Rabbi Martin Zielonka: the “Reform Rabbi of the West,” El Paso, Texas

Rabbi Martin Zielonka

Values Codes H – I – E – L – P

 

Rabbi Martin & Dora Zielonka of El Paso, Courtesy:“ Jewish Stars in Texas: Rabbis & Their Work” TAMU Press.

Rabbi Martin & Dora Zielonka of El Paso,
Courtesy:“ Jewish Stars in Texas: Rabbis & Their Work” TAMU Press.

Martin Zielonka was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1877

He and his parents, David and Bertha Zielonka, arrived in the United States in 1880, and settled in Cincinnati, Ohio.

There, Martin Zielonka attended Hebrew Union College, where he was ordained in 1899.

Rabbi Martin Zielonka’s first pulpit was Temple Rodef Sholom in Waco, Texas.

A year later, 1890, he accepted the pulpit of Temple Mt. Sinai in El Paso, Texas, where he served until his death in 1938.

When Rabbi Zielonka arrived in El Paso, it was a ragged border town with no paved streets and plenty of gangsters.

Mules pulled trolley cars, alligators lazed in a downtown fountain, and shootings were commonplace.

The rabbi helped civilize the region.

He spoke at school board meetings and teamed up with civic leaders to launch  a city college.

He  served on the municipal planning commission.

He negotiated with Pancho Villa for the release of a Jewish prisoner.

That tense exchange ended when the Mexican revolutionary shot the lock off a jail cell door.

Across the border in Mexico, Zielonka worked with B’nai B’rith to resettle 8,000 Jewish refugees from Europe.

He also helped start Jewish congregations in Albuquerque, Alamogordo, Santa Fe, Tucson, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.

Mt. Sinai at the time of Rabbi Martin Zielonka, El Paso, Texas, Old Postcard

Mt. Sinai at the time of Rabbi Martin Zielonka, El Paso, Texas, vintage postcard

Civic

Rabbi Zielonka was an active member of the Texas State Welfare Commission.

In 1918, he was both President and Chairman of the El Paso Memorial Park Plan, instituted to create a War Memorial.

Rabbi Zielonka was a Charter Member of the Rotary Club, and its President at the time of his death in 1938.

 

Fraternal

Rabbi Zielonka was a member of Masonic Lodge #130 of El Paso.

El Paso’s B’nai B’rith Lodge #3509 was started in 1901, but did not become active until 1904. Zielonka was a Charter Member.

He eventually became President of B’nai B’rith Grand Lodge #7.

 

Community

In 1908, Rabbi Zielonka lead in the creation of a Relief Fund that later evolved into the El Paso Jewish Federation.

He was the Director of the Family Welfare Association for 18 years.

He served on the Board of Governors of Hebrew Union College and on the Executive Board of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

The end of World War I created a problem for Jewish refugees seeking to immigrate to North America.

Thousands of Jews attempted to come to the United States at a time when the U.S. Congress was planning to limit immigration.

As a result, a steady stream of Jews were entering Mexico and trying to cross the Rio Grande into the United States.

Rabbi Zielonka, as well as other rabbis in border cities, attempted to provide assistance through friends in Washington and B’nai B’rith, as had been done with the Galveston Movement in the years prior to WWI.

When this failed, Zielonka and senior representatives of B’nai B’rith traveled through Mexico and helped fund the creation of numerous Jewish-Mexican communities. From their efforts:

“The migration of 8,000 Jews to Mexico in the 1920s constituted that nation’s largest wave of Hebrew immigration in the twentieth century. They thrived and multiplied.”

— Hollace Ava Weiner, Jewish Stars in Texas

 

Family

In 1900, Rabbi Martin Zielonka married Dora Schatzky, whom he met while serving in Waco, Texas.

David L. Zielonka was born, in 1904.

 

Rabbi Martin Zielonka died unexpectedly, in 1938.

“Zieloka lived what he believed.”

— Rev. B.M.G. Williams of El Paso

“A Jew made a Christian out of me. He [Rabbi Zielonka] was a humanitarian and a Rotarian.” 

— Bill Blackwell, Chairman of the Rotary Christmas Committee of El Paso

Sources

  • “Rabbi Martin Zielonka: Letter from Mexico in 1908,”Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly 12/3.
  • “Rabbi Martin Zielonka: Letter from Mexico in 1908; Part 2,” Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly 12/4
  • Hollace Ava Weiner, “Rabbi Martin Zielonka: The Mexican Connection, El Paso, Texas,” Western States Jewish History 32/1
  • Evelyn Rossing Rosen, “Martin Zielonka: Rabbi and Civic Leader in El Paso,” The El Paso Jewish Historical Review 1/1.
  • Hollace Ava Weiner, Jewish Stars in Texas: Rabbis and their Work (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press).
Temple Mount Sinai's Y-Church League basketball team, 1917. Rabbi Zielonka back right. Courtesy:“ Jewish Stars in Texas: Rabbis & Their Work” TAMU Press.

Temple Mount Sinai’s Y-Church League basketball team, 1917, Rabbi Zielonka back right.
Courtesy: Jewish Stars in Texas: Rabbis and their Work,Texas A&M University Press.