Rice’s Furman and Kean team up to help save Jewish historical records damaged during Harvey

Shortly after Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey dropped more than 50 inches of rain on large areas of Houston and southeast Texas, Rice’s Joshua Furman and Melissa Kean sprang into action to lead an effort to save flood-damaged historical documents and records at two of the city’s most prominent Jewish synagogues.

Rabbi Sarah Fort and Rice Jewish studies scholar Joshua Furman examine historical photographs that were impacted by flooding at Congregation Beth Yeshurun’s synagogue. Credit: Michael C. Duke/Jewish Herald-Voice

During the storm, parts of the Brays Bayou waterway, a slow-moving stream that runs 31 miles east to west across the metropolitan area, quickly turned into a lake. The bayou separates Meyerland and Willow Meadows, two hubs of Houston’s Jewish community since the 1960s on the west side of downtown. The overflowing water inundated Congregation Beth Yeshurun on the north bank and the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston (UOS), located about 500 feet from the bayou to the south. (A Reform temple about 3 miles down the bayou to the west, Congregation Beth Israel, also was flooded.) Together, Congregation Beth Yeshurun and UOS sustained an estimated $10 million in damage, according to media reports.

“In Harvey’s aftermath, learning that several area synagogues had sustained serious flood damage, I began to worry that their records — photographs, bulletins, commemorative books, rabbinical sermons and other rare and irreplaceable documents — might be lost,” said Furman, the Stanford and Joan Alexander Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies. “These archival sources are crucial for our understanding of the history of the Jewish community in the nation’s fourth-largest city. They enable us to understand migration, mobility, acculturation, interfaith relations and so much more. It’s a vital part of Houston’s history as well, and now because of Harvey and repeated severe flooding, it is in danger of being lost.”

Before Harvey, Furman was already working on a book about the history of Jewish Houston, a large part of which will be devoted to the history of the Meyerland neighborhood.

As daily life in Houston slowly re-emerged, Furman and Kean, the centennial historian at Rice who earned her Ph.D. in history from the university in 2000, went to UOS and Beth Yeshurun to assess the damage to the collections and assist with cleanup and recovery.

Rice historian Melissa Kean first brought wet books and files to her home to dry before bringing them to the university’s Fondren Library. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

In her popular Rice History Corner blog, Kean described feeling “alternately frantic, heartsick and elated” as she inspected 80-year-old materials now dampened. “Today (Sept. 5) I painstakingly separated and dried the soggy pages of a treasure: the Golden Anniversary History of Congregation Adath Yeshurun, founded in Houston in 1891,” wrote Kean, who first brought wet materials to her home to dry them with a blow dryer before bringing them to the Woodson Research Center at Rice’s Fondren Library for further inspection and care. “Is there another copy somewhere else? I don’t know but I couldn’t sit around and wait to find out.”

Kean quickly found Rice connections in the materials she sifted. She found a photo of Rabbi Wolf Willner, who served the Congregation Adath Yeshurun from 1907 to 1924. “He was a strong proponent of higher education for women, and his daughter Zillah enrolled at Rice and graduated in 1917 in the second class,” Kean wrote.

“Thanks in large part to Melissa’s expertise and hard work, we’ve managed to save most of the records we’ve found and hope to continue this vital work in the weeks ahead,” Furman said. “We also plan to start an archive at Rice devoted to the study and preservation of Jewish history in South Texas, to be housed at Fondren Library, to ensure that these records will survive and be accessible to scholars and the public.”

Furman said institutions and families who would like help with recovering damaged historical materials related to Jewish life in Texas or are interested in donating records to the archive at Rice, should contact him or Kean as soon as possible at joshua.furman@rice.edu or kean@rice.edu, respectively.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.