They say everything is bigger in Texas and Ohr HaTorah is no exception. Big is not defined by their 40,000 square foot building, their two-acre property, or by their 300 to 500 Shabbos attendees. Even their success is big. Success. That was the word that kept coming to mind as I was watching YouTube videos of congregants giving kavod, not just to their rabbi, but also to their fellow congregants. You can hear the joy as they speak about their shulmates. You can see the smiles pop out unexpectedly. It looks and sounds like family. For a shul to feel like family is true success.
In January of 1999, twenty families, most of whom were baalei teshuva who became involved with the local kollel, wanted something more from their synagogue and decided to start anew. Many had young children and were looking to see “what was missing in their lives,” yearning to come closer to God. They tapped Rabbi Aryeh Feigenbaum to be their spiritual leader. Rabbi Feigenbaum moved to Dallas in 1992 as a founding member of the Dallas Area Torah Association, the local kollel. Today, Ohr HaTorah and DATA remain sister organizations and the Ohr founding members are still active in DATA.
The new shul began in the living room of one of the members. Then, after only four months the twenty families became sixty, and moved into a 1,000-square foot storefront facility. As evidence of their rapid growth and urgent needs, the mechitzah was made of shower curtains strung on fishing line. As one member says, “It was an exciting and magical time.” A church bought the building and that necessitated yet another move, to a location down the block where they convened for four years. In 2005, the kehilla purchased their own property and erected a 5,000-square foot modular building that served them well while raising millions of dollars for their new facility. With gratitude, their mortgage was just paid off. In 2007, they built their current edifice of 40,000 square feet and which they have once again outgrown. Ohr HaTorah is a 225-member family and counting.
Jews were in Texas as far back as the late 1500s, but there wasn’t an established Jewish settlement until 1820. Jews fought in the Texas war for independence from Mexico but it was not until after Texas became a state in 1846 that the Jewish population grew rapidly. (An interesting note is that after breaking away from Mexico after its war of independence with Spain in 1821, Texas became its own country from 1836-1845. The Republic of Texas became a state in 1845; however, it seceded from the Union in 1861 to join the Confederacy.)
As was common with new communities, the first recording of Jewish populace was the establishment of a cemetery. Dallas’ Jewish cemetery was consecrated in 1854. The first organization, The Hebrew Benevolent Society, was formed in 1874. Between the years of 1908-1914, approximately 10,000 European Jews were routed from the crowded neighborhoods of New York through Texas to settle in western states. About two hundred of these immigrants remained in Texas, scattered amongst one hundred Texan communities. Many of the early Jewish settlers were cattle barons, physicians, financiers, and merchants. Dallas’ most famous vendors were Herbert Marcus, his sister Carrie Marcus Neiman and her husband A.L. (Abraham Lincoln) Neiman. In 1907, the trio had $25,000 to invest and were offered a fledgling soda-pop company called Coca Cola or the option of starting their own clothing store to appeal to the wealthy oil rich Texans looking to flaunt their wealth. (Which one do you think they choose?) Another of Dallas’ famous Jews is Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and one of the television show Shark Tank’s main investors. His paternal grandfather changed the family name from Chabenisky to Cuban at Ellis Island after emigrating from Russia.
As of 2017, the Jewish population of Texas was 166,505 people.
While Texas is known for its friendliness and down-home heimishe camaraderie, Dallas in particular seems to claim the appellation of conviviality. The levels of observance that comprise the membership is diversified including congregants who didn’t even know they were Jewish until adulthood, a member who describes his family as “reform-lite,” and those who are fully observant including many rabbis. The diversity is attributed to yidden having a common goal, one of searching for answers: “Do we believe in an afterlife? What is the meaning behind the symbols? What does God want from us? How can I be a better Jew?” As one member philosophically expressed it, “We Jews are the most educated population in America – in everything but Judaism.” There is a yearning inside each of us and Ohr HaTorah wants to fulfill that yearning. It is the warmth exuded by fellow members and the thirst for real growth through true Torah learning that is a significant draw when potential members check out the synagogue that prides itself on being the Light of Torah. The weekly shul bulletin for Parsha Ki Savo, which mentioned the words “love” and “family” numerous times, welcomed new members, from singles to families – nineteen of them! That’s not just success, that’s huge success!
The population of Dallas itself is growing due to a booming economy, low taxes, strong job opportunities, and a warm climate. A young shul that is family oriented and religiously inspiring adds to the warmth and enthusiasm. Growth is not just due to the influx of new Texans, but also because of the internal proliferation, meaning they have inreach as well as outreach. There are several married children of original members who have remained in Dallas and are active members of Ohr HaTorah. To have seven or eight families that are second-generation members is true yiddishe nachas.
Ohr HaTorah meets the congregants’ needs through the offering of multiple times for minyanim and an enticing assortment of classes. But the fallback words that keep coming up are camaraderie, community, warmth, and welcoming. These modifiers shine through in the stories told. Each member has been on a journey and each has a story. It is these stories that define success and tell us what a shul being a surrogate family can accomplish.
The highlight of success is exemplified by the twenty original families, many of whom who have children who are fully observant and whose grandchildren attend the local day school. There is the member who was diagnosed with breast cancer. She said her friends played with her children and brought meals – for two years. The mother of an eight-year old boy who needed brain surgery says she’s indebted to her shul family for getting the family through it. A mom whose twenty-two year old son died in a car accident credits the Ohr family for she and her husband becoming shomer Shabbos Jews. The father who speaks with such pride of his three sons going to a shiur motzei Shabbos. There is the story of one of the original members who had been childless for nine years. The rabbi gave a brocha that if they offer their home to host the shul in those early days, they would have a child within the year; they were blessed with a healthy son that same year. One member said that the power of their prayers together, their oneness, changes everything. The appreciation for the rabbanim, the role models, and the positive attitudes are contributing factors for so many congregants coming and staying.
Rabbi Hillel Muller, the Executive Director, credits the growth to people being excited about Ohr’s warmth and extensive programs. Daily services include two for Shachris, one for Mincha, and two for Maariv, with three during the winter season. Shabbos services include a hashkama minyan, a main service, and a learner’s service. There’s even a girls’ high school. Family oriented functions include Mommy and Me, Father-Son learning, Fun at Ohr, and trips such as an upcoming shul excursion to Chicago. Additional learning includes Scholars in Residence, Project SEED, and Night Seder. The social factor is an important element and there are regular melavei malka and kiddushim.
Then there is the OKC (Ohr HaTorah Kitchen Committee). The week starts with one member setting up the tables in the social hall with tablecloths and centerpieces. There is the team that does the food ordering and shopping. As the week progresses, women bake challahs and cakes. Ladies make their own particular specialties such as homemade sushi and specialty desserts; another makes what is supposed to be an amazing herring. Thursday night is when one lady makes her knishes, bourekas, and deli roll. Can it get bigger and better? For the combination of socializing and food in the context of Texas, of course there are the shul barbecues!
The magnificent building features a main sanctuary with a seating capacity for 350, which was almost met this past Rosh Hashanah. There are also two smaller beis medrashim. There is a 6,000 square foot social hall with milchig and fleishig kitchens, several classrooms, a boardroom, and a mikvah. The members built a generational building confident that they would grow in to it. It is its own village or as one congregant described their kehilla, “It’s a little Mayberry RFD.”
They say everything is bigger in Texas and for Ohr HaTorah, I think it means their hearts.