The Life and Leadership of Jim Novy

An Exhibit and Presentation in Tribute to Jim Novy

On Saturday, May 26, the History Project will be honoring Jim Novy’s unparalleled 40 years of devoted service to Agudas Achim.  Jim Novy served as president of CAA three times, in 1937-38, 1946-38, and again in 1954-55.  During the Shabbat morning services, you’ll hear stories about Novy’s fascinating life from his daughter, Elaine Shapiro, and from Milton Simons, Ada Belle Fudell and David Chapin.

Novy was noted for his sense of community and his ability to relate to people from all walks of life.  A close friendship with Lyndon Baines Johnson connected him with many national and international figures.  His skillful negotiations were key to the acquisition of the land for CAA’s synagogue on 10th and San Jacinto (1924-1963), and the more recent synagogue on Bull Creek (1963-2000), and his generosity helped the synagogue through difficult times.  Many have said that Congregation Agudas Achim would not exist today without Jim Novy.

As part of our tribute, there is an exhibit about Jim Novy on display outside the Social Hall.  The exhibit was developed by the CAA History Project is underwritten by a generous gift from Milton Simons and Family in loving memory of the life and leadership of Jim Novy.  The exhibit will remain on display through August 2012.


In 2014 Agudas Achim will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding. This historic event gives us an opportunity to remember our history and those who shaped it.  Each month, the story of our synagogue will be told through short pieces, quotes from talks, recorded oral histories and photos.

 The History Corner:
Our Past and Our People

Since 1879, Austin had a Reform congregation, Temple Beth Israel, but new immigrants wanted to conduct services according to their own traditions.  They formed the Orthodox congregation of Agudas Achim.

These Jews first began to meet separately from the Temple for High Holiday services.  In 1901, their meeting place was the Knights of Pythias Hall at Seventh Street and Congress Avenue, and Rabbi Ben Nathanson of San Antonio conducted the services.  Until 1915, the Orthodox Jews usually celebrated the Sabbath at the Temple with daily minyanim held at various private homes.

Wanting to encourage Jews from surrounding small towns to come to Austin to worship, the members of the Orthodox community often opened their homes for overnight visits.  In 1914 the home of Mr. and Mrs. L. Frank at First and Brazos was filled with people from Lampasas, San Marcos, Taylor, Lockhart, Bastrop, Kyle, Granger, Temple, Belton, Seguin, New Braunfels and Elgin for the High Holiday services.  The following year Rosh Hashana servicers were held at a rented hall at the corner of Seventh Street and Congress Avenue, and the Kol Nidre service was held at home of Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Laibovitz. 

Laibovitz, a local merchant, was active in helping to organize the Orthodox Jews into a separate congregation.  His son, Louis, remembered, “The Friday night minyans…were held at the home of my parents at 500 East 7th and Neches in the combination living room/dining room.  The Torah was set on the fireplace mantel.  They built benches on the front porch for people to sit on while waiting for the services to begin.”

Material from Building for the Future, 1989, a book commemorating the dedication of the new sanctuary of Congregation Agudas Achim.

 The History Corner--Part 2
Our Past and Our People

Unable to feel at home with the Reform services at Temple Beth Israel, the Orthodox Jews arriving in Central Texas from Eastern Europe in the first decades of the 20th century wanted to participate in services according to their own traditions.  They began gathering on Friday nights for services at the home of local merchant  Isaac Laibovitz and his wife, Ida. Most were shopkeepers in downtown Austin, and for them Saturday was a work day.  For daily minyanim, all the group had to do was walk up the street to get enough men out of their stores.

Laibovitz helped organize these men and their families into a separate congregation, the beginning of Agudas Achim.  The group rented a variety of downtown locations to accommodate local Jews and those from nearby smaller towns for the High Holidays.  From 1916 to 1922, a Mr. Saffer from Temple, Texas conducted High Holiday services, and Wolf Meyerowitz, a butcher and grocer from Kyle, served as cantor.

The number of Orthodox Jews in Austin continued to grow and a building was needed.  On February 16, 1924, Congregation Agudas Achim was chartered, and a one-story house on Seventh and San Jacinto was purchased for use as a synagogue.

Israel Cohn, who was born in Russia and owned a clothing store, was elected the first president, a position he would hold for many years.  Jim Novy, an iron and steel merchant recently arrived from Poland, served as vice president. 

