For those of you with ADD I warn you that this post is over 5 pages long- but I love it because this type of writing is my favorite to do- enjoy!
To describe the Dallas frum community would simply be impossible based on my one shabbos spent within it so far, however I would like to get my first impressions down on paper for all to understand the amazing and welcoming community I have found myself living in.
It took only one phone call to one of the Rabbis who work for DATA the Dallas Area Torah Association to get me a place for shabbos. You may want to call DATA a kiruv kollel, that may make the most sense, but it is unlike any Kiruv I have ever experienced. It is more like a fully functioning Kiruv Community, with classes schooling, shiurim, shabbos meals, and a whole lot more molded into one big conglomerate. I am sure people will fill me in on all the details but as mentioned above this is my first impressions, what I saw, someone else may have a different experience though I highly doubt it would be any less wonderful, it will just be different.
I had the honor of staying at Rabbi Epstein’s house, Rabbi E is a large fellow with a bone crusher of a handshake, I commented on this and his response was that in Texas you had to give a real handshake. He may have been implying that when he grew up in Monsey and subsequently learned in Lakewood he was a fan of the classic yeshivish handshake known as the dead fish or that he preferred the fist bump in the more ghetto environs of the east cost, but his dead fish days were over and he was onto the bone crushing element of handshaking with a real smile, not one of those “hey where did you come from I meant to shake that guys hand over there” smiles.
I met my roommate for shabbos and we headed off in a Borough Park like minivan. I had heard that Ohr Hatorah, the main shul of the frum community was fancy but I had no idea what to expect. At first glance it is shocking, mainly because it’s a black hat shul that is really fancy. I guess I am used to fancy shuls being the low mechitza, white knit yarmulke modern orthodox types, but this shul was different. Upon walking into the sanctuary I was initially excited to see a balcony with a glass mechitza, I later discovered the mechitza situation to be somewhat disconcerting to the prying eye because it was a one way mirror. Why do the girls get to see us? That’s just not fair- but I couldn’t complain because Texas is a red state after all- nothing about fairness here.
Luckily for me there was plenty to look at besides for the women. Firs there was the enormous ark and beautiful blue glass behind it, then the ceiling which was at least 40 feet above the floor and finally the countless baalei teshuva that were scattered about the room, mixed in with the bearded peyos behind the ears yeshivish folks which were mixed in with the few baal habatim that could only be weeded out due to their fancier shoes (yeshivish rabbis love wearing clunkers- those sneaker-dress shoe combos) and due to their hockerdicke glasses with the fancy thick sides and interesting colors.
The shul had an interesting flavor to it, you could sniff out the BT’s and then you could tel which ones had been in the game longer, usually based on telltale signs that brand new BT’s give off to signal trouble to their Kiruv attendants, things like up side down yarmulkes, feet apart during shmona esray and over extended bows that appear to be stressing the spinal cord too much.
The funny thing about the whole situation was that even the BT’s who you could tell were BT’s if you were a perceptive fellow like myself, still looked somewhat normal. They all had black velvet yarmulkes on for one thing, there was not one colorful satin yarmulke from Sidney Cohens bar mitzvah in 1964 and everyone was wearing dark suits and white shirts, as if we were in the matrix and they were cloning themselves or something. It was quite interesting to me because usually BT’s give off other signs besides for not knowing when to stand, bounce on their toes and take three giant steps back, they give off clues like weird outfits because non-religious Jews have no idea how to dress for shul and they also just look weird, it was as if these BT’s were hand picked by the staff at DATA for their regular old Joe –soon to be Yosef – qualities.
Then it hit me, I saw a kid no older then 14 with a black hat, but his hair was a little longer, hat towards the back of head, classic BT look, but he was 14, how did that happen, extreme NCSY???
I then watched the ill attempt to gather a vibrant circle around the bimah for the post lecha dodi wannabe carlebachian without trying to hard yeshiva guy shuffle. It was quite pathetic, I read the community news instead and looked forward to some learning opportunities, I couldn’t judge them by their horrible post lecha dodi dance, could I? I mean traditionally non-Chabad Kiruv guys just couldn’t get the dancing situation right, its always one of those half assed shuffles that always start off the first dance, but nothing quick and efficient ever appears out of it, there’s some oyoyoys and then everyone’s done.
I then had to go pee, well really I just wanted to skip the whole part of davening we call bimeh madliken. So I skipped out to check out the bathrooms, on the way I noticed some cuties, but then I immediately realized they were probably ten years younger then me based on the rumors I heard about the reverse shidduch crisis effect in the Dallas frum community, the guy girl ratio is 20-1 or something like that, 2 frum girls and 10 frum guys fighting over them. Who knows, I knew it would be a rough thing to come to Dallas and expect to find some girl for those long cold lonely nights.
