History

Meyerland and the Rise of Houston’s Largest Jewish Community

Often fraught with racial, political, and environmental challenges, the path to the Meyerland we know today hasn’t always been a smooth one.

By Anna Rajagopal Published in the Winter 2022 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Elyse Selzer Schultz was just 3 months old when her family moved to Meyerland in 1956. Her most vivid memories of growing up there are quaint and idyllic ones. She and her friends riding around on their bikes. Or swimming and playing at The Meyerland Club, getting hot dogs and sno-cones on the way home. 

“We would get on our bicycles and ride for hours,” Schultz said. “Our mothers would say ‘see you at sunset,’ and everyone just rode bikes and hung out with each other. Our parents trusted everybody.”

Schultz, who is now 65 years old, has lived in Meyerland ever since, and has watched it blossom into Houston’s largest Jewish neighborhood. Hers are reflections of a mostly tranquil and peaceful youth—exactly the qualities that have attracted so many other Jewish families to Meyerland over the years. “I had very strong ideas about what a neighborhood should be like,” Shultz said. “How you should take care of each other. That’s what I got from growing up in Meyerland. Enduring relationships and a strong sense of community.” 

Named after the Meyer family, who emigrated from Eastern Europe to the Houston area in the 1800s, and eventually purchased more than 6,000 acres in Southwest Houston, today Meyerland is home to Houston’s Jewish Community Center and major synagogues, including Congregation Beth Israel, and Congregation Beth Yeshurun.

But the path to the Meyerland we know today (and the history of Jewish settlement in Houston in general) hasn’t always been a smooth one, often fraught with racial, political, and even environmental challenges along the way. 

The Selzer family, March 1957with three-month-old babyElyse.

As recently as the 1950s, Jewish families, including Schultz’s, were barred by law from living amongst non-Jews in Houston neighborhoods like River Oaks and Woodside. As a reaction to this discrimination, and before Meyerland was established, local Jewish residents began settling in the Riverside Terrace neighborhood in the heart of Third Ward.

“Jews were drawn to Riverside Terrace because of the prejudice and restrictive covenants of the time,” said Dr. Joshua Furman, the Associate Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Rice as well as the Curator of the Houston Jewish History Archive. “They can’t go to [places like] River Oaks, so Riverside Terrace becomes an attractive base for Jewish Houston to recenter itself.” 

Up until the 1950s and ’60s, Riverside Terrace remained mostly a white and Jewish neighborhood. But in 1968, the Fair Housing Act curbed the practice of redlining (a discriminatory act that banks, mortgage lenders, and real estate brokers used to make loans and other financial services difficult or impossible for residents based on race or ethnicity). This paved the way for the first Black homeowners to begin moving into Riverside, which in turn, caused both white and Jewish families, fearful of falling housing prices (as a result of systemic racism) and other perceived infringements, to leave the neighborhood for new places to live. 

“The other part of Meyerland’s history that is important to talk about is racial politics,” Dr. Furman said. “At the same time that Meyerland is being developed, Riverside Terrace is undergoing integration. So, places like Meyerland—whether intentionally or unintentionally—become areas where white and Jewish families looked for upward economic mobility and financial security. Once you hit the point where enough families have left, the community’s institutions start leaving, and synagogues start to re-form on the Southwest side of Houston.” 

Thus, in the mid 1950s, Meyerland was founded as a standard white, middle-class neighborhood that also appealed to—and accepted—Jewish families looking to settle down. 

Part of Meyerland’s appeal was also in what it was not. In contrast to Riverside Terrace, which was experiencing heavy residential turnover, Meyerland advertised itself as a stable environment to invest in a home and community. According to Dr. Furman, Meyerland’s desirability to Jewish families was that it was seen as a more secure neighborhood because homeowners associations could enforce deed restrictions and realtors could counter redlining and blockbusting attempts. 

When Schultz’s father, Earl, originally wanted to purchase a home in Woodside, he was denied, so the family settled in Meyerland, which “was a welcoming community,” said Earl Selzer, now 95. “Meyerland had no restrictions. We felt no problems. The Meyerland club was Jews and Christians, and everybody got along fine.”

