Friday, May 17, 2024

The Kollel That Transformed Dallas

It was a missive from Rav Shlomo Wolbe, Torah giant of the 20th century and visionary mechanech: “You need a kollel in every place.”

The line was written in a letter to Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried, today the long-time rosh kollel of the Dallas Area Torah Association (DATA), and the mission is one Rabbi Fried has spent the majority of his adult life personally fulfilling.

For the founding members of the Dallas Torah community in the early 1990s, the kollel was always the indisputable starting point. Ein mayim elah Torah: there is no water except for Torah. Without the foundation of Torah learning in place, there is nothing upon which to build. First comes the kollel, and after that – well, actually, we don’t know…

The path was uncharted, the future was a question mark, and the city was far from home…but there was a community with no kollel, so to Dallas they would venture. Was there a minyan? Sometimes. Kosher food? Just enough. With the guidance of gedolim as their backbone and a sense of strong achrayus to the klal as their impetus, four brave families flew southbound to found a Dallas, Texas kollel. Today, close to 30 years later, all four families are still there and stand at the helm of a now-flourishing shomer Shabbos community, with three vibrant shuls under their umbrella and counting.

It may be the Lone Star state, but when you do Hashem’s work, you’re never really alone – and it won’t be long before others will climb aboard.

Putting Dallas on the Map

It started with a group of far-sighted baalei batim. The Dallas frum community of 1992 was a small one, and it was hard to see where the future would lead the few families who were there. Despite a few existing shuls, there wasn’t a guaranteed minyan on any given Shabbos and the place had no kosher eateries. One small eiruv enclosed only a minor area of the city and there was a feeling of stagnation, a sense of “this is what it is.”

But the residents weren’t willing to let it go.

With a breath of fresh air brought in from a thriving Torah city, why couldn’t Dallas see a revival in its own midst? Let’s bring in some new blood, came the proposal, and give a jumpstart to our little community. Even the best team needs to swap in new players at times.

They started putting out feelers, making inquiries into bigger cities. “Is there someone who would be willing to come out to Dallas?”

The first few attempts led to dead ends, but eventually, the request made its way to willing ears.

“I was learning in Yerushalayim at the time,” describes Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried, “and I had begun to look into different cities to try and start a kollel there. Nothing had come through yet or seemed like the right fit. Then a friend of mine heard about Dallas. They were looking for people to come out. He knew that I might consider going, so he passed along the word.”

As it turned out, when Rabbi Fried reached out to the head delegate of the search party from Dallas to speak it over, the man immediately recognized his name: He had read one of Rabbi Fried’s seforim before, and had been impressed with the yungerman’s erudition.

“Let’s meet,” the baal habayis quickly decided. “Would you be willing to come out for a pilot trip?”

As a yungerman in Yerushalayim, Rabbi Fried was privileged to a personal relationship with Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l, with whom he discussed all of his important matters. He went to consult with the gadol and find out if Dallas was a city worth considering.

“First go see it,” counseled Rav Shlomo Zalman, “and then we’ll talk.”

After a ten day, in-depth examination of the city and its residents, Rabbi Fried returned with a strong grasp of the situation at hand.

“There’s a thirst there,” he established. “It’s a place you can talk to.”

The wheels began turning rapidly after that. Rabbi Fried consulted with many gedolim, both in America, who knew the American out-of-town scene more intimately, and in Eretz Yisroel, where they knew Rabbi Fried and his family, along with their strengths and challenges. In America, the Novominsker Rebbe, Rav Yaakov Perlow, was strongly encouraging of the idea and offered much advice for the young family to know before going, as was as Rav Avrohom Pam zt”l. In Eretz Yisroel, Rav Wolbe, as well as Rav Moshe Shapiro zt”l, were also both ardently in favor.

With many blessings and words of encouragement in hand, Rabbi Fried headed to Rav Shlomo Zalman, his “final word.”

