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JHV Front Page Feature: Joyfully bringing Jews to Judaism: Chabad movement in Houston area continues to expand

Thursday, 24 March, 2011 - 11:25 pm

Joyfully bringing Jews to Judaism: Chabad movement in Houston area continues to expand



Esty and Rabbi Yossi Zaklikofsky dressed for “Purim in Africa” at The Shul of Bellaire.



Jewish Herald Voice, Front Page


• Thu, Mar 24, 2011

Texas is home for more than 100,000 Jews. There are 22 Chabad-Lubavitch institutions in Texas, including Austin, College Station, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Sugar Land and, most recently, Bellaire and The Woodlands, two of nine centers in greater Houston.


Chabad-Lubavitch is a philosophy, a movement and an organization that began more than 250 years ago, based for more than a century in the town of Lubavitch in White Russia.

In Russian, the word “Lubavitch” means “city of brotherly love.” Chabad is a Hebrew acronym for the three intellectual faculties of chochmah – wisdom, binah – comprehension and da’at – knowledge.

The Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s system of Jewish religious philosophy, the deepest dimension of G-d’s Torah, teaches understanding and recognition of the Creator, the role and purpose of Creation and the importance and unique mission of every creature. This philosophy guides an individual to refine and govern his or her every action and feeling through wisdom, comprehension and knowledge.

Today, the philosophy of Chabad-Lubavitch and its adherents has reached almost every corner of the world and affected almost every facet of Jewish life. Its roots in Houston were planted in 1972, when gasoline was 55 cents a gallon, the last U.S. ground troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, and the Houston Rockets were beginning their second season.

That same year, Rabbi Shimon Lazaroff, his wife, Chiena, and their four children loaded into the family station wagon and made the long trip from New York to Houston. Sent to Texas by the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Rabbi Lazaroff – whom many call “a pioneer” – characterizes his early work in establishing Chabad in Houston as more along the lines of a Green Beret or a special ops warrior.

“All the way from Brooklyn to Houston, and the only thing I recognized from home was the gas station sign,” the rabbi said. “When I came to town, people weren’t used to seeing a young man with a beard. They thought I had come to collect money for the yeshiva. In the beginning, I also had a heavy European accent and when I said I had come to live here, people thought I was crazy.

Tyagan Miller


Rabbi Shimon and Chiena Lazaroff during Sukkot



Promoting Judaism


“From day one, however, we were not in competition, but had come to work with other organizations to promote Judaism,” Rabbi Lazaroff added.

“When my son was 3, we were out one day when a Yiddish woman approached us and asked me, ‘Why are you torturing your kid by making him wear a kippah?’

“So, I turn to my son – in front of the woman – and asked him, ‘Mandy, you like to wear a kippah?’ and my son answered, ‘Sure. I’m Jewish.’ Then I asked him, ‘Do you want me to take your kippah away from you?’ and my son cried, ‘No, don’t take it away from me.’ Then, I turned back to the woman and asked her, ‘Look around. Everyone wears whatever they want. So, why are only Jews being intimidated?’

“I also explained I had come here to bring pride and to build up Judaism, and the lady said, ‘You’re right. I came here 30 years ago. My father came from Europe and couldn’t get a job, so he went back. I have remained here, and now my children are grown and are not practicing.’ Then, she began to cry, and I said, ‘Don’t cry, but go home and light a Shabbos candle … and I am happy we’ve had this discussion.’”

In the early years of his work in Houston, Rabbi Lazaroff said he often was viewed as if he had come from another planet. “Now, thank G-d, my child is not the only child wearing a kippah, and now we have 22 Chabad houses across Texas, all starting in a small apartment here in Houston,” he explained. “When I came in June 1972, it was announced on the front page of the Jewish Herald-Voice. Mrs. [Ida] White was the publisher at that time.”

The rabbi acknowledged that the greatest challenge at that time was that there was very little available in the way of Jewish education, so many did not know the meaning of the traditional Jewish practices.

“I started by introducing the mezuzah,” he explained, “and many wondered why they should spend $25 for a mezuzah when they could find them for $3. Those, of course, were not kosher mezuzahs, but many didn’t know the difference, so I had to teach them the difference.”

