Dallas – Success With a Flourish

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.

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17 Responses

  1. michoel peikes says:

    Dear Rabbi Adlerstein,

    A friend in San Diego(I included your wonderful article in our school email under the title “Why Not Here?”)who does not have a computer asked me to post the following:

    I found it amusing that Rabbi Adlerstein (who is from Los Angeles) was amazed to find out what was happening in Dallas Please remember that even Los Angeles was a desert when I moved there with my family from New York in the 40’s. Then Los Angeles was way out of town! Thank you for the wonderful article. Edith Wiseman

  2. Yoni Schick says:

    Just to clarify my earlier comment: no malice intended at all. All of our communities and kids should only have hatzlacha.

  3. Loberstein says:

    Re-reading this article while in Israel visiting my children, I want to add another observation. In Dallas and elsewhere frum people associate with not frum people. Here, there is such a gulf that divides the Jewish community into multiple communities that avoid contact with one another. Even shopping for chicken in Kiryat Sefer I was struck by the fact that there are so many hashgachos.How can one frum Jew eat by another frum Jew? In Baltimore everyone eats from one hashgocha and we can enjoy one another’s simchas. The self seregation makes sure that one group lives in an all chareidi town with selection committees that don’t let in “unsuitaable” people. If a potential baal teshuva from Atlanta or Dallas knew of this, how many would be turned off from Yiddishkeit, not only are they not welcome, even their rabbis are often not “suitable”.
    None of my children live in Kiryat Sefer, I went with my daughter in law from AModiin becaue my son in law in Ramat Beit Shemesh said his store was out of kosher enough chicken. My daughter in law then pointed out to me that the price she paid in KS was more than double what she paid for chicken in her supermarket and she said her chicken is “mehadrin” , maybe it is mehadrin but not the right mehadrin. How can the geulah come when we have such pirud – seperation?

  4. Yosey G. says:

    As a Rebbi/Resident of Dallas in the early 1980’s I am extremely happy with the growth of the city. Before I accepted a position in Dallas, I asked Rav Nota Greenblatt about going there. He said Dallas is a city with great potential. After 3 years I left Dallas as a city with lots of unfulfilled potential. The only successes that I merited to be part of, was being part of the group that started the Shul that eventually moved to Plano (A suburb of Dallas) and is headed by Rabbi Aryeh Rodin. I also taught many children and put a good taste for Yiddishkeit in their mouths. One of them went off to Yeshiva and is a Ben Torah Today. a few weeks ago I met the father of another one of my students who was positively influenced by my chevra of Rabbeim and is himself frum today, attending the Daf Yomi shiur.

    What I learned from my experience in Dallas was that one single person can be the source of building a Day School and having a tremendous affect upon a city.

    The success of the frum community today is built upon the efforts of only 1 or 2 individuals who grew up in Dallas, attended the aforementioned Day school, went off to Yeshiva, returned to Dallas and wanted to make their home town into a true Mokom Torah. Their path was not easy, I am sure. But after years of work they have this to show for their efforts.

    I am certain they will have a tremendous portion in Gan Eden for their work in bring frumkeit to this fine city. I am also certain that the founder of the Day school which truly was the first step to making Dallas into what it is today is enjoying the fruits of his labors in the olom ho-emes.

  5. ari says:

    “the easy camaraderie between klei kodesh and baalei batim was palpable….”

    I am seeing this term (klei kodesh, or “KK”) more and more in various contexts (including yeshivas that set up classes exclusively for KK, and referring to them as such)– am i the only one who thinks it is highly offensive to baalei batim (and their children in the school context) to refer to them as something “less” than others?

  6. Yoseph Eliyahu Skaist says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein’s impressions of the Ohr Hatorah community were from a Shabbos that most of its congregants were actually away on an outreach retreat. Imagine what its like when we are all home and the building is bursting at its seams!

  7. Yoni Schick says:

    Thanks, R’ Yitzchak, for your outstanding piece. Dallas is not utopia, but it is close to how an out of town Torah-community should be. And, I believe it has myriad more advantages to bringing up one’s children than in-town.

    Recognizing that MLK and Ramchal can be uttered in the same sentence may be a reason why there are hardly any ‘kids-at-risk’ here (KAH).

    Those of us out-of-towners who were dead last at the horror known as Neighborhood Day at Camp kol ree nah, et. al. may indeed be getting the last laugh.

  8. Jacob Haller says:

    LOberstein wrote

    “So, Jews and others should get over their biases and prepare to live in the 21st century”

    I’m sure your intent was sincere but that line would easily find a home in the webpages of the Reform, Recon (and now) Conservative movements and likely extrapolate it beyond our red zones.

    This is of course no criticism of those who do the sensible things by turning away from racial biases and kudos for those who have worked hard to do so since for some it’s not as easily to become as truly colorblind non-biased as the liberals claim to be.