“I brought up a list of shailos that I had, matters such as education for my children and which hechsheirim to hold by, and after the rov resolved each one, he said his final judgment: ‘Lo kol echad yachol la’asot, aval mi sheyachol la’asot, tzarich la’asot.’ (Not everyone would be able to do this, but someone who is able to do it, has an obligation to do so).”

And with that, the Frieds began packing their bags.

Team Formation

One family alone does not a kollel make, so it was up to Rabbi Fried to find some recruits to bring along.

In Lakewood, New Jersey, Rabbi Bentzi Epstein was a young kollel yungerman who had gotten married just before Pesach. The shanah rishonah Epstein couple bounced from apartment to apartment throughout the spring and summer, as they spent time with family, figured out school and chavrusah commitments, and looked for the right place to settle down.

It was now the Sunday before Rosh Chodesh Elul and they had just signed on a year’s lease in Lakewood when the young chosson got an interesting phone call.

“We’d love for you to join us in Dallas,” said the newly-minted rosh kollel, Rabbi Fried. Although the two didn’t yet know each other, their mutual friend, Rabbi Aryeh Feigenbaum, would be joining as well, and he had passed the name along.

There are no returns on a signed lease, but it was worth a shailah. Rabbi Epstein went to his rosh yeshiva.

“What’s the shailah?” asked the rosh yeshiva. In other words, what was the young chosson really asking?

Rabbi Epstein boiled down the matter to the main factor that he was weighing. “If I stay here in Lakewood, I can learn for about three years in total. If I go to Dallas, I can probably learn for about five or six.”

“So of course you should go,” came the response.

As it turned out, the apartment owners were willing to work out a deal: If the couple stayed for Elul zeman, they would look for a new tenant to fill the apartment after the Yomim Tovim.

“We ended up being in Lakewood for 40 days, from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur,” says Rabbi Epstein. “We called it ‘kabbolas haTorah.’”

It was going to be a sudden change for the newly-married couple, both East Coasters. Were they nervous to drop everything and take off for Texas just like that?

“We wanted to teach Torah, and in my mind this was the right thing to do,” shares Rabbi Epstein, “so it didn’t really bother me.” He smiles. “And as for my wife, I think she was just relieved that after that, we wouldn’t have to move again.”

Rabbi Fried found one final family, Rabbi and Mrs. Sholey Klein, to make a group of four and brought them onboard, as well. With the group in hand, bags packed and tickets booked, they were all set – and determined to complete their mission.

Rabbi Fried recollects: “The Motzoei Shabbos before my original pilot trip, we were scheduled to leave the following morning when I was struck by doubts. I was standing outside of shul after Maariv saying Kiddush Levanah and all around me there were gedolei Yisroel doing the same. I was hit with a thought: Am I crazy? I have an open door policy with Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, and we live surrounded by the kedusha of Bayit Vegan in Yerushalayim! I’m going to leave all of this for Dallas, Texas?

Then his sense of achrayus kicked back in. It’s easy to feel complacent when you’re here in Eretz Yisroel, he reminded himself, but there’s a fire burning the house down in America. It’s not fair to stay here and be content, when it’s a false sense of complacency.

Rabbi Fried concludes, “It was that thought that got me on the plane the first time, and that thought that stayed with me as I flew back for good.”

The Game Plan

Dallas, Texas, 1992. It’s hot, muggy and humid. Four brand-new families have just arrived, hopes high, idealism higher.

What’s the game plan?

“We sat down and started to learn,” Rabbi Fried relates. “We were just four untrained, inexperienced yungeleit and we didn’t have a very specific plan. We started to learn and we put out the word that we’re available to learn with baalei batim at night.”

Rabbi Fried’s original intent was to model his new kollel off of the community kollel that he had witnessed in Chicago as a youth. The kollel there was a successful one, so if the model works, why fix it? Yet he quickly learned that the situation in Dallas was a horse of a different color.

