In 1888, Rabbi Henry Cohen, a wiry little man, barely five feet tall, with a booming British accent, arrived in Galveston to serve Temple B’nai Israel where he remained for the next sixty-four years. He wore black, tuxedo-type suits, white bow ties, and starched white shirts with stiff cuffs on which he wrote his appointments and sermon notes. Dressed in this formal getup, he rode about Galveston on a bicycle from jail cell to hospital bed to Galveston’s red-light district, ministering to and helping every person in need regardless of his or her faith or lack thereof. He was known for saying “there is no such thing as Episcopalian scarlet fever, Catholic arthritis, or Jewish mumps.”
Born in London in 1863, Dr. Cohen was educated in England and lived in South Africa, Jamaica, and Mississippi before coming to Galveston. He spoke eleven languages, well, and was a charismatic speaker. Despite his small frame, he displayed a giant’s determination and a flair for the dramatic as he went about his duties.
Upon hearing of a girl being kept in prostitution against her will, he tore across town on his bicycle, barged into a whorehouse, and found the girl half-naked. Wrapping her in a blanket and walking with one arm around her and the other guiding his bike, he led her to a clothing store where he told the merchant to “fit her out from head to foot.” Then, he took her home to his wife and found her a job. Words of his fearlessness quickly spread through the back streets of Galveston. When a prostitute on her deathbed asked to be given a “proper Christian burial,” Rabbi Cohen was called. He went to the cemetery and led her service reading scripture from the New Testament.
Early in his ministry according to Natalie Ornish in Pioneer Jewish Texans, “Roman Catholic Cardinal Satolli visited Galveston. At a public dinner in the Cardinal’s honor, he asked Dr. Cohen to say grace, and the rabbi said it in Latin—after which the Cardinal responded with a blessing in Hebrew.”
Rabbi Cohen played a major role in providing jobs and homes for Jewish immigrants in what was called “The Galveston Movement.” Beginning in the 1880s millions of European Jews arrived on the East Coast without the means to survive—no English, no job, and no where to live. They settled with fellow immigrants in the slums of New York’s lower East side where several families often crowded into a tiny room, even sleeping in hallways. The congested, impoverished conditions led to child labor and to crime. American Jewish philanthropists were embarrassed, and set about organizing a program that diverted ships away from the port of New York and on to the port of Galveston. Rabbi Cohen, through the Galveston Movement worked from 1907 to 1914 with cities and towns, mainly west of the Mississippi River that kept him informed of their employment needs such as trunk, harness, and saddle makers or spinners and weavers or cobblers and hat makers. Rabbi Cohen met most of the ships and directed over 10,000 immigrants to homes and occupations throughout the South and Midwest.
Dr. Cohen headed the Central Relief Committee after the 1900 storm and he and his friend Father James Kirwin were the primary force that kept the Ku Klux Klan from moving into Galveston in the 1920s. As a member of the Texas Prison Board, the rabbi initiated reforms that separated hardened criminals from first offenders and improved prison medical facilities. Many young men were paroled to his care, and he found them jobs, remaining in touch with them as they got their lives back together.
When he heard that a Russian immigrant had arrived illegally and was about to be returned to certain death, Rabbi Cohen boarded a train bound for Washington, secured an appointment with President William Howard Taft, and made it clear that the man faced a firing squad if he were sent back. President Taft expressed his sympathy and claimed to have no influence on immigration. As the rabbi rose to leave, the President added that he admired Dr. Cohen for coming “all this way for a member of your faith.”
“Member of my faith!” Rabbi Cohen roared, “This man is Greek Catholic. A human life is at stake.”
Immediately, President Taft picked up the phone and arranged for the immigrant to be released to the custody of the fiery little man standing before him.