The congregation could not obtain a rabbi, so it sought the services of a shochet, or kosher butcher, who was knowledgeable in the Orthodox traditions and laws and could conduct services.  In 1929, Rev. Bernard Tannenbaum, father of our congregant, Estelle Kogut, was retained as a spiritual leader, cantor and teacher.  As the congregation grew, a Hebrew School was jointly organized with Temple Beth Israel, and young men became bar mitzvah.

Material from Building for the Future,1989, a book commemorating the dedication of the new sanctuary of Congregation Agudas Achim on Bull Creek.

CAA History Corner--Part 3
Our Past and Our People

In the 1920’s, members of Agudas Achim continued their efforts to attract other Orthodox Jews to the Austin area by offering temporary financial assistance.  These efforts succeeded, and in 1930, the congregation sold the one-story house on Seventh and San Jacinto that served as its synagogue, and purchased a new site on the southeast corner of Tenth and San Jacinto to construct a larger and more functional building. 

The land for Agudas Achim’s new building was purchase for $12,500 on April 10, 1930.  A beautiful two-story synagogue was built for $17,353, and the dedication took place on September 6, 1931.  The building had a kitchen and a mikvah in the basement.  The mikvah, which was never used, was a great place for the children to play hide and seek.
The building on Tenth and San Jacinto would serve as the congregation’s home for the next 32 years.  Israel Cohn, who had served as president since the congregation was chartered in 1924, was again elected president of the new synagogue.

The congregation continued to grow, and on August 1, 1933, it took another step in providing full religious services to its members by purchasing the Agudas Achim Cemetery in the Austin Memorial  Park on Hancock Drive.  Until then, Orthodox Jews were permitted to be buried in the Temple Beth Israel Cemetery. 

Rabbi Harold Katz, brother of congregant Ida Lown, joined the synagogue as its first full-time ordained rabbi.  Previously a Rabbi Hurwitz from Galveston had traveled to Austin to lead services.

Members of CAA went to the small towns surrounding Austin to attract new members, and solicited funds from all Jews in Austin, including parents of University of Texas students.  They were able to pay off the mortgage on the second home of Agudas Achim by January 21, 1938.

Material from Building for the Future,1989, a book commemorating the dedication of the new sanctuary of Congregation Agudas Achim on Bull Creek.

CAA History Corner - Part 4
Our Past and Our People

Agudas Achim continued to steadily grow during the 1930’s and 1940’s. 

During WWII, the congregation was able to open its doors to Jewish servicemen stationed in the Austin area.  It worked with the Jewish Welfare Board to develop a USO to be housed in the basement of the San Jacinto Street synagogue. Young women in the Jewish sororities at the University of Texas were invited to come to socials and dances to meet the soldiers. A Torah which belonged to the synagogue was also loaned to nearby Bergstrom Air Force Base so services could be conducted at the base. 

In August 1946, Julius DeKoven became rabbi of Agudas Achim, and conducted services in the Conservative tradition, with some readings done in English, and youth participating.  With a growing number of young members, the congregation voted in to affiliate with United Synagogue of America in 1948 and  to become part of the Conservative movement.  Shortly after, an addition with classrooms was added for a religious school.  Benson Skoff was the congregation’s first Conservative rabbi

Israel Cohn served as president of Agudas Achim from 1924 until his death in 1936. The congregation voted to limit the president’s term to two years. In 1937, Jim Novy was installed as the second president.

CAA History Corner - Part 4 (Cont)

The April and May chapters of the History Corner are about Jim Novy, a founder of Agudas Achim, who served as its President three times, and who is personally credited with helping to fund and shape the building blocks for much of what we have today.

A new book, “The First Jew of Texas: The Life of Jim Novy”, compiled David Chapin, a member of Agudas Achim and a long-time CAARS teacher, will be available for purchase soon. Chapin compiled parts of this work from many sources including the LBJ Presidential Library, the
Agudas Achim archives, and through interviews with Jim Novy’s daughter, Elaine Shapiro. The material which follows has also been written by David Chapin.
Jim Novy may not be a name you have heard of, but without him, there would probably not have been Congregation Agudas Achim. The seeds of everything that make us a modern Jewish congregation are there directly because of him.  

Jim Novy was a self-made immigrant, a Jewish success story. Born Shimeon Novodvorsky in the village of Knishin, Poland in 1896, he escaped from Europe at the age of 18, alone. He made his way on the steamship Chemitz out of Bremen to Galveston with only a few dollars in his pocket. He arrived in the port of Galveston on Yom Kippur, 1913. There he made his way to Ennis, Texas to meet with his older brothers Sam and Louis, who had arrived a year before. There, he started in the junk business.