“Many of the baalei batim in Chicago had grown up going to yeshiva, so they had a foundation of Torah and Yiddishkeit upon which they drew, which affected the way they learned and the way they ran their lives,” the rosh kollel sums up. “In Dallas, the majority of the community was lacking that same background, so we couldn’t run things the same way. We had to create the baalei batim from scratch.”

There was no overt “kiruv mission” with Dallas Area Torah Association. It was born, and was always intended, as a way to bring a strong infusion of Torah to the city.

“Proverbs teaches that Torah is light,” Rabbi Epstein shares in an article that he wrote for Klal Perspectives about his experiences in Dallas, “and that is exactly what we [sought] to offer. In a community kollel, kiruv is not simply about bringing people close to observance, but rather it is about bringing them closer to the Torah itself.”

With their founding of DATA, the four Dallas kollel families strove to bring the light of Torah close to the Jewish people who resided there. It was their firm belief that it is the privilege of every Jew to have access to the beauty and goodness inherent in the Torah. The Torah is a Jewish birthright, and they would serve as the link for those who had not yet gotten a taste.

“Many of the ‘kiruv’ things, they’re not kiruv in their own right,” Rabbi Fried explains. “It’s a lot of sitting and shteiging and filling your own cup, and then the cup spills over.”

The rosh kollel compares it to the famous moshol of placing an empty cup inside an empty bowl. If you first pour water into the bowl, the cup will fall over, but if you fill the cup first, the cup will overflow into the bowl and fill both. It’s DATA’s philosophy for both their own learning – sit and become learned before teaching others – and for how they approach the community members: first, start with learning Torah.

Yet, from within the learning, there is almost certainly going to be a natural growth.

Talmud meivia lidei maaseh – Torah study leads to action.” That’s the method behind a community kollel, notes Rabbi Epstein. It’s not simply that the people will begin to learn, but the learning itself is a guarantee that they will become inspired to perform mitzvos, as well. The Torah’s wisdom speaks for itself.

The Novominsker Rebbe prepared the group with a line: “Tipos tipos mitztarfos – Drop by drop, they’ll join in.”

There won’t be a fast track here, but one by one, with consistent and persistent effort over time, you will see the results of your planting begin to blossom into beautiful fruits.

Watering the Seeds

Every Jewish person in Dallas was an opportunity to spread the light of Torah.

“One by one, we began to form relationships,” describes Rabbi Epstein. “You meet a person in the store, you go to a community event…slowly, you start to get to know people and that’s sort of the way things grew.”

The yungeleit learned with community members during night seder and delivered shiurim, as well.

“We would put out a class on a flyer and hope that anyone showed up.”

With the realization that many of the Dallas residents didn’t have a strong Jewish background, the kollel brought in Aish Hatorah’s Discovery program to begin to lay the foundation. They also tailored their own shiurim and programming to fit the needs of the community.

In retrospect, DATA’s founders estimate that it took about six months of gentle, continuous effort and simply being a Torah presence before they felt that the community had taken to them.

“After six months, I felt real stabilization, a sense that we were here to stay,” reflects Rabbi Epstein. “And then, boruch Hashem, it continued to grow from there.”

The “rabbis,” as the community members called them, were newbies both to teaching and to kiruv. How were they able to cater their classes to make Torah appealing to their audience?

“A lot of it is just seichel,” Rabbi Epstein surmises. “Common sense.”

Rabbi Epstein had been privy to a series of kiruv training classes when he lived in Eretz Yisroel before he was married, so he did have a bit of a background by way of lessons from the experts: Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky, among other speakers, was brought into his yeshiva. But for the most part, the group learned on the job. By being friendly, being genuinely interested in the community members, and putting themselves in the locals’ shoes to consider what they would find most compelling and relevant, the kollel families were able to hit on topics that spoke to their hearts, and the community continued to grow.

That’s not to say there were no missteps along the way.

“Community kollelim that started after us have been able to learn from our mistakes,” says Rabbi Epstein. “We teach them what to say, what not to say…”

Some of what not to say includes things that may be 100 percent right, but the audience is simply not ready to hear it yet.

