Chabad Lubavitch of Texas celebrated 30 years in the state at a gala anniversary founders’ dinner on March 9. Held at Houston’s Doubletree Post Oak Hotel, the dinner offered community members the opportunity to reflect “on the success of the past and develop commitments for the future,” says Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff.
Today, Chabad of Texas comprises a network of 11 institutions in eight cities statewide, but in 1972, when Rabbi Shimon and Chiena Lazaroff – Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff’s parents – came to Houston, there were very few traditional Jews in Texas.
“In our first year here, my husband and two young yeshivah boys from New York took a trip to various small towns and cities in Texas to get acquainted with the territory,” Mrs. Lazaroff recalls. “They went through cities like Cadwell, where there was a large Jewish cemetery that spoke volumes about a rich past – but not a single living Jew for miles.”
A large influx of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the early 1900’s, arriving through Galveston, Texas, the South’s equivalent of Ellis Island, had all but disappeared by the time the Lazaroffs arrived. “Traditional Jewish life enjoyed a brief period here and then most people assimilated or moved East,” Lazaroff says. When the couple arrived in Houston with their four children, most people they met didn’t think they would last there either. “It was almost out of the question for a Chasidic Jew to live in Houston in the 70’s,” says Rabbi Shimon Lazaroff, “People who saw us assumed we were visiting.”
That was then. Today, of an estimated 50,000 Jews living in the greater Houston area, over 300 families are affiliated with an Orthodox synagogue, and traditional Jewish life in Houston, while still not as prevalent as in larger cities, is a far cry from what it was back then.
“I think the most amazing thing to see is literally the number of people walking to synagogue on a Shabbat afternoon,” says Baila Cotlar, a resident of Houston who got involved with Chabad of Texas shortly after its establishment in 1972. “We never had that here; this is a new and very exciting development for the city.”
The key to the change, Rabbi Shimon Lazaroff explains, has been education.
Faithful to their instructions, the Lazaroffs repaired the city’s one mikvah immediately on their arrival in Houston, and in September of 1977, Torah Day School was founded with seven students, in a trailer on the Chabad lot at 10900 Fondren Road in Houston.
The school, which moved into the newly completed Chabad center in November of that year, “grew painstakingly”, Mrs. Lazaroff notes. “It was a long process,” she says. A program for two-year-olds—the only one in the city—proved to be a big draw that attracted young families who stayed on with the school afterwards. And the school grew from there.
But the real draw is in the quality of education offered at TDS, says Miriam Fishman, whose six children have all attended “tiny tots through eighth grade” in the school, later moving on to high schools across the country, where they credit their elementary education as a crucial factor in their success.
“There’s a real effort made to mold character,” she says. “So aside for a rigorous education in Judaic and secular studies, you have that aspect of learning to be a better person and a better Jew that really sets this school apart.”
In the early eighties, as the school grew from seven students to seventy to 150, a community was forming around it. “People were moving to be closer to the school, and the shul at the Chabad center, and a very warm, close knit community was being formed,” Rabbi Shimon Lazaroff recalls.
At the same time, Jewish life was expanding in other parts of the state. An initial meeting with Rabbi Lazaroff and a group of Jewish students at University of Texas in Austin in 1972 set off a virtual explosion of Jewish activity on campus. Rabbi Moshe Traxler, today the director of Chabad Outreach in Houston, was one of the first students involved with Chabad. He recalls being struck by the idea of a Rabbi reaching out to the Jewish community, an approach unique to Chabad, especially in those days. “I had been acquainted with pulpit Rabbis my whole life,” he says. “This idea of a grassroots—“people Rabbi” really impressed me. I could sense a lot was going to happen.”
Traxler says he has seen the community’s growth from the initial stages, and the change is remarkable. “There are literally thousands of people like myself whose lives have been profoundly enriched by their encounters with Chabad across the state over the past thirty years,” he observes. He credits Chabad centers in Houston, Austin, Dallas, Plano, Fort-Worth, San Antonio, and El Paso, centers established from Chabad’s Houston headquarters over the years, with effecting tremendous changes in the Jewish landscape in Texas.
Perhaps the strongest indicators of Jewish growth and progress in Houston are the young couples who have moved to the city in recent years to join the growing Jewish community. Many of them, like Daniel Cotlar and his wife Eta, and Daniel Fishman and his wife Rivka, are alumni of Torah Day School, where they now send their children.
“Welcoming these young families back to our community reminds us how far we have come in thirty years,” says Mrs. Lazaroff, “and encourages us to continue building for their future.”
Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Chief Rabbi of Israel and a Holocaust survivor and noted speaker, were guests of honor at the dinner. Fred Zeidman, president of the National Holocaust Museum and Texas chairman of Israel Bonds, chaired the event together with Jerry Kane, son of honorees Sam and Aranka Kane, of Corpus Christi. As well, Stuart and Carol Nelkin, Benjamin Danziger, Melech and Chana Weiss, and Ronald and Ethel Gruen were honored for their support and dedication of Chabad-Lubavitch of Texas.
Reported by R. Wineberg