Within a year, he and his brothers moved to Austin and got involved in the scrap metal business, just as World War I was erupting in Europe. Scrap metal became a lucrative business, which ultimately made him a wealthy man. But it had its ups and downs, and Jim had his hand in other businesses, such as theaters. In November 1918, his brother Sam succumbed to the Influenza epidemic. With Jim, Louis, Leopold Cohn, and other early founders of our congregation, some of the first Orthodox minyanim in Austin were held to handle Sam’s funeral and shiva.

After World War I ended, easy immigration from Europe also ended. Jim Novy concentrated on getting money to his relatives left behind in Europe and finding schemes to get them into
America. He brought over Gelle, Sam’s widow, and her children. He brought several of his
relatives to Monterey Mexico, hoping to get them into the U.S. later. His sister Sheindel and his brother Morris came over in this group. Sheindel’s daughter Claire later married Jack Seriff. Claire Seriff was the longtime head of the CAA religious school in the 1960s-70s. Sheindel’s other daughter Mina later married Leonard Parven. Jim Novy’s brother Morris’s daughter Ceil later married Milton Simons. So with these new immigrants that Jim brought over were the seeds of important future leaders of our congregation.  Simons, Parven and Seriff have served as Agudas Achim presidents.

In 1922, Jim Novy married Edna Goldstein from Fort Worth. A year later, they had their first child, Dave Howard. In 1930, Elaine Novy was born. In 1924, Congregation Agudas Achim was chartered so it could buy a small one story house on Seventh and San Jacinto to hold their minyanim. Jim Novy was a charter member and vice president. The new congregation quickly outgrew its building. They needed a dedicated building, with sanctuary, social hall, and classrooms for its Talmud Torah. As head of the building committee, Jim Novy was in charge of raising the substantial sum of $35,000 during the peak of the Great Depression. He was successful and in 1931 a new synagogue building was dedicated on Tenth and San Jacinto.

In the next installment, we will follow Jim Novy’s story to its remarkable conclusion. We will look at how he rescued Jews in the face of Nazi exterminations. We will see his great friendship with Lyndon Baines Johnson blossom. And we will watch Jim Novy lead the congregation’s building committee yet a second time.

CAA History Corner—Part 5
Our Past and Our People

In the last installment, we saw how Jim Novy came over to America, how he came to establish himself in Austin, and some of the early steps he took that were responsible for launching Congregation Agudas Achim.

In 1933, during the peak of the Great Depression, Jim Novy, now a wealthy Austin scrap metal dealer, purchased land out of his own pocket in the Austin Memorial Park Cemetery for Congregation Agudas Achim. Still to this day it is our official cemetery.

But later in the decade, Jim Novy began devoting himself to international Jewish causes in the face of Nazi aggression in Europe. In the summer of 1938, with his teenage son Dave Howard, Jim Novy made a daring visit to Poland, just one year ahead of Germany’s invasion. Once there, he donated money to support efforts to reduce poverty and hunger, particularly in his native town of Knishin. He brought 42 people out of Europe during this trip, with the help of blank visas set up by his friend Congressman Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Upon his return from Europe, the partnership between LBJ and Jim Novy went into high gear. They rescued numerous Jews, using channels in Latin America set up earlier by Novy to help his own relatives out of Europe. We will never know how many Jews they rescued, but one of them was recently deceased Austin Jewish icon Fred Grant. We know that they used Congregation Agudas Achim and local Texas resources such as the National Youth Administration Texas camps as cover for their operation.

In 1942, LBJ arranged for Jim Novy to go on a secret mission to Nazi-occupied Europe. It is unclear the nature of this mission; Novy never discussed it with anyone including his own family. It must have been extremely dangerous. Even though Jim Novy, at age 46 was not in the military, he was awarded a Purple Heart Certificate for his clandestine activities. To this day, it is not known what he did to deserve it.

In 1943, Jim Novy and LBJ had a war bond drive in Novy’s home. With about 25 people in attendance, they raised $65,000 in less than 20 minutes. It is also rumored that a substantial sum was also raised for arms to help the Jewish underground fighters in Palestine. Novy secretly shipped these arms to Palestine in heavy crates labeled “Texas Grapefruit.”

