Pieces of Jewish history are planted throughout Preston Hollow.
Three of our neighborhood’s synagogues were established before the 20th century, when Dallas grew from a trading post to a boom town. At 142 years old, Temple Emanu-El is the oldest congregation in the state. The faith has long been honored on Northaven Road, home to the Jewish Community Center of Dallas since the 1960s.
Our neighborhood may house many of Dallas’ Jewish schools and houses of worship, but the hub of Jewish life wasn’t always in North Dallas. German-Jewish immigrants seeking wealth as merchants settled south of downtown as early as 1858, before Preston Hollow was marked on a map.
Names like Sanger, Harris and Kramer were key players in the city’s development and shaped local history.
In the 1920s, Dallas’ most prominent Jewish community was in South Dallas. The neighborhood thrived until the late 1950s when these families moved north. Businesses shuttered, Jewish organizations relocated and the close-knit community slowly unraveled.
Solidarity in South Dallas
The South Dallas where former Preston Hollow resident Harold Kleinman grew up doesn’t exist anymore. A bus doesn’t wind down the street to take kids to Hebrew school downtown. Neighbors don’t file into Tiferet Israel, Congregation Shearith Israel or Temple Emanu-El for services. Customers don’t scan the aisles of Reisberg’s Grocery or shop at Blatt’s bakery and delicatessen on Forest Avenue.
Before it was renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the 2-mile road was one of the South’s largest Jewish settlements, writes Rose G. Biderman, who chronicles the faith’s history in Dallas in the book “They Came to Stay.”
Forest Avenue separated wealthy and middle-class families, says Kleinman, whose son represents Preston Hollow as the District 11 councilman. Wealthy families owned mansions on Park Row and South Boulevard.
“South of Forest were nice neighborhoods, but not wealthy neighborhoods,” he says.
Kleinman’s parents bought a house on Peabody Avenue, a block south of Forest. His parents were Eastern European immigrants who ran a general store on Elm Street, where Club Dada is now.
Surrounded by Jewish neighbors and friends, Kleinman didn’t realize that anti-Semitism lingered throughout the city during 1930s, he says. Only a decade earlier, the Ku Klux Klan controlled City Hall and the police department, and even was celebrated at the State Fair of Texas in 1923.
But nothing seemed out of the ordinary to Kleinman, minus the rocks that occasionally pelted the side of the bus on the way to Hebrew school.
“I didn’t feel like an ‘other’ or understand that there were others,” he says.
Tensions between German and Eastern European Jews were more obvious to Kleinman. Immigrants escaping anti-Semitic discrimination in countries like Russia poured into the neighborhood, says Debra Polsky, executive director of the Dallas Jewish Historical Society. They clung to Orthodox traditions, spoke little English and didn’t have much money in their pockets. The German community already assimilated to American culture and practiced reformed Judaism.
“The reform community felt a sense of responsibility, but at the same time, it’s not the people they wanted to socialize with,” Polsky says.
When World War II ended, Dallas’ population skyrocketed, and a housing shortage changed the face of the city. Soldiers returning from World War II sought affordable housing, and the suburbs began to blossom.
“Moving north, at that point, meant doing better,” Polsky says. “Soldiers coming home who wanted to start families realized they could get so much more for their money.”
Historically black neighborhoods were razed for factories and stores, Polsky says. With nowhere else to go, they migrated to South Dallas without many welcoming neighbors.
Dynamite bombings and arson were common for black homeowners in the 1940s and ‘50, writes Jim Schutze in the book “The Accommodation.”
As black families continued to move in, white families packed up and moved out. The white flight that occurred in major cities like Boston and Chicago also changed the dynamics of Dallas.
“I don’t want to criticize what people did. That’s what happened,” says Kleinman, whose family moved to West Texas during the Great Depression. “There was white flight from Dallas, and the Jews were part of it. I’m upset by that. I’ve always thought segregation was terrible, and self-segregation is terrible, and forced segregation is even worse.”
The construction of Julius Schepps Freeway through the center of the neighborhood added a sense of urgency, Polsky says.
Kosher delis and Jewish businesses disappeared from South Dallas. Shopkeepers either retired or reopened their businesses along Lovers Lane, Preston Road or Preston Royal, Biderman writes. In the late 1950s, the city’s three prominent synagogues followed their congregations to Preston Hollow.
At that point, the synagogues were a gathering point in the community, where people planned their futures together, says Tina Israel, whose father was president of Tiferet Israel for 11 years.
“Some of the cultural places followed the population, because that’s where the business was,” Kleinman says.
The mass migration did not go unnoticed by the rest of Preston Hollow, although families experienced less discrimination than in the 1920s. Jewish and Christian families lived on the same streets, and their children attended school together.
Steve Kenny moved to a house on Brookshire Lane in the mid-1960s. The subdivision was predominately Jewish, he remembers, so it was common to see hosts of families walking to nearby synagogues on weekends.
“Some schools had nicknames from other schools,” he says. “They called Franklin ‘little Israel’ and Hillcrest ‘Hebrew High,’ because there was just so many Jewish kids who went to both schools.”
Israel was a student at Hillcrest in 1960. When Jewish holidays rolled around, the halls of the school seemed nearly vacant. Instead, teens spent the day with their families at the synagogue.
By the 1960s, the Jewish Community Center of Dallas was stationed on Northaven Road, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas followed suit in the 1970s. Jewish schools, such as Akiba Academy, welcomed students for the first time.
“There was a boom in Jewish activity,” Kleinman says. “It became a very active community.”
As South Dallas evolved and buildings were demolished, South Dallas’ Jewish roots disappeared entirely. Tiferet Israel’s former location on Grand Avenue is the only remnant still standing.
“It was a wonderful place to live before the war,” Karen Jacobs told the Dallas Morning News in 1980. “A lot of good neighbors were always around … It was like the East Coast, and I’m sorry it’s gone.”
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