On Nov. 22, 1963, the women of the Congregation Agudas Achim Sisterhood in Austin, Texas, were working in their new kosher kitchen, mixing potato salad for the several hundred people expected to turn up at the dedication of their new synagogue the next day—a group that was to include Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, formerly the congregation’s longtime congressman. The women didn’t have enough mixing bowls, so they wound up using the synagogue’s brand-new plastic trashcans to prepare the potato salad, a detail their honored guest would never need to know.
Of course, Johnson never made it to Austin. Instead of holding a joyous celebration, the congregants gathered to mourn the death of John F. Kennedy and pray for their old friend Lyndon, who had just been sworn in as president on Air Force One, standing next to the blood-spattered and shocked former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. No one expected that he would reschedule his visit—but, ever the consummate politician, Johnson decided to keep his promise, and on Dec. 28, the new president arrived at the new Agudas Achim building.
The synagogue owed its new location on Bull Creek to Johnson’s intercession in a real-estate deal. It’s highly probable that no American president has ever been as intimately involved in the construction of a shul as Johnson was in this one. In October 1963, as vice president, he loaned his Lincoln Continental convertible to congregant Morris Shapiro, who drove the Torah scrolls the three or four miles from Congregation Agudas Achim’s downtown location to its new suburban home amid a parade of marching Jews.
The connection between Johnson and Agudas Achim was Jim Novy, a Polish-born immigrant who wound up in Texas under the Galveston Plan and made a small fortune in scrap metal. One of Johnson’s earliest political allies in Austin, Novy, pillar of Austin’s Orthodox congregation, was instrumental in building the synagogue. For many Austin Jews, their relationship with Johnson had been so close that he was almost too familiar; Milton Simons, who was Agudas Achim’s president in the autumn of 1963, recalled that some of the congregants knew the vice president so well they refused to pay to hear him speak at the synagogue dedication.
The assassination changed that: When the dedication was rescheduled, a gully wash of people from all over the country wanted in, offering what Simons described as “enough money to pay the mortgage,” just to come to Austin to hear the new president talk to the Jews. In the end, it was Novy who kept the strangers out: As far as he was concerned, Austin Jews were LBJ’s Jews, and even “the people too cheap to buy tickets,” in Simons’ estimation, should be there to hear the new president’s first non-official public remarks as president.
I first encountered the story of the synagogue dedication in 1988, while writing a book about Texas Jews. In 2000, when Agudas Achim moved to its current location at the Dell Jewish Community Campus, I volunteered to produce a video to mark the occasion and interviewed congregants who attended the 1963 event, many of whom have since passed away.
Johnson had a special place in his heart for Jim Novy. Their relationship likely began in the early 1930s, when Lyndon worked as secretary and go-to man for Rep. Richard Kleberg, a member of the King ranching family who preferred polo to politics and gave Johnson wide berth. He became a regular presence at meetings of the B’nai B’rith Lodge and Zionist groups. It’s not clear whether Novy made his way to Washington to advocate for Zionist causes, as his daughter Elaine Shapiro believes, or to sell scrap metal to the federal government, as a distant cousin, Benard Laves, told me, but either way, he returned with a lifelong friend.
When Johnson moved back to Austin in 1935 to serve as Texas director of the National Youth Corps, he set up his office at 6th Street and Congress Avenue, at what was then the intersection between high-end Austin and the Jewish-owned schmatte stores along 6th Street. When it was time to raise funds to support Johnson’s first run for Congress, in 1937, the B’nai Brith members and Zionist activists Johnson met at Novy’s lake lodge.
Laves, a born raconteur, remembered walking up 6th toward Congress as a child with his father. He spotted Johnson and wanted to meet him, but his father cautioned, “Just let Lyndon alone to do his thing.” That day, LBJ walked with Jake Pickle, the advertising man who would eventually succeed him as representative of the Tenth District. Jake called to Benard’s father, “Hey, Louie!” He escorted LBJ across the street to greet them. “This great big tall guy, I’m a little kid looking up at him, this terrible look on his face, meaner than hell,” Laves recalled to me in 2009. (He died earlier this year.) “And all of a sudden he smiled, and it was like the sun coming out from behind a cloud.”
Johnson’s constituents in the 10th District included all kinds of minorities: blacks, Mexicans, and immigrants from dirt farms who spoke English, Spanish, Czech, German, and Yiddish. It was a time, as Johnson recounted to the congregation in December 1963, when newspapers were published in a dozen languages to serve Austin’s many immigrants. The vast majority of Austin’s Jews were Democrats, and when Austin’s Jews were troubled about something or needed help, Johnson answered their calls and got results.
But it was his strong and enduring relationship with Novy that led to a sweetheart land deal in the early 1960s by which Congregation Agudas Achim sold its downtown building to the federal government and then applied the proceeds to land along the Missouri Pacific railroad easements that ran through the new suburbs of north Austin. Today, Austin’s Federal Building stands at the site of the old synagogue.