Meyerland’s Jewish population has increased substantially since the end of World War II, from around 14,500 in the 1950s to roughly 20,000 in the early 1970s. Today, the Jewish community sits at an estimated 50,000 residents, which constitutes 14 percent of Meyerland’s total population. Despite recent flooding, which has seen many residents leave Meyerland, the Jewish population has remained relatively consistent. Even in the face of a recent rash of antisemitism. 

Just this May, Meyerland families were subjected to antisemitic flyers, booklets, and pamphlets being circulated throughout the neighborhood, often left on the lawns of homes in clear plastic bags. The antisemitic propaganda was also left at the Jewish Community Center, with writing that, among other things, perpetuates the stereotype about Jewish people’s purported control over the federal government. However, the Meyerland community, Jew and non-Jew alike, continues to demonstrate unity in the face of hatred, as several residents banded together to collect and dispose of the flyers. 

Neighborhood children riding bikes in Meyerland in the mid to late ’50s.

While the community might be galvanized in the face of various politics, another very serious challenge has emerged over the past decade: climate change. With three floods in three years, Meyerland “is a community that has experienced a lot of trauma in the last five, six, seven years,” Dr. Furman said. “Synagogues and institutions are being forced to elevate and rebuild more and more often. The community’s proximity to the Meyerland-Bellaire neighborhood and to Brays Bayou means, increasingly, that the community has had to—and will continue to have to—deal with the effects of climate change on the geography of the neighborhood.” 

Hurricane Harvey in particular, was one of the more catastrophic events in Meyerland’s recent history. The impact of which challenged the fortitude of many Meyerland residents and their desire to continue living in the area. 

One of the staples of Jewish communal life is attendance at synagogue and Harvey managed to cause significant damage to three of the neighborhood’s more prominent places of worship. Beth Yeshurun found itself under six feet of floodwater during Harvey’s rains. Similarly, Beth Israel accrued upwards of $1.8 million in damage. Worse yet, the synagogue of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston had to be demolished due to the flood’s impact on the building’s structural integrity. They weren’t the only Jewish institutions that suffered major loss, as the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center was 10 feet under water and Seven Acres Jewish Senior Care lost its first floor to flooding during the storms. 

But despite all these setbacks, for the most part, the Jewish people and institutions of Meyerland have stayed put. “These families stayed, and kept staying,” said Schultz. “This was home, and it wasn’t just a house, it’s a community. No one wanted to leave. No one could fathom where else to go.”

Part of the community’s resolve has come with tangible financial investment in its infrastructure. Instead of packing up and moving out, residents have decided to rebuild and even expand the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center with a $50 million expansion project now underway from funds raised by more than 80 families committed to rebuilding. Schultz called this reinvestment in the community by the major Jewish institutions in ways that count on the Jewish families of Meyerland “to continue to put down roots in the neighborhood of their parents and grandparents.”

Meyerland homes under construction, circa 1954-55.

Dr. Furman recounted his own family’s decision to stay as he considered why the community has decided to remain in Southwest Houston: “I think one of the reasons that so many Jewish families choose to stay in the greater Meyerland area is because of the feeling of solidarity and community that is created by strength in numbers,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why many families and most of the institutions have decided to stay where they are—because of that feeling of security [that is created by] being close together, especially in a city like Houston that is spread out and not well connected in terms of public transit.”  

As the Jewish community of Houston begins to observe the High Holidays and other fall celebrations this year, Dr. Furman underscored the importance of Sukkot, a holiday where Jewish people construct and dwell in huts (sukkahs) in remembrance of the huts that the Israelites dwelt in on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. “One of the things you are meant to be reminded of during Sukkot is that everything is temporary,” Dr. Furman said. He added that we tend to think that neighborhoods and their stability is infinite, but history shows us this is not the case. Sukkot is the reminder of the temporality of everything, pushing us to accept that change is constant, and not always a bad thing. Even though it’s challenging at times, more often than not, change leads to growth. 

For Schultz, Meyerland will always be home. A place where the two-time president of Beth Yeshrun sisterhood said she plans to continue hosting Shabat dinners, raising money for the community, delivering challahs, and encouraging young families to move to the neighborhood. “I have kids who are in their 30s,” Schultz said. “And one of my daughter’s friends is moving back into Meyerland. BBYO [a local youth organization] is getting ready to do a multigenerational reunion, and all these kids who grew up in Meyerland are getting called back. We are all still connected!” 

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