up both in the small town of Newgulf and in Houston. He details his engagement with the Jewish community from high school to adulthood, including how he got involved with Temple Beth Torah. Penn describes what it was like to run a congregation, especially during COVID-19 and the move to online services. He explains his choice to become a docent at Holocaust Museum Houston, and touches on a particularly meaningful experience where he told his father’s story for students at a school in Vilkaviskis. Finally, Penn discusses his passion for magic and some of his past performances at Jewish summer camps.
Irving Pozmantier oral history interview and transcript, 2019
Irving Pozmantier was born in Galveston, Texas in 1930, and grew up attending Congregation Beth Jacob, the Conservative synagogue on the island. After attending the University of Texas and serving in the Korean War, Irving moved to Houston with his first wife Sidney Reba Wisenberg Pozmantier in 1956, to work in her family's insurance business. They became very active in Congregation Beth Yeshurun, and Irving served as the congregation’s president from 1974-1976, during which time he oversaw a vote to extend greater ritual participation to women. Irving Pozmantier later served as board president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston from 1999 to 2001. In this interview, Irving Pozmantier discussed his parents and his childhood in Galveston, his army service in Korea, and his encounters with antisemitism in the military and in adulthood. He detailed his experiences as a lay leader of Congregation Beth Yeshurun through a tumultuous period in the 1970s, and reflects on how the Houston Jewish community has changed during his many decades of involvement.
Freda Delphine “Bitsy” Proler May 26, 1933 was born in Harlingen, Texas to Ben and Delma Epstein. She married Jackie Proler at Houston’s Congregation Emanu El in 1951, and, after living for a short time in San Antonio, the couple moved back to Houston, where they raised four children. Today, Bitsy still resides in Houston and remains active at Congregation Emanu El. In the interview, Bitsy recalls her experiences growing up Jewish in Houston and relates how she met her husband, Jackie Proler. She explains the early history of Congregation Emanu El and shares memories of Rabbi Robert Kahn and the Riverside neighborhood where she lived. She describes looking for a home in Houston’s Woodside neighborhood and being rejected on account of being Jewish. Subsequently, the Prolers moved to Meyerland, where Bitsy became active in the PTO at Kolter Elementary, before settling in the Marchmont area. She also remembers her experiences chairing the 1973 Israel Expo at Emanu El and, finally, speaks about how her life has adjusted recently due to Covid-19.
Born in Galveston, Texas in 1927, Sonia Farb Raizes has served as a member of Hadassah since 1948. She is past president of the Emma Lazarus Group, the Houston Chapter of Hadassah, the Greater Southwest Region of Hadassah, and is a life member of Hadassah’s National Board. She was one of three recipients of Hadassah’s National “Szold” on Fundraising Leadership Award for 2016. Sonia was honored with Houston Hadassah’s Centennial Leadership Award and was named a “Women of Courage” in the Houston Hadassah annual citywide fundraiser. She has also dedicated many years to fundraising for Camp Young Judaea in Wimberley, Texas. In the interview, Raizes describes moving from Galveston to Texas City as a child and growing up in the town’s only Jewish family. She recalls visiting her grandparents in Galveston and attending Beth Jacob synagogue there. She then recollects her young adulthood, including attending an all-girls school in Columbia, Missouri and Texas University at Austin. She explains how she met her husband, Harold, and the events that led to their marriage. Sonia describes how she and her husband eventually moved from Mason City, Iowa to Houston with their two children, and later settled in the neighborhood of Meyerland. She recalls how she became involved in Hadassah at Houston’s Jewish Community Center and her journey to being an active member of Hadassah’s National Board. Sonia also shares fundraising tips and techniques, and details her involvement in fundraising for Young Judaea. She explains her decision to move to Chevy Chase near Washington, D.C, and talks about her life now at a retirement home.
