About the Author

Dr. Melissa R. Klapper is Professor of History at Rowan University, where she teaches American, Jewish, and women's history. She received her BA from Goucher College and her PhD from Rutgers University. She is the author of Jewish Girls Coming of Age in America, 1860-1920 (NYU Press, 2005) and Small Strangers: The Experiences of Immigrant Children in the United States, 1880-1925 (Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2007).

20th-century Jewish Immigration

Mendelson Letter (1909)


The Galveston Plan demonstrated not only the relationship between the established American Jewish community and Jewish immigrants but also the connections among Jews worldwide. The Jewish Territorial Organization (in English abbreviated to ITO, an acronym derived from the Hebrew/Yiddish alphabet used for the agency’s official name) had representatives stationed throughout Europe to assist Jewish immigrants who agreed to exchange control over where they were placed in the U.S. for full payment of all costs associated with the immigration process. In the U.S., wealthy Jewish banker and philanthropist Jacob Schiff funded the network of representatives who met and assisted immigrants in Galveston and found communities across the interior of the country that were willing to secure jobs and housing for the new arrivals. Mendelson was not correct that no Jewish immigrants stayed in Galveston, but the majority were very quickly moved on to their new homes. Although it probably was easier to earn a living in these towns, the small size of the Jewish communities proved troubling for some, and a sizable percentage of the Galveston Plan immigrants eventually moved again to areas with larger Jewish populations.

Excerpt from Sheyne-Gadye Mendelson's letter of July 28, 1909: Burlington, July 28, 1909 My dear, dear brother! I can finally write you a letter and share everything with you. I did write you a postcard from Galveston. That was on Saturday. We arrived here Monday evening at nine o’clock. Someone was already waiting for us here and had already taken care of everything. We have free room and board for a week, which is naturally being paid for by the ITO. Next week we’ll start working in a button factory, where we’ll start making 4 or 5 dollars a week and we can work our way up until each of us can earn 10 dollars a week. Burlington is a country [sic], that is, a small city that has about twenty-five thousand residents. The city is growing, has train connections with the biggest cities, and is 175 English miles from Chicago. The climate here is temperate, that is, not too hot and not too cold. It’s not too expensive to live here. I hope we’ll be able to work our way up. Other than that, we’re healthy and cheerful. . . The entire journey to Galveston was very nice, but it got hotter and hotter by the day, so much so that we would walk around barefoot in our undergarments and sleep on the deck. It was impossible to stay in the cabin because of the heat. But aside from that, we had a good time on the ship. There were [330] emigrants, about 200 Jews, most of them going to Baltimore. To Galveston there [43] of us. So we finally arrived on Saturday the 24th in Galveston. It’s hard to imagine how much the ITO did for the emigrants. Picture this, as we disembarked from the ship, the representative of the local committee, Mr. Greenberg, was already there waiting for us and had taken care of everything for us. The ITO emigrants don’t have to pay the 4 dollar head tax for each person that enters America. They picked up our baggage and drove us in cars to the committee’s center, a big, beautiful house with all the comforts, even bathrooms; we each got to take a bath. They gave us only the best food. The same day, they specified where each of us was going to go. No one settles in Galveston. They sent the heavy baggage ahead and gave us free train tickets to wherever each of us was going–Burlington for us. They also gave us food for the trip: eggs, sardines, bread, and other such things. We were on the train for thirty-two house. The trip here from Galveston costs around 25 dollars per ticket per person. The baggage costs money as well. When we got there there was someone waiting for us in the train station who had set everything up for our first week. That also costs money and it was all paid for by the ITO. The only thing left to wish for is that the ITO would be able to influence the entire flow of Jewish emigration and systematically organize it. Then we could hope to be able to concentrate rapidly in one place and live as a normal people, like all others. Dear brother, I now believe I’ve written you all the details. I will only be able to write about what life is like here after a few weeks when we are better acquainted with this place. In the meantime, we are resting up from the long trip, taking walks. Burlington is a very lovely city. There are not many Jewish families here–maybe all told, twenty families–but everyone is making a nice living.


Sheyne-Gadye Mendelson to her brother, July 28, 1909 (letter) in Gur Alroey, Bread to Eat and Clothes to Wear: Letters from Jewish Migrants in the Early Twentieth Century. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011.