So I get to the bathroom and am once again amazed, not only are the toilets very nice and perfectly shaped to prevent dripping, but they had soap. I don’t know if you folks remember my ranting about the lack of soap in frum shuls and schools, but here was the holy grail of soap finds. Neatly placed next to each washing cup in the separate yet still inside washing station was a fully loaded bottle of soap, it was like the anti-bacterial Gods were shining down on me and I am not one to talk I mean I have taken the ten second rule and made it into the it depends how much it costs to replace rule.
So I get back to shul and still cannot believe that such a fancy and frum shul exists, yet its not snobby, its not one of those places that you have to wear a suit or shoes or even underwear, I am plenty sure some of those folks were going commando in the summers, Texas would definitely be the place to find out if wearing a bekishe with nothing under it was comfortable or not.
So shul ends and that’s when I start my new experiment, I wait and see who says good shabbos to me. I tried it last week in Detroit and was shocked that at an “out of town” shul not one person besides for my friend I was eating by said good shabbos. Based on what I heard of Ohr Hatorah I wasn’t expecting the same scenario that plays out in east coast shuls, which is that the only people who voluntarily shake your hands are the ones that are put in that awkward handshaking position of trying to shake someone’s hand who is standing behind you. So they need to shake your hand to get to their friend.
It was as if I was the only one in the room, or maybe one of those lines to shake the rabbis hand had formed around me, I was having people come at me from all directions, sticking out their hands, heads sideways in listening mode and nodding slightly and genuinely delighted to meet me. It was shocking, the amount of friendliness, some of the more negative crowd may have seen it as too much, but I was basking in the glory of these people.
I stepped out into the foyer and was greeted by a barrage of meal invitations, I had to do some research into who had the hottest daughters and the best food. I had to turn them all down, everyone also asked how they could get in touch with me to invite me to their homes for shabbos or whatever. I don’t think I have been so happy in shul ever, big statement there, but I was pleasantly shocked at the friendliness. Actually it was amazing to see how happy everyone in shul was, I have never seen such happiness in shul on a regular old shabbos, this wasn’t a chabad shul after gimel tamuz, this was November 22 in the middle of a month with no holidays besides for Thanksgiving which everyone celebrates with Friday night turkey anyway.
So I walk back with my host a slew of other people, a slew meaning a whole bunch of folks random assortments of people including an Oncologist from Mexico City who has lived in Dallas for 7 years with his family, a property manager who was able to speak Spanish with them, some random ladies, and a whole bunch of other folks. I also noticed that pretty much every Rabbi is shul was taking loads of guests with them, to say that shabbos hospitality is good in Dallas would be an understatement, it was simply amazing- and I didn’t even try the food yet, though judging in a non-offensive way by the size of my hosts stomach I already knew the answer.
So we all get settled and have to sit through a lengthy kid gathering, shalom aleichim, and brachos session while my stomach grumbled and gnawed at my vital organs begging for some of the doughy challah that I witnessed being removed from tinfoil which signaled its homemade quality, any challah connoisseur could tell a homemade from a store bought challah despite that if its warm people always think its homemade- though we experts can tell a pre-bought blech warmed challah from the real thing.
We finally got some morsels of bread and like all non-New Yorkers no one besides for me wanted to take, everyone else offered everyone else first, I wanted to grab the challah basket and scream- “just take your damned piece” stop trying to be all nice and stuff, I didn’t I sat contently, for these Texans are so nice that they are the first people I have ever witnessed that slow down to the prescribed speed limit while within the confines of the school zone.
Then the fish came and then the mayonnaise came for some homemade chrayonaise concocting and then the soup and then for the real test. Rabbi Epstein warned me not to fill up on the bread and like I said I trusted his opinion, but I just couldn’t help myself, you also never can really tell how good the food is from the soup and fish course, unless its those wealthy kosher by design junkies, who actually makes those crazy salad and fish courses.
But I was not disappointed, I was very happy with the buffet style service, no portion control no “please pass this for the umpteenth time” and none of that “oh I don’t want to take the last piece of chicken BS” and so we all rounded the buffet like hungry wolves, actually I think it was only me and my roommate who looked like hungry wolves about to tackle our prey and have a nice meal.
Tow types of chicken, shredded purple cabbage with shredded snow peas, brown rice with veggies, grilled red onion and zucchini, spaghetti squash, tossed salad, string beans and roasted red potatoes rounded out the extensive food offerings. I ate until I was stuffed to the bone and waited for desert and devar torah.
But of course that wasn’t enough so we had to go next door for some guys pre-game drunken pre-ufruf. So I happily hobbled over filled to the brim with food and enetered into a completely different world. I walked into a noisy “touch the wine glass with a fork to get attention” style party. It was secular in nature with the man of honor in all his BT glory with a black velvet yarmulke looking a little out of place on his blonde head- but boy was he happy- well he was getting married on Sunday so he should be and so was everyone else. It was shalom zachor like minus the smattering of sheitle clad women talking about breast pumps and ways to bake gefilte fish.
