What Made Orange Great: A once thriving Jewish community was in Orange

Published 6:21 am Wednesday, May 26, 2021

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By Mike Louviere

One of the earliest Jews to come to Texas was Simon Weiss in 1836. He first settled in Nacogdoches, by 1840 he had moved to Jasper County just north of Orange County. He set up a business in a riverfront town that became known as Weiss Bluff.

James Solinski, a German born merchant, was the first Jew to settle in Orange. Over the next few decades Jews settled in Orange in greater numbers.

In the early group of Jews living in Orange were Julius and Leopold Miller, immigrants from Germany who settled in Orange in the late 19th Century. Like most of the Jews living in Orange around that time, the Millers were merchants.

Not all of the early members of the Jewish community were immigrants. Harry Crager was born in New York and moved to Orange in 1895 and opened Crager Dry Goods Store. After Crager died in 1904, his widow Freda, a Louisiana native, continued to operate the store. Joseph Lucas who was born in Louisiana, opened a jewelry store in Orange about 1904.

In the early 20th Century, the Jewish community began to organize religious intuitions. The Ladies Aid and Cemetery Association organized in 1904 with Mrs. Leopold Miller as president and Anne Lucas as the secretary-treasurer. By 1907, there were 10 members and the group had bought land for a Jewish cemetery, called Hebrew Rest. This was often done in Jewish communities so that the community could follow the strict Jewish burial customs.

There were 57 Jews living in Orange in 1907. In 1909, they established a congregation, Beth El, and were meeting in the local Masonic Temple. Visiting rabbis were brought in to conduct temple services.

It was thought that the group was not strictly Orthodox since they brought in visiting Reform rabbis once a month to lead the services and many of the members were native born Americans or born in Germany where Reform Judaism was predominant. By 1919, the congregation was only meeting once a month. When Rabbi Samuel Rosinger of Beaumont made his monthly visit, the group would meet at the home of Joe Lucas. The services were in English, another indication the congregation was following Reform practices. Orange Jews closed their businesses for the Jewish High Holidays, even though they did not close for the Sabbath.

The Jewish community flourished during the World War I years. The shipbuilding and the influx of people caused the population of Orange to nearly double, reaching 17,000. The Jewish community reached its peak, growing to 69 members by 1919.

Jewish owned stores in these years included D. Mossiker, Felix Weil, Crager’s Dry Goods, Joe Lucas Jewelry, Sokolski’s Clothing Store, and M.B. Aronson Grocery.

When the war years were over, the population of Orange dropped to about 9,000. Orange economy took a hard hit when in the 1920s the lumber industry began to slow down and mills started closing. In 1937, there were only 28 Jews living in Orange.

The Jews remaining in Orange were mostly in the retail trade. M.B. Aronson opened his store in Orange in 1894 and increased the business until it grew into a small East Texas chain. Max Goldfine had come to the United States from Russia in 1907. 1928 found him living in Orange, where he opened Goldfine’s, one of Orange’s leading department stores.

Dr. H.J. Kaplen was not in retail, he moved to Orange in 1939 and became Orange’s first ear, nose, and throat specialist.

The Jewish community was active in civic affairs in Orange. Harry Crager became a city commissioner in 1903 and served until his death a year later, in 1904. Beginning in 1906, Joe Lucas gave gold medals to the valedictorian and salutatorian of Orange High School each year. Lucas was still awarding medals as late a1940. Felix Weil served as chairman of the Orange County Democratic Executive Committee in 1940, at the time when the Democratic Party was very powerful in Texas.

The most politically active member of the Jewish community was Abe Sokolski. In 1934 he began serving as an Orange City Commissioner, he held the position for six years. In 1940, he ran for mayor and was elected based on his accomplishments as a city commissioner. In the election, he received more votes than his three opponents combined. Sokolski ran unopposed in the general election.

His respect and popularity in the city was such that one prominent citizen wrote a letter to the Orange Leader and included a statement that asked; “What is your answer to Hitler? Our mayor-elect the honorable Abe Sokolski! Our Abe!” To this Orange voter electing a Jewish man as mayor made a statement highlighting the freedom in America as contrasted to the anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany.

Being so close to the other Jewish congregations in Beaumont and Port Arthur, the Jewish community in Orange began to dissolve once the improved roadways and bridges made travel to those cities easier. Some families made the drive to Port Arthur and joined the congregation there, others joined the Beaumont Temple.

After World War II, the numbers of Jewish businesses in Orange began to shrink. The Spector family owned a news stand and junk business, The Grossmans owned a jewelry store, and Max Goldfine opened a shoe store that remained in business until he died in 1970. Other businesses had closed for various reasons and the families were leaving Orange.

By 1960, none of the early Jewish families still lived in Orange. Today there is no Jewish community in Orange. The great Opera House that was built by Leopold Miller is only a faint note in the history of Orange. The buildings that were once occupied by the Jewish merchants have long since been torn down and replaced by parking lots. The businesses were the victims of the trend toward shopping centers and “big box” stores. Jewish children grew up and moved away.

An article published in the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities” published by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, as of 2010 there was only one Jewish family living in Orange.

The Institute’s articles also noted that the Synagogue in Port Arthur had closed, as had one of the two established in Beaumont. There is only one Synagogue remaining that conducts Temple Services.

The tangible remnant of the Jewish community that once flourished in Orange is Hebrew Rest Cemetery, the small cemetery established in 1907 to give the members of the community hallowed ground where they could be placed to rest according to their burial customs.