By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
On a rainy night in a North Dallas classroom, 40 voices speaking simultaneously create a mid-level hum, punctuated by the occasional high-five or revelatory "Yes!" Teachers and students sit side by side or across from each other, books open on the folding tables before them. They've come here for a unique, one-on-one learning experience. And in 54-year-old Robert Gold's case, he's come to learn from a teacher half his age.
This is Partners in Torah, a Jewish education program that pairs up curious students with Jewish scholars who specialize in their particular area of interest. For some, it's learning a Jewish perspective on business ethics. Others come to delve into philosophy or, in Gold's case, to start at the very beginning: What could the Torah, a 3,000-year-old body of Jewish Scripture, teach him about how the modern world works? During the day, this classroom belongs to the 300-student Torah Day School of Dallas; every Monday night, it's filled with 40 to 60 Jewish men, women and children.
Fifteen years ago, a scene like this on a scale like this—so many scholars and students united in Jewish study—would have been practically unheard of in Dallas. But in 1992, four young rabbis immigrated to North Texas from Israel and the Northeast, responding to an invitation on a handwritten sign posted in an Israeli school, or yeshiva. The Dallas Area Torah Association, a kollel where rabbis come to study Torah full-time as well as teach in the community, was born. Today, a staff of 10 rabbis leads programs at DATA, serving about 50,000 Jewish North Texans, with events every night of the week. The DATA vision also resulted in the founding of the 300-student Torah Day School and Congregation Ohr Hatorah, now expanding to a new $13 million synagogue off Preston Road.
In the early '90s, Dallas was hardly a destination for Jewish families. But the educational opportunities provided by the Torah Association since its founding have changed that dramatically, turning Dallas from another big city with synagogues into a place where Jews can practice, learn and live in a thriving religious community, whatever their sect, whether Reform, Orthodox or Conservative. It's the kind of comfort level it would be easy for the millions of Christians in North Texas to take for granted; in a state where Jews make up less than 1 percent of the population, rabbis at DATA punctuate nearly every sentence they speak about their success here with cries of "Thank God!" and "God willing!" There are many such phrases ringing out at Partners in Torah, where Robert Gold is getting his Jewish education late in life from a young rabbi just making his way at the local kollel.
Rabbi Shlomo Abrams, a bespectacled 27-year-old with ideas and enthusiasm much bigger than he is, moved to Dallas a year and a half ago to study at DATA. Tonight at Partners in Torah, he is Gold's much younger instructor, trading insights with a man twice his age. Though Gold is a professional philosopher himself, having spent 25 years as an ontologist studying conceptions of reality and existence, his Torah knowledge is next to nothing, save what he'd learned as a teenager at his bar mitzvah. With a side-by-side English and Hebrew translation of the Torah open in front of him, he nods enthusiastically as Abrams explains Jewish beliefs about each person's purpose on earth. In the womb, Abrams says, God reveals all life's secrets to an unborn child. But upon birth, all is forgotten. So, why learn it to forget it?
"Because life is discovering!" Gold chimes in, grinning. Immediately, the rabbi and the student high-five each other, their own private moment of revelation in this buzzing room. At other tables, pairs are involved in their own discussions, with arms flailing and mouths moving. When Abrams takes a break to take class attendance, Gold describes himself as "someone very learned in one domain communicating with someone very learned in another domain." He is energized by this prospect, obviously a man who's become accustomed to being the teacher and not the student.
But the rabbis who spend their days studying Jewish law and texts at DATA fill both these roles, absorbing information and then repackaging it for local Jews at retreats, seminars and classes like Partners in Torah. One of the four founding rabbis, Bentzi Epstein, whom Abrams breathlessly calls "the brains behind everything," says DATA was made possible by the intense "thirst for Jewish knowledge" in Dallas that wasn't being fulfilled 15 years ago. But when the first four rabbis arrived, they had no idea if their Lone Star kollel experiment would work.
"We thought we'd be lucky if one person walked in," says Epstein, a rotund father of seven who moved his family to Dallas from Rockland County, New York, which has the nation's highest-percentage Jewish population at more than 30 percent. While Dallas' synagogues—numbering about 24 today, up from 15 in 1990—offered a place of worship and a Sunday school or occasional seminar, there was no dedicated place for Jews to learn. And certainly not a place where Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews could all feel welcome at once.
Epstein says DATA's philosophy is to "leave your labels at the door." Though different sects of Judaism may interpret the Torah's instructions in different ways, Epstein says the mix of instructors and classes at DATA provide something for everyone who wants to learn. That basis of education is something that Abrams believes has helped the Dallas Jewish community grow by more than 10,000 people since DATA's inception in the early '90s.
Just down the street from DATA headquarters, a renovated 2,200-square-foot house that can barely hold the rabbis and volunteers sharing desks and squeezing by each other in its halls, is the local Tom Thumb, a place Abrams gets really excited about. The North Dallas store was one of the supermarket chain's first locations to feature an all-kosher market. Hustling through the store at his most decorous almost-run, Abrams goes straight for the kosher bakery and triumphantly holds up a plastic box of kosher-marked cookies. For him, this is a powerful sign that Dallas Jews have made a niche for themselves in the community. Now he's helping to expand that niche northward with a Far North Dallas branch of DATA, at which the flagship program is his Partners in Torah class.
Surrounded by men in yarmulkes and women in long, modest skirts, a bemused, almost mystified philosopher and student Robert Gold smiles and shakes his head.
"I'm like, growing," he says, a testament to the guarantee Epstein gives to each DATA student: "You will not walk out of a DATA class uninformed. Thank God!"