    However, as one who trumpeted the liberalsim party line in my public high school I was caught somewhat off-guard when as a BT in my 20s I had to turn down the invitations to weddings of intermarrieds of my high school friends and was smeared as a hypocrite.

    The point is that when coarse language and other potential Chillul Hashem on the part of the Orthodox regarding non-Jews becomes a thing of the past (may it be soon) it’s likely not in our interest to glibly proclaim ourselves as willful participants of the “Global Village” since their architects on the large part have plans for “progress” which may not stop short of or respect our Halachic parameters that have kept us alive for thousands of years.

  9. cvmay says:

    Thank you for your article describing a portion of what is going on in Dallas, Texas. It brought to mind, growing up in the Brooklyn neighborhoods in the 1950, how we loved attending Junior Congregations on Shabbos, the honor of singing Adon Olom & Eyin Zemiros, learning about Thanksgiving with a concentration on hakaros hatov, and a healthy appreciation for Medinas Yisrael. Will this pleasantness of Yiddishkeit change as the multitudes move in,,,,that is the questioning factor???

  10. Oscar Rosenberg says:

    I just want to add that Dovi and Rachel Adlerstein in such a short amount of time have become such great assets to our Torah community. We still have a lot of work to do to save Jewish Neshamas and Dallas is the place to do it. Rabbi and Mrs Adlerstein you should be very proud.

  11. LOberstein says:

    Having grown up in the Deep South and played with African American kids who lived near my father’s grocery store, I never encountered Jewish racism until I went to Yeshiva H.S. in New York. Southern Jews were never afraid of blacks and didn’t look upon them with dread as they did in some Northern communities. The riots after the assasination of MLK also scared a lot of white people. The United States and indeed all of the Western World is becoming increasingly multi-racial. So, Jews and others should get over their biases and prepare to live in the 21st century.There are real issues between various interest groups and sometimes black people see things differently, as Jews see things differently because of our history, but we need to deal with the issues and not fall back on stereotypes.

  12. lacosta says:

    wonderful article. would that we could see some discussion here and on Mishpacha [i doubt it would cut it in the Jewish Observer] of the kind of provincialism and non-americanism ie outmoded and frankly racist stereotypes [ what to do with feminism and gender issues is obviously much touchier and less resolvable ], non-celebration of america [ no commemoration or studying of the american holidays– thanksgiving, 4 july, etc. ; ], dumbing down of anything that could be remotely in the derech eretz sphere-in the sense of tora and derech eretz.

  13. Steve Brizel says:

    Someone who we ate lunch with today has two daughters and their families who reside in the Dallas community. She raved about the community. One of our friends’ daughter and her husband are very involved in the local BY in Dallas. Dallas may very well be developing as a major Torah based kiruv/chizuk success story.

  14. Daniel Shein says:

    Thank you, Rabbi Adlerstein for another insightful article.

    I was most interested by your comments about MLK day and how a possible baal teshuva can be turned off by a racist remark.

    I think the topic of racism in the frum community would be a good topic for future discussion. I am surprised how often I hear racist comments and derogatory remarks about non-Jews, “shiktzes”, blacks, etc.

  15. Phyllis LaVietes says:

    What a beautiful article! I live in Dallas and want to add some info.

    We have not one but TWO Orthodox neighborhoods in Dallas. Ohr HaTorah, the shul mentioned in the article, is in one neighborhood, with a couple of other Orthodox shuls nearby. I live in the other neighborhood, which has five Orthodox shuls, and where the home prices are much lower. (The two neighborhoods are about 6 miles apart.) Torah Day School of Dallas is in my neighborhood.

    My shul, Congregation Ohev Shalom, is blessed with a wonderful rabbi and the warmest, kindest, most wonderful people. Although I’m observant and my husband isn’t, the community is totally accepting and we are always getting invitations for Shabbat dinner or lunch. I’ve lived in many communities but this is the best one I’ve ever lived in.

    Thank you again for your beautiful article!

  16. Tzura says:

    I also experienced the same warm surpise about the Dallas community. When my brother and sister-in-law started talking about moving from Baltimore to Dallas, I asked them, “how can you even think of moving there! Are there any Jews at all over there?”.

    My initial concerns were laid to rest after they got back from their pilot trip and told me about the wonderful people they met and about the shuls, kollels, and schools that were already in place. I’ve since gone to visit them (and my new niece) for shabbos. I had a wonderful time, and was very impressed with what the community has acomplished so far.

    Also, what you can get for housing is incomparable to the NE corridor (or LA, for that matter). If you’re a centrist Orthodox or yeshivish family just starting out, I can think of few American cities better than Dallas these days to set up a home.

  17. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I saw Dallas for the only time back in 5750/’90 when I was a Jewish participant in the ground-breaking Bnei Noach conference in Ft. Worth. At that time I encountered small shuls and a frontier outpost mentality. I am impressed. I am planning a teaching tour coming in from E”Y this summer. Dallas of years ago is the sort of place that I would like to reach. What is the current next frontier?