If buildings could speak, the message of Dallas’ new Ohr HaTorah shul is one of pride, confidence, and inclusiveness. Simply put, it is – architecturally – the most impressive building of a right-of-Orthodox-center shul I have ever seen.
The community that built it lives up to the promise of the structure.
It wasn’t the shul that brought me to Texas. A group of seasoned activists within the United Methodist Church, America’s largest mainline Protestant denomination are up to some serious anti-Israel mischief. They are trying to get the rank and file to pass a divestment resolution at their General Conference in April, so my day job took me to Fort Worth last week to see what I could do to counter a bald lie that they have carefully nurtured for years. (Of all liberal Protestant denominations, the Methodists promote the ugliest and most imbalanced set of materials about Israel and the Middle East.) The Jewish community is so divided about Israel, they argue, that taking the side of the Palestinians will not harm Jewish-Methodist relations. Of course, every time they make the argument, there is a large cheering section on hand of vocal, marginal, and irrelevant Jewish groups who see Israel as the root of all evil. My mission was to begin the process of reality-checking, demonstrating that the vast majority of the Jewish community cares very much indeed about the safety and security of Israel, and regards imbalanced and unfair treatment of Israel as a body-blow.
There may be more relaxing ways of spending what to many was winter-break week. Going in to a different community as live bait is not a commonly accepted form of recreation. (Truth be told – it was not unpleasant at all. I never came face to face with the established Bad Guys. The people I met and conversed with – both delegates and officials, both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian – were genuinely gracious and warm. They were mostly also hopelessly clueless about both the history of Israel, and the realities on the ground. Steady brainwashing by the Bad Guys has taken a toll.) Accepting the mission was made easier by the fact that the site of the pre-convention was only about 35 miles from my oldest son’s house in Dallas, which distance, by Texas standards, is about the length of an average driveway. So it was Methodists by day, my grandchildren by night, followed by the decompression and holiness of Shabbos.
I had heard much about a strong, yeshivish community in North Dallas for years. So had others. Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlit”a, had offered the strongest encouragement to my son to relocate in Dallas, where the housing was far more affordable than Los Angeles. It offered, he felt, an opportunity for an individual to make a difference in a community that was going places. For those of us who prefer the “out of town” model, Dallas had the most important pieces already in place: a strong Kollel, an established cadre of bnei Torah (of mixed Chaim Berlin and Ner Israel origins), and attractive chinuch for the kids.
Until I got there, I did not appreciate how laid-back and shtick-free was the yeshivish community there. (I did not get a chance on this trip to visit the centrist community, which has its own stunning buildings, strong shul, schools and Kollel. I did call upon one of its bulwarks for help in addressing the Methodist issue on the local level.) Its accomplishments testify to what bnei Torah can quickly achieve when they know their priorities, and are not consumed by affectation and bickering over pettiness.
I associate large “cathedral” type shul buildings with centrist Orthodoxy, not groups further to the right. Ohr HaTorah, however, is built in the tradition of the large, central structure meant to be a place for davening and learning – and much more. Still, the dominant suit color is black; the modal – but by far not exclusive – head covering is Borsalino. Seating is at tables that are meant to hold seforim, not rows of chairs or pews. Yet, the easy camaraderie between klei kodesh and baalei batim was palpable. Zmanin are uncompromised halachic ones, and the baalei batim don’t seem to mind; parts of the davening are nusach Young Israel and the klei kodesh don’t seem to mind. They have the mandatory old-time congregational singing interludes on Shabbos that yeshivos have long shunned. Children sing Yigdal and Ein Kelokeinu. Women have full visibility, because the one-way glass was engineered the right way, and does exactly what it was designed to do. The Kolel yungerleit do not have their own minyan, but daven in the shul by choice.
Far more important and impressive is the central role of outreach. It is literally built into the edifice. The beginners’ minyan is not shepherded into a vacant classroom – it had its own mini-shul built into the plans. So did the next step up – a distinct “empowerment minyan” for graduates of the beginners’ service who still need to work on skills.
If the palatial Belz beis medrash in Yerushalayim is meant to recall the malchus of pre-war Chassidus in Europe, Ohr HaTorah speaks of using the blessings of American success to enhance the Torah’s honor. The interior is spacious and ultra-modern. Fixtures and furnishings are neither Spartan-functional nor gaudy-opulent. They go beyond attractive to impressive, telling the outsider that in this building you will find the warmth of the shtetl without sacrificing your sense of the esthetic.
The school offered its surprises as well, operating along similar lines of priorities well chosen. It began only about seven years ago, when some of the parents wanted the genders separated at an earlier age than the centrist school, and quickly grew to about 250 students, housed in a modest but well maintained converted supermarket. Here, too, the bnei Torah are the dominant flavor in the mix, despite a heterogeneous parent body. The dress code is comparable to what you would expect in any yeshivish school, but that is where the uniformity ends. Torah Day School of Dallas (TDSD) – taking its guidance from gedolei Roshei Yeshiva (especially Rav Ahron Schechter, shlit”a) welcomes children from weaker backgrounds, including non-shomrei Shabbos homes. They are equipped to handle them, and encourage the parent body to roll out the red carpet to newcomer children and their parents. Secular studies are treated seriously. They have an art classroom that no one seems to have mounted any objection to; the board outside it mounted a display on the work of Chagall.
It works. Parents claim that it is the religiously better equipped children who influence the less frum kids at TDSD, rather than the other way around. Mixing the student population does not prevent the boys with the strongest backgrounds from going on to yeshivish high schools (R. Shlanger’s in Baltimore is one of the favored destinations) when they leave eighth grade.
I was thrilled with my inspection tour for two reasons. First of all, all of my grandchildren are learning, and happy in the school. They have lots of friends, despite moving from LA just a few months ago. A different part of me – the part that has been doing kiruv for over thirty years – was pleased on a different level. The weekly bulletin sent home to parents to boast of the school’s accomplishments devoted considerable space to Martin Luther King Day. Most schools in the city closed; TDSD did not. It did something much better, devoting time in many classes to studying the work and legacy of Dr. King. I have not seen many right-of-center schools that recognize MLK Day at all. On the other hand, I have seen all too many potential ba’alei teshuvah turned off forever by a single racist remark at a Shabbos table. TDSD is going to make sure that its students know that tzelem Elokim is color blind, that Dr King was a great friend of Israel, and that his teachings spared the lives of hundreds of people who could have been killed had the civil rights battle ignored his call for non-violence.
Regrettably, I am certain that there will be some who will read these lines and react with mockery and derision. In the end, though, they will pass on to their children some good laughs, a good deal more small-mindedness, and the potential for much chilul Hashem in the future. The administration of TDSD, on the other hand, will quietly educate their charges in the true darkei noam / ways of pleasantness of the Torah, while continuing to attract new families through their Kiddush Hashem.
I left Dallas a bit more forgiving of my son for having abandoned my wife and me in Los Angeles.