Rabbi David Segal oral history interview and transcript, 2020
Rabbi David Segal was born in Houston, Texas. In this interview he discusses his family’s history in Houston, his primary education at St. John’s School, then his formative experiences growing up at Congregation Emanu El and attending summer camp at Echo Hill Ranch, which led him to become a rabbi and organizer with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Texas. He also discusses his religious organizing work in Texas, Hurricane Harvey, the effects of COVID-19 on his professional and personal life, and his participation in a local march in memory of George Floyd. Rabbi Segal is married to Cantor Rollin Simmons of Congregation Emanu El.
Rabbi Jack Segal is a native of Brooklyn, New York and Rabbi Emeritus at Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, Texas, where he served as Associate Rabbi for eight years, then as the Senior Rabbi for 23 years. Ordained in 1954 at Mesivta Rabbi Chaim Berlin, Rabbi Segal also holds a multitude of degrees in fields such as Mathematics and Physics from New York University, the University of Pittsburgh, Oregon State University, Hebrew Union College, as well as the University of Houston. Rabbi Segal is a published lecturer who has spoken at numerous educational institutions. Before coming to Houston, Rabbi Segal served in pulpits in both Pennsylvania and Oregon. Rabbi Segal is a member of multiple fraternities and organizations such as Sigma Pi Sigma, Beta Beta Beta, Phi Delta Kappa, the American Psychological Society, National Council of Family Relations, and other organizations. He is also a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, and has served on its Committee on Law and Standards. In this interview, Rabbi Jack Segal recounts his journey as a Conservative rabbi, beginning with his upbringing in a largely Orthodox community in Brooklyn, New York, and ending with his leading Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, Texas. He describes his love for education, and how his collegiate experience helped lead him to being a rabbi, as well as how his first congregation in Pennsylvania led him to meeting his wife. Following this, he retells memories of the synagogues he served in Pennsylvania and Oregon before finally settling in Houston to serve as a rabbi for Congregation Beth Yeshurun with the synagogue’s then-Senior Rabbi William Malev. Rabbi Segal recounts the many new programs and community outreach endeavors which he developed to serve the congregation’s children and adults, helping to shape Beth Yeshurun into the congregation that it is today. Rabbi Segal recounts a painful family tragedy that nevertheless led to a positive outcome. He concludes the interview by discussing his optimism for the future of Conservative Judaism, even with the challenges that may face the movement today, given how he has seen Judaism in Houston grow and develop tremendously during his more than 65 years in the city.
Paula Schwartz Stein oral history interview and transcript, 2020
Paula Schwartz Stein grew up in a Jewish family in Schulenburg, Texas. Her family came to central Texas in the 1860s from the Alsace-Lorraine region of western Europe. Stein’s father, Hirsh Schwartz, served as mayor of Schulenburg from 1965 until his death in 1981. In this interview, Stein relates the history of her grandparents and great-grandparents in Texas, remembers her father and his career in politics and civil service, and describes what it was like to grow up Jewish in a small Texas town. She talks about Schulenburg’s Temple Israel, which her family helped to establish, and celebrating Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Passover there. Paula Schwartz married Rick Stein, who had family connections to nearby Hallettsville in the Tri-County area.
Rabbi Samuel Stahl oral history interview and transcript, 2021
Rabbi Samuel Stahl was born in 1939 in Pennsylvania to Harry and Pearl Sherman Stahl. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1961, after which he began his rabbinical training at Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati. He was ordained as a rabbi in 1967, then served as a chaplain until 1969. He then served for seven years as the rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in Galveston, Texas. While in Galveston, he earned the degree of Doctor of Hebrew Letters from HUC in the field of medieval Bible commentaries. Then, he moved to San Antonio to serve as the senior rabbi of Temple Beth-El for 26 years. Rabbi Stahl retired in 2002 and serves as a rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth-El, where he enjoys rich friendships and the warmth of the San Antonio Jewish community. In the interview, Rabbi Stahl remembers Jewish life in his Pennsylvania hometown. He describes his work at Hebrew Union College with professors, such as Dr. Jakob Petuchowski. He remembers the Six-Day War in Israel, which began the Monday following his rabbinical ordination in Israel, and he describes his time serving as a chaplain during the Vietnam War. He recalls his seven years in Galveston, Texas, his service at Temple B'nai Israel, and his involvement in several interfaith initiatives, several of which involved social issues, such as his efforts with Episcopal Bishop Roger Cilley to eliminate racial bias in Galveston’s Rotary Club. He recalls his decision to move to San Antonio and to take a rabbinic position at Temple Beth-El. He describes the positive relationships among San Antonio’s Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox communities and praises the San Antonio Jewish community for its friendliness and inclusivity. Finally, Rabbi Stahl discusses how COVID-19 has affected his daily life and his duties as a rabbi emeritus.
