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April 21, 2014 / 21 Nisan, 5774
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The Early Jewish Settlement Of Texas


Old B'nai Israel Synagogue and Cohen Community House

Old B'nai Israel Synagogue and Cohen Community House
Photo Credit: Nsaum75/wikimedia

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In 1856 the first organized Jewish religious services in Galveston were held in Isidore Dyer’s home. He set aside a room in his house that served as a synagogue. Isidore was deeply involved in all aspects of the welfare of the Galveston community, both Jewish and non-Jewish. When he passed away he was universally mourned.

Rosanna and Joseph Osterman

Dutch-born Joseph Osterman, a merchant and silversmith, married 16 year-old Rosanna Dyer (1809-1866) in Baltimore on February 23, 1825. Rosanna was the sister of Leon and Isidore Dyer. After suffering some financial setbacks in Baltimore, Joseph, at Leon’s urging, traveled to Galveston in 1837 and opened a mercantile store. Rosanna followed him the next year. Their business was soon trading with all parts of Texas and abroad. Indeed, they were so successful that by 1842 they were able to retire.

During the yellow fever epidemics that occurred between 1854 and 1866, Mrs. Osterman served as a volunteer nurse, and even used her home as a temporary hospital while caring for the sick and dying.

Shortly after the Civil War broke out in 1861, Federal military forces blockaded Galveston, and business came to a standstill. Although most of the city’s residents left for the mainland, Rosanna – by then a childless widow – chose to stay in Galveston.

Many of the exigencies of the War were met by the humane efforts of Rosanna Dyer Osterman. The ample stores of the Osterman family were placed without reservation at the disposal of the Confederate and Union armies for the care of the sick and wounded. The famished hospitals were largely supplied by her liberality. Her presence and her care gave hope and encouragement to the convalescent, or afforded the last consolation to those who were passing from the turmoils of time to the rest of eternity. She herself, throughout the blockade, unable to obtain kosher food, abstained from everything ritually forbidden.At the end of the War this generous woman visited her relatives in Philadelphia and on her return met with a tragic death. On the morning of February 2, 1866, the steamer ‘W. R. Carter’ exploded not far from Vicksburg on the Mississippi. There were few survivors; the body of Mrs. Osterman was recovered for Jewish interment.

Some twenty-five institutions benefited by the provisions of her will, which was drawn up in the midst of the War. [Mrs. Osterman’s estate amounted to over $200,000, a huge sum in 1866.] The will provided that the city of Galveston organize a “Widows and Orphans Home” for the support of widows and orphans of all denominations. This particular bequest had a value in excess of $100,000.3

The Galveston News paid her this tribute: “The history of Rosanna Osterman is more eloquently written in the untold charities that have been dispensed by her liberal hands than by any eulogy man can bestow. Her work made her distinguished for unselfish devotion to the suffering and the sick.”

Rosanna Dyer Osterman unstintingly gave of herself to help others. She was the first major female Jewish philanthropist in America.

* * * * *

1. “Trail Blazers of the Trans-Mississippi West,” American Jewish Archives Vol. 8, No.2, October 1956.

2. The Jewish Encyclopedia, Ktav Publishing House, 1906, Volume 5, page 23. This article is available at http://tinyurl.com/29hpnan.

3. “Trail Blazers of the Trans-Mississippi West.”

 

Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

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About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.


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