Haredi Orthodox scholars throw a lasso around Dallas

Imagine the scene: Four bearded rabbis sit for hours around a table, swaying before their open volumes of the Talmud, debating whether a Jew who owns a gate tower near the entrance to his mansion is required to hang a mezuzah on it.

A synagogue in Brooklyn’s Boro Park? Lakewood, N.J.?

No, it’s a kollel (talmudic institute) in Dallas.

In a place where cowboys once roamed and the Reform movement has long held sway, a group of haredi Orthodox scholars has gained a foothold over the past two decades and is transforming the local Jewish community.

The catalysts for change are rabbis affiliated with the Dallas Area Torah Association, which was founded in 1992. It offers an extensive array of adult classes, including Jewish philosophy, Bible, prayer for beginners and Hebrew lessons. Its programs, most of them offered free, have become so popular that they attract thousands of students every year.

Rabbi Mordechai Becher speaks at the Dallas Area Torah Association retreat. More than 500 people participated in the sold-out event.

Unlike the Chabad-Lubavitch Chassids, who have become a fixture in cities around the globe, the DATA rabbis are members of the scholarship-centered Lithuanian-yeshiva community. This stream of Judaism was founded in the 18th century as a protest against the Chassidic movement, which emphasized mysticism and personal religious experience.

Although the fervent opposition to Chassidism has since mellowed, the two groups still retain their own rabbis, schools and communal institutions.

It is not known how many families have become Orthodox Jews since DATA was founded. However, Gary Weinstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, claims that hundreds of families have done so, and hundreds of others have become more active in Jewish communal life.

Born and raised in Dallas, Weinstein, 57, said that when he was growing up, the city was without a kosher restaurant and lacked an eruv, an enclosure around a community to allow Orthodox Jews to carry things on the Sabbath. Today there are six kosher restaurants and two eruvs. Dallas has 10 Orthodox synagogues, three haredi yeshivas and a Modern Orthodox day school.

“For us to become a mecca of the observant community is miraculous,” Weinstein said.

A kollel is an institute of full-time, advanced study of the Talmud and rabbinic literature. In most haredi circles it consists of married men who receive monthly stipends for their learning.

Now a new kind of institution called a community kollel has emerged in which the rabbis on staff learn Talmud for part of the day, and also teach Torah to affiliated and unaffiliated Jews, men as well as women, through one-on-one study and large-scale outreach.

Dallas lies in the heart of the Bible Belt, where evangelical Christians are a significant part of the culture. Seeing how seriously their Christian neighbors take their religious beliefs has encouraged some Jews to begin asking questions about their own religious heritage.

Larry Kosowsky, who was raised in a Conservative Jewish home in Wisconsin, told the Forward that his interest in Orthodoxy was sparked when a friend became a born-again Christian and tried to convince him that Jesus was the Messiah.

“My wife, Karen, and I just couldn’t combat his arguments,” he said.

When DATA was founded, Kosowsky approached one of its rabbis, Yerachmiel Fried, who gave him a book to read on the subject. Before long the Kosowskys were accepting invitations to Sabbath meals with the families of the DATA rabbis.

“Eventually we kashered our house and started to keep Shabbos,” Kosowsky said.

When Richard Glazer, a native of Fort Worth, Texas, lost his father in 1993, he went to a Conservative synagogue, Shearith Israel, to say Kaddish and realized how little he knew about the prayer service.

“I remember thinking, if I can read Hebrew, how could I be so confused?” Glazer related, with a Texas drawl. “Then someone told me about the classes at DATA, so I started going, took a class about the Jewish calendar and a parshah class [on the weekly Torah portion]. I found the place very warm and embracing. Everyone who comes there gets lots of attention.”

Rukhl Schaechter
is a writer and editor at the Forward, where a version of this article first appeared.