Jim Novy served as president of CAA three different times. He was president 1937-38, but served again 1946-48, and yet again 1954-55. There were stories that at the end of monthly board meetings they would go through the finances and if there was a shortfall, the board members would open up their pocketbooks to make up the shortages right there on the spot. At the time, they only had 85 or so families, so it was difficult to balance the books. Jim Novy was very generous and never allowed his congregation to get into a financial hole. Whatever was needed to make up the difference, Jim provided. If cash was tight, he would even take out a personal bank loan.

Much has been told about the synagogue’s move from San Jacinto to Bull Creek in 1962-63 and will likely be subject of another article. But Jim Novy was absolutely critical. He was head of the building committee for a second time in the congregation’s history. He purchased the land out of his own pocket. And through his ties with then Vice-President Johnson, he secured a good price for the old property.  Novy obtained LBJ’s personal Lincoln to transport the Torahs, and scheduled Johnson himself to dedicate the new building. Little did anyone know that President John Kennedy would be assassinated and LBJ would become president. But because of the great friendship between Novy and Johnson, LBJ made good on his promise to dedicate the synagogue – becoming the only U.S. president to date to dedicate a synagogue.

Our Past and Our People
LBJ Becomes Part of Agudas Achim History

By the late 1950’s, the Agudas Achim congregation had outgrown the first synagogue it had built in 1939 at 10th and San Jacinto Streets.  A few years later, according to Elaine Shapiro, Jim Novy’s daughter, Jim called his close personal friend, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, and said, “I’ve got notice that the General Accounting Office wants to condemn our property. You know this is our synagogue.” And Johnson said, “Let me see about it.  Don’t worry about it.  I’ll see that you are amply compensated for it.”  The San Jacinto building was sold for $144,300 to the Federal Government as the site of the new main Post Office. 

On October 24, 1962, a contract which Jim Novy had helped negotiate was signed for the purchase of a property on Bull Creek for $19,500.  The seed money for that land and the subsequent construction of the new building came from the sale of the San Jacinto property, negotiated by Novy with LBJ’s help.

For the 73 Agudas Achim member families, the opening of the new building created great deal of excitement.  The sanctuary was noted for its narrow stained glass windows created by the Art Department of the University of Texas representing the twelve tribes of Israel. On September 6, 1963 the religious dedication of the building at 4300 Bull Creek was held.  The four Torah scrolls were moved to their new home on Bull Creek in open convertibles, including one belonging to LBJ.

Lyndon Johnson had accepted Jim Novy’s invitation to speak at a formal dedication event on Sunday, November 24, 1963.  According to Morris Shapiro, Novy’s son-in-law, “one of the reasons Lyndon was interested in coming down and dedicating the building was because he was instrumental in the building of it.”

Rumors surfaced that President John F. Kennedy might show up since he was also scheduled to appear in Austin after the Dallas parade on Friday, November 22.  The excitement about the Agudas Achim Dedication Weekend vanished when the congregation joined the nation in mourning the death of President Kennedy, who was assassinated on that day.  LBJ never forgot his promise to Jim Novy and Agudas Achim, and returned on December 30, 1963 to be part of the dedication.

People from across the country called requesting tickets, including a man from San Francisco who called offering $10,000 for a ticket.  He was turned down.

Morris Shapiro said, “There was a whole commotion. (Johnson) didn’t just walk in to make the dedication.  Man, for two days before, the Secret Service was there.  Because we just had a president assassinated, they didn’t want to lose another one.”  They did background checks and wanted to know where each person was seated.

Milton Simons, Jim  Novy’s nephew and President of CAA at that time, said, “The whole back of the shul was lined with cameramen.”  Reports about the dedication were telecast all over the country. 

Material from Building for the Future, 1989, a book commemorating the dedication of the new sanctuary of Congregation Agudas Achim on Bull Creek, and from a CAA History Project interview conducted on May 11, 2011, by David Chapin with members of Jim Novy’s family: Elaine Shapiro, Morris Shapiro and Milton Simons.

The Beginning of a Jewish Community in Austin

In previous chapters of The History Corner, we focused on the origins of Agudas Achim.  The focus of this and the next installment will be on the early years of Austin’s first congregation, Temple Beth Israel which was founded by in 1876 by Jews who had immigrated from Germany, and its relationship to the group of Orthodox Jews who formed what later would become Agudas Achim.

The first recorded Jew in Austin was Phineas deCordova born in Pennsylvania in 1819 to Sephardic parents.  He worked in a land agency with his brother in Houston before being invited in 1849 to lead the immigration department of the Texas government in Austin. He was involved in many civic groups and helped found the Odd Fellows Lodge and Temple Beth Israel.

