Houston, Texas, has been known for lots of things over the years: the oil capital of the USA, Mission Control for NASA, great steaks, home of the Bush family, and its oppressive humidity during the summer. Most recently, it has also been known to be a victim of Hurricane Harvey during the summer of 2017, which left entire communities under water and on a path of unprecedented destruction. But Houston proved to be resilient and brought itself back to vibrant life.
Yet for American Jewry, Houston tells another story. Like so many Jewish communities across the country, Houston just a few years ago was what is classically known as a “midbar” – a “desert.” About 40 years ago, a small group of pioneers decided to take a chance by starting an Orthodox community there. There were job opportunities and there was real estate worth considering. Just not much Yiddishkeit.
The recent weekend of 18-19 Cheshvan (November 16-17) featured a wonderful celebration of a major milestone in the community of Houston. The Young Israel of Houston was dedicating its newly rebuilt building, a hachnasas sefer Torah by the Serotta family took place, and the newly designed Kollel of Houston had its chanukas ha’bayis.
Over that weekend, the community was graced with the presence of Rabbi Akiva Grunblatt, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, who addressed the celebration on Shabbos. He was accompanied by other notables such as Rabbi Yaakov Bender.
On Sunday, Rav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler, Rosh HaYeshiva of Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG), Lakewood, New Jersey, together with his brother Rav Aaron Kotler, BMG CEO, joined the celebration as well, and took part in the reopening of the Kollel and the hachnasas sefer Torah. I was fortunate to be present on Sunday, as my son-in-law Rabbi Naphtali Buchwald, formally a Kollel member and now assistant rabbi to Rabbi Yehoshua Wender, took great pride in all that was accomplished. His father Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald and I missed the Motza’ei Shabbos event, which left the critics raving about Naphtali’s speech. Rabbi Moshe Friedman is the very talented Director of the Kollel and is the son-in-law of Rabbi Martin and Yaffa Katz of KGH. Much of the success of the Kollel is due to his efforts.
Okay, so it was nice. But it was more than nice. It was more than a local community having a chance to showcase itself. It was a role model. It was a lesson in Jewish unity. It was an opportunity for this “out-of-town” community to scream to the rest of us: “It can be done! We can all get along!”
Think about it. The base for the operation is a Young Israel. The Kollel is a Lakewood project, headed by Rabbi Shlomo Littman. The rav of the shul is a Chofetz Chaim musmach, who has shepherded the shul for 40 years. That is why the roshei yeshivah from Lakewood and Chofetz Chaim flew down. (It is puzzling that, although invited, no representative from National Council was there, while the Agudah was represented by Rabbi AD Motzen.)
On Shabbos, the Kollel and the Young Israel daven together. When I was in Houston for Shabbos a few years ago, I noticed the Israeli flag in the shul and the Kollel joining in with the rest of the shul for the MiSheBeirach for the Medinah.
Why must it be in Houston that we witness the togetherness and cooperation that Jews can display? We somehow find our equalizers if we are not under the New York spotlight. Ever been to a Yachad Shabbaton for parents of developmentally disabled? Or for organizations for parents with kids at risk? Suddenly, shtreimels can sit with kipot srugot. Suddenly, Jews are talking to each other.
It seems that when we find an area that unites us, we can unmask and discover that we have much more that unites us than divides us. We are all dedicated to Torah and mitzvos and love of Eretz Yisrael. We are united in the central role that traditional Torah values plays in our lives. What gets in the way is our different approach to these ideals. I may be a misnaged and you a chasid. I may be an Agudist and you an ardent Zionist. I may send my kids to college and you to kollel. So what? Houston shows that I can respect you and you can respect me.
The classic commentary on Chumash, the Maor VaShemesh, comments on the mitzvah of Hakhel in which the Torah commands us to gather once every seven years as a nation: “You shall read this Torah before all of Israel… Gather together the people – the men, the women, and the children…” (D’varim 31:11-12). The Torah is mentioned before the command to assemble, says the Maor VaShemesh, because it is the Torah itself that unites us and creates the environment for us to unite.
If we Torah-committed Jews cannot find the means to unite in New York, Jerusalem, or Bnei Brak, then there must be a fault in our approach to Torah. It’s that simple. Perhaps the upcoming Siyum HaShas can showcase how it can be done in the New York area.
Houston has shown that the energy in the excitement of Torah can be the catalyst for great things to happen in Jewish communities throughout the land. Cars run on oil, people enjoy steaks, but the Jewish People need to have their own Mission Control. Yes, Houston, you have landed.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.