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Harriett Denise Joseph
Sam Perl
Photograph, Sam Perl playing pool and smoking a cigar. Image courtesy of the University of Texas. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.
Henry Cohen
Photograph, Portrait of Henry Cohen. Image courtesy of the Jewish Museum of the American West. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.
Charro Days
Photograph, People celebrating Charro Days. Image courtesy of the Texas Observer. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

PERL, SAM (1898–1980). Sam Perl, civic and religious leader, was born on June 24, 1898, in Podjace in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Wolf (William) and Rivka Perl. He and his three older siblings, Joseph, Belle, and Leon, arrived in Galveston with their mother in 1900 to join their father, who had immigrated earlier. He was raised in Galveston, where he graduated from Ball High School and was nurtured in his Jewish faith by Rabbi Henry Cohen. On September 9, 1928, Perl married Stella Cohn. They had two children. Sam and his brother Leon moved in 1926 to Brownsville, where they purchased a men's clothing store, which they renamed Perl Brothers. This successful business attracted customers from both sides of the Mexican border during its fifty years of existence. Perl Brothers sponsored a five-minute radio show emceed by Sam Perl. After presenting local news and gossip he always signed off by saying, "Remember we do love everybody." Perl was a founding member of the Charro Days Association, president of the Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the Brownsville Housing Authority, chaplain of the court (appointed by federal judge Reynaldo Garza), president of the Kiwanis Club, a thirty-second-degree Mason, a member of the Alzajar Temple of the Shriners, and a Democrat. In the 1930s he helped to found Charro Days, a Hispanic version of Mardi Gras still celebrated annually in the Brownsville-Matamoros area. As a member of the International Committee of the Chamber of Commerce, he organized and participated in good-will trips to Mexico designed to promote tourism for Brownsville. Under Perl's leadership the Brownsville Housing Authority initiated plans for its high-rise housing project for the elderly, Villa del Sol.

Temple Beth-El
Photograph, Temple Beth-El in Brownsville. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

When Perl moved to Brownsville, the approximately two dozen Jewish families living there lacked organized religious life. He became the unifying force and main representative of the Brownsville Jewish community. After conducting religious services in places like the Masonic Hall, in 1931–32 he helped found Temple Beth-El, where he acted as lay rabbi until the 1970s. Although raised in an Orthodox background, he recognized that Beth-El had a "mixed congregation" and endeavored to conduct his services "in a manner that will be pleasing to most of them." He performed virtually all of the functions of an ordained rabbi, including conducting wedding ceremonies, which he was empowered to do by the Cameron County Commissioners Court. Perl was not paid a salary for his ministerial services and donated any fees he received to the Temple. He used to joke that he was the only rabbi who paid his congregation instead of the other way around. In 1941 he was made an honorary life member of Beth-El, which exempted him from paying annual dues. He frequently held offices on the Temple Board and was named a permanent ex-officio member of that governing body in 1964. He was an honorary member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Texas Kallah of Rabbis. Perl was also president of Texas B'nai B'rith and a member of the Grand Lodge of B'nai B'rith.

Grave of Sam Perl
Photograph, Grave of Sam Perl in San Antonio. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

In the 1970s he received recognition for his many contributions as a civic leader. At a public ceremony the title "Mr. Brownsville" was bestowed upon him. A street was named in his honor. Perl's failing health necessitated a move to San Antonio in 1977. The following year the Brownsville congregation launched a secret fund drive to purchase a Torah scroll that had survived the Holocaust. In a special ceremony they presented it to "Rabbi" Perl as a token of appreciation for his half century of service. He in turn donated it to his beloved Temple Beth-El. Perl died in San Antonio on August 5, 1980.


Milo Kearney, ed., Studies in Brownsville History (Pan American University at Brownsville, 1986). Milo Kearney and Anthony Knopp, Boom and Bust: The Historical Cycles of Matamoros and Brownsville (Austin: Eakin Press, 1991). Ruthe Winegarten and Cathy Schechter, Deep in the Heart: The Lives and Legends of Texas Jews (Austin: Eakin Press, 1990).

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Harriett Denise Joseph, "PERL, SAM," accessed August 04, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fperz.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on May 2, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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