Actually I immediately noticed 3 gorgeous girls who were immediately shot down as one of my cohorts noticed my gaze and said those two dreaded words “not Jewish” I coul have told you that. So I sat down uncomfortably because I knew no one and unlike shul I wasn’t surrounded by Kiruv rabbis wanting to know what me “deal” was. But then I met a couple of the crew, the crew is a bunch of single twenty something’s that all sort of keep shabbos and kosher. I turned one of them onto a new term “flexidox” which is probably not the correct term and should we have to label them we should call them On their way to becoming Baal Teshuvas.
I opened a beer, mostly to look cool and casual and gazed about me, then I found myself gazing at a guy who looked as if he just dropped out of Flatbush, turns out he is from Flatbush and used to be a hatzolah guy but shunned the term hocker, he also informed me that he had read my yeshiva rebels of the 90s post and loved it. So we chatted and did the Jewish geography thing which I should mention was not so prevalent amongst the people who invited me out to their homes. In fact I missed having rude personal questions asked to me by people who thrust out their hands and demanded to know my yichus and what high school I went to before knowing my name. I kind of longed for some rude Monseyites to happen upon me but it never happened, I had to try and steer the conversation towards a round of Jewish geography and I felt like a hypocrite, I really did after all these years of bashing the sport I longed to play, to feel the rush of real life mutual friends not just the facebook kind.
I met a bunch of cool folks at the party and then went back and talked with the Rabbi until the wee hours of the morning, I really liked the guy. I am a sucker for big hearty happy guys anyway. Sometimes a guy just wants to be held.
Shul the next day was a similar affair, meeting all sorts of other people and watching with amazement at the size of the community. I talked with a bunch of people about it, DATA was started in 1992 by someone who wanted torah in Dallas, there were 30 frum families at the time and now there are 350- that is real growth. Not only are there 350 frum families in Dallas, the day school has 100 public school kids and 70 from frum families. There is a Bais Yaakov with 40 girls and Chofetz Chaim yeshiva high school with 40 boys as well- its pretty crazy when you think about it. 6 kosher restaurants and it all appeared within the last 15 years.
The demographics of the shul were as follows. Black hats were divided into two categories, there were the Rabbis, mostly Lakewood or Ner Yisroel guys, half peyos behind ears half not. Then you had the other black hatters that were the baal habatim which I have decided are all in real estate or involved in the slaughterhouse near Wichita Kansas. Then there was one Streimel, a Bresslover originally from New Orleans, who lived in Mea Shearim for many years, then I noticed one Frisbee hat guy who was apparently a mishulach. There were several Sephardim with white talesim and brown complexions, I didn’t notice many knit or suede yarmulkes, though blue shirts were plentiful. The one thing that is missing from Ohr Hatorah are regular old modern orthodox people, the BT’s you can tell are not modern orthodox and folks like me are hard to come by.
Kiddush had some really good cholent but the lack of regular non-diet soda was disappointing and there was no seltzer (the Jewish drink- how can you be Jewish without it?) They did have herring, though no real choice and although the Kiddush was mixed, it was one of those situations where the men and women were naturally on different sides making it easier for me to scope them out although I soon realized that everyone my age had a sheitle and three babies.
Once again I was invited by plenty of people and had to turn them all down. I met someone whom I was told has the best food, and he said “well we’ll have to have you” in a hearty voice. I then joined the Rabbi and his caravan of random people and walked back to eat some lunch.
Lunch was interesting because politics came up. Texans are nice but they are extremely right wing here, in fact its one of the first times I have met so many right wing irreligious Jews. I mentioned something in sarcastic tone about environment and these two women at the end of the table went nuts, oh who cares about the environment, we have better things to worry about- you know that whole jazz. I kind of want the sea levels to rise just so we environmentalists can laugh the faces of ignoramuses like these two. But everyone was very cordial, even the talk of Obama was so peaceful, not one person used the N-word or even mentioned that he worked for Hamas and was friends with Anti-Semites, it was so weird compared to what I was used to back east. I should mention that there was a super hottie at lunch and I guess one of the Rabbis noticed I was talking to her and warned me she wasn’t Jewish. She was wearing a plaid miniskirt and tall boots with a short sleeved shirt- oh she was hot- but she also mentioned that she was going to Texas Baptist university so that gave it away.
Shalosh suedos was also an impressive affair and I met even more people none of who’s names I remember, but they had a load of choice. It wasn’t just ice cream scooped tuna and egg salad, it was sesame noodles and nacho salad and gefilte fish and more salads it was big and good. I left the meal early so I could scope out the women’s section and see what they saw- which was of course a perfect view, no fair, but BT’s are way fun to look at and examine, and you people thought Dallas was going to dry up the wells of material. This is just a first impressions post, I haven’t even spent shabbos in my own community yet. Then there is Uptown which is really next to downtown but Texas is weird.
I hope to do a bunch of posts on my first real experience with non-chabad Kiruv done on such a large scale including the fundamental I notice.