Ellen Fishman Trachtenberg was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1945. After spending two years at Newcomb College, she graduated from the University of Texas in 1967. She then moved to Houston and began work as a computer programmer analyst. In 1971, she married Dan Trachtenberg, an attorney from Seminole, Oklahoma, and they raised three sons. In the late 1970s she became involved in the Soviet Jewry movement, holding numerous positions in the community, including Chair of the Soviet Jewry committee for the Jewish Federation, Chair for Soviet Jewry at Congregation Beth Yeshurun, and an officer for Houston Action for Soviet Jewry. These committees were under the auspices of the National Conference for Soviet Jewry and Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry. Ellen has traveled to Russia twice, once in 1985 to visit with Jewish refuseniks who were trying to leave the Soviet Union and in the early 2000’s with a Jewish Federation mission to help and learn about the conditions of Jews still living in the country. Trachtenberg later took positions at Holocaust Museum Houston as a vice chair on the board of trustees and co-chair of the Content and Scope Committee. As part of her work at the museum, she interviewed dozens of Holocaust survivors and liberators, in order to preserve their oral histories for future generations and for use in the exhibits at the museum. Ellen and her husband have lived for many years in the Fondren Southwest neighborhood in Houston. In the interview, Ellen describes her upbringing in New Orleans and how her family emigrated to Louisiana. She discusses working as a female computer programmer analyst in the late 1960s, living in the Fondren Southwest neighborhood with her husband and children, and her activism for the plight of Soviet Jews. Ellen reflects on her trip to the Soviet Union and recalls countless stories about her experiences there. She then elaborates on her continual involvement with Holocaust Museum Houston throughout the years, from its founding to the present day. She talks about the respect and love she has for the survivors she has known and the effect they have had on her life. As the interview concludes, she speaks about her book and the ongoing debate of what a Holocaust museum should look like today.
Larry Ely Wadler was born on September 20, 1936 in Wharton, Texas to Paul and Marjorie Schwartz Wadler. In September 1940, his sister, Jo, of blessed memory, was born, and in 1950 another sister, Fredell (Cookie), was born. He entered elementary school in September 1942 and graduated high school in May 1954. He entered Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1954, and, in 1958, he had finished his undergraduate degree and the first year of law school at Tulane. He transferred to the University of Texas Law School and graduated in August 1960. He officially became licensed to practice law in October 1960 and started his practice in Wharton. In February 2018, Larry retired after 58 years of practice. On August 3, 1958, Larry married Geraldine Pekovar. They had three children – Paul in 1960, Michael in 1962, and Donna in 1970. He has three granddaughters. Geraldine died in July 2017, and Larry moved to Houston in February 2018. In the interview, Larry discusses his grandfather’s immigration to Wharton, Texas, and describes his and his family’s experiences growing up Jewish in Wharton. He remembers the synagogue in Wharton and its activities and community. He also discusses his experiences at the University of Texas Law School, and tells a story about the first Jewish students from UT Law to get hired by Houston law firms. Near the end of the interview, Larry discusses his retirement from his law practice and his relocation to Houston, as well as his experiences during the coronavirus pandemic.