Jews began to settle in Austin during the third quarter of the nineteenth century.  The first Jewish group organized here was the Austin Lodge of B’nai B’rith which was formed on July 9, 1875.  The size of Austin’s Jewish community in 1877 was reported to be about 200, with about thirty families and eighty males.  Among them, Henry Hirschfeld, who had left Germany, served in the Civil War, and came to Austin where he founded Austin National Bank and played a prominent role in the organization of the Jewish community.

Attempts by Hirschfeld to organize a Jewish congregation in 1874 failed, but two years later, the Jews of Austin met at the Odd Fellows Hall, and voted to organize Congregation Beth Israel.   Henry Hirschfeld was elected its first president.  Attention then turned to raising money for the purchase of land and the construction of a synagogue building. In 1877, the officers purchased a lot on Eleventh and San Jacinto Streets for $2500 on which to build. 

In 1877, Dr. J. Gluck came to officiate at the High Holiday services which were held in the Odd Fellows Hall, remained for three months, and began Austin’s first religious school.  In June, 1878, Confirmation services were held.  Rabbis were employed on short-term contracts, and the religious school operated as staff and funds were available. The congregation committed to using Reform prayer books and rituals, though some traditional elements like the wearing of yarmulkes and paying for the privilege of reciting a blessing over the Torah were included.

Congregation Beth Israel applied for a charter as a non-profit organization from the state of Texas in October 1879.  Architects plans were accepted, and though funds were raised, they were insufficient to begin building until 1881.  The synagogue was completed in 1884.  In 1899, Joe Koen succeeded Henry Hirschfeld as the second President of the Temple, a post he held until his death in 1944.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Jews of Austin had very good relations with their Gentile neighbors.  Beside membership in B’nai B’rith, Jews were often members of various civic and philanthropic organizations, and a good number served as officers.  If some clubs were anti-Semitic, they joined those open to them.  They felt that to be accepted by Gentiles, they should accept their restrictions without serious objection.

The turn of the century saw the real beginning of the influx of Russian, Polish and eastern European Jews to the United States.  Many of these immigrants came through the port of Galveston.  Some settled in this area because they had a relative who had come to Central Texas before them. Their new relationships were often based on their common heritage as Orthodox Jews.   As in many Southern Jewish communities, the Reform-oriented German Jews who had arrived in the mid-to-late nineteenth century tended to separate themselves socially from the newer arrivals.

Yet, the Orthodox were welcome to celebrate Shabbat at the Temple.  High Holiday services were celebrated separately, and after there were enough Orthodox Jews in Austin, daily minyans were held in people’s homes. This tendency toward a split community would become more exaggerated in later years.

Material from The First One Hundred Years:  A History of the Austin Jewish Community 1850-1950 by Jay Lawrence Silberberg. A Senior Thesis for the Degree of Bachelor of Arts, Plan II, The University of Texas, 1974.

Tribute to an Extraordinary Man

The History Project will be honoring Jim Novy’s unparalleled 40 years of service to Agudas Achim during Shabbat services on Saturday, May 26.  An extraordinary man, Novy served as president of CAA three times in 1937-38, 1946-48 and yet again in 1954-55. 

Though a recent immigrant from Poland, Jim Novy with his brothers was able to start a number of successful businesses in Texas.  Novy was noted for his generosity, sense of community, and his ability to connect with people from all walks of life. 

Jim Novy’s close friendship with Congressman Lyndon Baines Johnson connected him with many national and international figures. Novy traveled to Nazi-occupied Europe in 1938-42 and was involved the rescue of many Jews. 

Novy was central in negotiating the sale our first synagogue on San Jacinto as the site of a new downtown Post Office, and for the purchase of land for our synagogue on Bull Creek.  Vice President Lyndon Johnson agreed to speak at the dedication of CAA’s new building scheduled for November 24, 1963.  With the assassination of President Kennedy, the event was cancelled as the congregation joined the nation in mourning. LBJ never forgot his promise to Jim Novy and to Agudas Achim, and returned in December, 1963 as U.S. President to be part of the dedication.

Many have said that Congregation Agudas Achim would not exist today without Jim Novy.  When he died in 1971, many dignitaries attended his funeral, including Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. 

During services on Saturday, May 26, you’ll hear many more stories about the fascinating life of Jim Novy from people who had close personal ties to him.