“Just because you have the right answer doesn’t mean they’ll hear what you’re saying.”

It takes the skill of feeling out the crowd and intuiting what stage they are up to. The kollel members have also gained nuggets of wisdom such as, “Feminist issues go over better when presented by a woman,” and, “Presentation matters.”

Rabbi Epstein explains: “In the yeshiva world, we don’t always put a lot of stock in dressing sharply, but when you’re in an out-of-town community, you quickly realize that you can’t dress like you’re still in yeshiva.”

There are also delicate family matters to consider. When a Jew is growing in ruchniyus and discovering a relationship with Hashem, it’s a beautiful thing, but if it’s causing tension in the home, it can become a fragile balancing act.

“There are challenges, at times, when one spouse is interested and the other is not,” Rabbi Fried describes. “The last thing that we’re looking to do is split up families. We’re trying to build families. Understandably, it can be tricky when one wants to become frum after they’ve already been married and living a certain way. We’ve had to watch people pull away, when they saw the emes, in order to keep their family intact, and while we support their decision, it’s always painful to see.”

Bechasdei Hashem, the kollel members have seen many situations go the other way, as well, where both spouses are interested and the entire family experiences a major life shift for the better.

“There is one particular family,” relates Rabbi Fried, “who were leaders in the Reform community. They had seldom, if ever, seen a frum Jew before in their lives and they knew very little about Torah Judaism. They were referred to us via a relative, and after we reached out, they came in for a class. They walked in like two deer in headlights.”

The couple was hooked by the program, which was an Aish seminar, and signed up to go on a follow-up retreat. It was a steady climb from there into true Torah Judaism.

When the couple had first entered the kollel’s doors, they had two small children, both girls. After finding their way to a religious lifestyle, they had two more children, both boys.

“The older of the two boys ended up being my son’s chavrusah in the Mir,” shares Rabbi Fried.

The parents, once spearheads of the Reform community, have now long been pillars of Dallas’s frum population.

In the case of another family who was initially hesitant to get involved with the kollel, they are now linchpins of the local high school and mikvah association, and a son of theirs has married into the family of a prominent rosh yeshiva.

It’s stories like these that keep the fire burning for the DATA members, and they’re just two families out of hundreds.

We’re Being Watched

It’s quite different to practice halacha inside the insular bubble of a frum community, where you’re just one of the crowd, than in a largely secular community, where you stand out as a Torah representative.

“They look at us here as ‘rabbi,’” shares Rabbi Epstein, whose official position is Director of Outreach for DATA, “and in the beginning, that was hard to wrap my head around.

“It changes your mindset to be thought of that way. It makes you more medakdeik on what you do – with every move that you make, you’re being watched. You want to make sure that you’re fully crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s.”

The community is looking to the kollel members with a certain expectation of behavior, and the yungeleit, in turn, want to make sure that they live up to those lofty standards.

The way Rabbi Fried sees it, the kollel members are not simply modeling behavior, but have become true role models: They have filled themselves with Torah, day and night, and their efforts have borne fruit.

“The yungeleit spent much time shteiging and learning, and they have become very choshuv. From the beginning, we brought Rav Hillel David in from New York to farher the yungeleit twice a year, and they’ve become rabbonim, poskim and talmidei chachomim.”

Today, Rabbi Feigenbaum is the rov of the Ohr HaTorah Congregation in Dallas, a shul with hundreds of participating families, and Rabbi Klein heads Dallas Kosher, the well-reputed local va’ad hakashrus, which he has also grown into one of the most well-respected vaadei hakashrus in America.

Like the cup in the bowl, the yungeleit filled themselves up and it has spilled over. The Dallas families have been presented with a Torah-saturated view of Judaism and that’s the version that they themselves have been able to imbibe.

Today, over 600 families and counting in the Dallas area are Torah-abiding Jews. Many of their children have continued on to seminaries and yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel, or have settled in Lakewood to build frum families of their own. The snowball is rolling.