Rabbi Roy A. Walter served as Senior Rabbi of Congregation Emanu El from 1978 to 2011. He came to Emanu El following his ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1970, and served eight years as Assistant and Associate Rabbi. Rabbi Walter is a native of Memphis, Tennessee and holds a B.A. degree from Tulane University and Bachelor and Masters of Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. Rabbi Walter was ordained in 1970 and awarded a Doctor of Divinity Degree from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1995. Rabbi Walter has served locally on the Boards of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, Houston Metropolitan Ministries, American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and as President of the Houston Rabbinic Association. He served as President of Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston from 1996-1998 and has been named a Life Board Member. He is co-author of Gates of Prayer for Young People published by the CCAR and of My Prayers: A Children’s Book of Prayers for Everyday Occasions. Rabbi Walter and wife Linda of blessed memory have three children, Benjamin, Michel and Aaron, and two grandchildren, Ethan and Hannah. In the interview, Rabbi Roy Walter recalls growing up in an Orthodox community in Memphis and his decision to become a rabbi after attending Tulane University. Walter explains how his time at Hebrew Union College shaped his approach to the rabbinate and how he was hired at Temple Emanu El. He describes his early years at the temple, including the Sisterhood and Israel Expo ’73. Walter, then, recalls how he met his wife, Linda Cohn, and started a family in Houston. He explains the process that led to him becoming senior rabbi, the decision to keep Temple Emanu El in the heart of Houston, and his role in the movement for increased tradition and ritual in Reform Judaism. Walter also touches on his contributions to several creative liturgies, Temple Emanu El’s participation in interfaith community service, and the nature of the Jewish community in Houston. He discusses the impact of COVID-19 and isolation on the temple and his personal life. Finally, Walter describes what it means to be a serious Jew.
Joe Williams was born in January 1946. He is a native of Beaumont, Texas and a graduate of Lamar University. Joe has held a long career in the property and casualty insurance industry, holding a multitude of positions along the way. Joe has also served as the president of Congregation Emanu El in Houston and the president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, and he has spearheaded multiple other groups and projects relating to the Jewish community in Houston as well as across South Texas. Kenneth Taylor, the Program Administrator for the Houston Jewish History Archive, received a B.A from History from the University of Great Falls in Montana, and an M.A. in History from the University of New Orleans. In this interview, Joe recounts growing up Jewish in Beaumont, Texas, and describes how lively the Jewish community was at that time and how Jews were viewed by the wider community. He discusses aspects of his family history, education, and early professional life. Joe then shares his life in Houston, how he expanded his career in the city, as well as how he came into multiple positions of senior leadership in the Houston Jewish community. Joe gives a detailed account of how much the Houston Jewish community has evolved during his time in the city, as well as how the Jewish community in Texas has overall evolved in both positive and negative ways since his youth.
Shirley Wolff Toomim and Ellen Toomim Robinson oral history interview and transcript, 2021
Shirley Wolff Toomim was born in Houston in 1928. Her father Boris became a part-owner of Star Furniture in 1924, and after Boris’s death, his son Melvyn Wolff assumed control of the company and brought his sister Shirley on board. Shirley would eventually become Vice Chair of Star Furniture, using her training in interior design and her impeccable eye for style to transform the company’s aesthetic, as their motto “Different By Design” would proclaim. Shirley and David’s daughter, Ellen Toomim Robinson, joined Shirley for this interview.
University of Texas Hillel oral history interview and transcript, 2021
In this interview with the Rice University Houston Jewish History Archive on March 31, 2021, Rabbi Jimmy Kessler, Rabbi David Rosen, Nancy Pryzant Picus and Lee Wunsch reflect on their formative years as Jewish students at the University of Texas during Rabbi Kessler’s tenure as director of Hillel in the early 1970s. Each interviewee relates anecdotes from growing up in Houston and Dallas, and describes how their experiences at UT helped shape their Jewish identity and led them into career paths in Jewish communal leadership in Houston and Galveston.