What the Future Holds

Is there a place in Dallas for these frum children to return with their own families or is it only a stepping stone for baalei teshuvah?

“We are now in the process of hiring a new, young rosh kollel, with a new chevrah of top yungeleit, to work together with me and try and fortify Dallas as a real makom Torah where kids will want to move back,” announces Rabbi Fried. “That’s the next level of development.”

In reality, the process has already begun. With eleven shuls spread over four different areas of the city, there is already a little bit of something for everyone. In the southern section of Dallas where the original DATA kollel resides, there is the first DATA shul, as well as Israeli and Modern Orthodox shuls. In the northern part of the city lies a Chofetz Chaim shul, a Sefardi shul, a Chabad shul and a yeshivishe shul. In Plano sits a second kollel shul and another Chabad, and now, in the Richardson suburb, the kollel recently founded a young families’ shul.

The local frum day school, Torah Day School of Dallas, has grown to encompass approximately 350 children, while a Bais Yaakov high school, Mesorah High School for Girls, has over 50 students. For high school-aged boys, there is a local option, Texas Torah Institute (TTI), a Chofetz Chaim yeshiva. There is a Modern Orthodox day school, as well.

Perhaps equally importantly from a kiruv perspective, there are now a large number of kosher eateries in town, too.

“It’s very hard to be mekarev someone and have them start keeping kosher when there is nowhere to go out to eat,” notes Rabbi Fried.

In Dallas, that’s no longer a concern. The ubiquitous pizza place is part of the scene – there are actually two kosher pizza stores – and there are even upscale restaurant options, as well as a bakery that recently became kosher, and plenty of groceries. One former kollel yungerman now runs a shechitah operation that services the Dallas community and ships meat nationwide. In the Lone Star state, things are swinging.

Twenty Years of Kiruv

“Someone predicted 20 years ago that kiruv only has 20 years left in America,” Rabbi Fried relays. “With the pace that Americans have been assimilating, it was estimated that that was all the time we had. But as someone who lives in this reality, I would say that there is definitely still much opportunity for work to be done.”

There’s no denying that it’s getting harder.

Yeridas hadoros. People are less traditional. Things that used to be a given are now suddenly a chiddush. But despite that,” shares the rosh kollel, “we still have many coming back.”

The kollel’s founding members could never have foreseen the success that they’ve experienced in Dallas. For the most part, they went in with no expectations. But one of their biggest supporters foresaw it.

“Rav Wolbe told me when we were first starting that today they say 60 families in Dallas are frum. Tomorrow, they’re going to say 160 families. Then they’re going to say 600 families. Eventually, they’re going to say the whole Dallas is frum. Right now, I guess we’ve made it to stage three.”

For Rabbi Fried, there is no doubt that moving to Dallas was the right decision.

“I’ve learned so much from being here. In terms of my own ruchniyus, I’ve been able to continue putting out seforim while living here for almost 30 years. My children have done beautifully, as well. Rav Shlomo Zalman told me, ‘You need seichel and siyata diShmaya. If you have the seichel, then the siyata diShmaya is there. You have to be smart with your kids, but not worried, because they’ll grow tremendously from the experience, too.’

“Honestly, it’s been a zechus. There is nothing more rewarding than being part of the growth of a Torah community. To build a makom Torah is extremely satisfying and gratifying.”

In Rav Wolbe’s letter to Rabbi Fried, when the gadol mentioned that there needs to be a kollel in every place, he was giving advice to the soon-to-be Dallas rosh kollel, but he was also directing his missive to Jewish communities worldwide.

“We are living in the most affluent generation since the times of Shlomo Hamelech,” notes Rabbi Fried. “We have all of this Torah learning, all of this affluence, all of this potential. In later generations, they are going to judge us: ‘What did this generation do to build Klal Yisroel while they had all of that wealth and freedom? What did you do to take advantage?’

“It takes a partnership between rabbonim and baalei batim, dedicated individuals who feel an achrayus to Klal Yisroel. And when they work together, so much can be done.”



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