Chabad expands

The year after he settled his family in Houston, Rabbi Lazaroff began work to establish the first Chabad house in Austin to serve students attending The University of Texas. In the intervening years, the Lazaroff family grew to include a total of 11 children and his tireless efforts produced Chabad houses in Austin, College Station, Houston and Denton, as well as El Paso, Plano, San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth, Arlington and Pearland.

There are Chabad day schools, Hebrew schools and synagogues, and Chabad rabbis work with young adults and older people. There are Chabad rabbis who speak Spanish, French, Hebrew and Russian. Chabad rabbis work in chaplaincies in the Texas Medical Center, in Texas prisons, and with the Friendship Circle that serves children with special needs.

“We don’t leave out anyone,” the rabbi explained. “We want to bring Judaism to everyone, everywhere, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Almost two years ago, Chabad established itself in Pearland. Most recently, centers have been established in Bellaire and, in the beginning of March, in The Woodlands.

So, after close to four decades, Rabbi Lazaroff considers himself a Texan. “To me, it was a honor to be chosen by the Rebbe for this difficult task,” he explained. “In my office, I have a picture of the Rebbe giving me a piece of cake and wishing me success in everything I do in Texas, and this is my pride.”

Chabad Uptown

Rabbi Chaim and Chanie Lazaroff, with children Rivky, Levi, Mendel and Chaya Mushka



Beginning in 2006, Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff – one of the Lazaroff sons – and his wife Chanie offered classes and activities in the Uptown area, including the Galleria and River Oaks areas. “Our mission is to reach every Jew in the area – our outreach is to 4,000 homes or more,” Rabbi Chaim said. “We’ve been at our current location for 18 months at 4311 Bettis Dr.”

Acknowledging that they now have the advantage of Chabad being a household word in greater Houston, the younger Rabbi Lazaroff remembers his father’s dedication and work in the community when nobody knew what Chabad meant. “None of us could be successful without the pioneering of Shimon Lazaroff and the trails he blazed. He is our inspiration.”

In the 21st century, Rabbi Chaim sees his greatest challenge as making certain never to overlook the opportunity to reach one more Jewish soul. “Often we tend to be so involved in the administrative, but we need to reach out to every passing Jew and invite them to come on in. It’s important to take the spark within individuals who want to become more involved in their Judaism and make it into a flame,” he added.

The rabbi explained that Chabad does not work from a structure of central funding, so every center must be self-sufficient. “No money goes to any headquarters in Texas or New York,” he said, “so the great challenge is raising the funds, but our biggest challenge is not allowing any Jew to fall through the cracks.

“Every person begins their journey at the place they are most comfortable,” he continued. “For some, it’s prayer and religious activity and for some, it’s social interaction – a holiday program or a social network for young professionals. At Uptown, we cater to young professionals, and they seek social interaction with young professionals, as well, so that could be a Torah class or high holidays, wherever they are most comfortable, where they want to begin their exploration of their Judaism.”

Creative programs, including topics that could raise some eyebrows, are popular. “Recently, we had a program on tattoos and body art and what Judaism says about them,” Rabbi Chaim said. “We try to go into [topics] people want to hear about and are afraid to ask,” he added. “It’s what people don’t know about Judaism, so education is key.”

Rabbi Chaim said some classes are held in homes, and he created a video on YouTube about Chabad of Uptown. “If we have a program that only impacts one person, we’ve been successful,” he said.

Chabad of The Woodlands

Leah and Rabbi Mendel Blecher



Originally from Melbourne, Rabbi Mendel Blecher met his wife in New York. “Leah is originally from Winnipeg, Canada, and is the daughter of emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and a respected educator,” Rabbi Blecher explained. He graduated with honors from Yeshiva College in both secular and Hebrew studies before spending several years studying in Israel and the U.S.

“Neither of us had much exposure to Houston or the South, so we visited Houston several times before deciding to come here,” the rabbi said.

Having just arrived in The Woodlands, the two already have hosted a Purim celebration. “We had met with Rabbi Jan Brahms of Congregation Beth Shalom [of The Woodlands] to learn how we can complement and strengthen Judaism in The Woodlands with holiday programs and classes for adults and activities for children,” said Rabbi Blecher. “We’re not looking to compete; we’re looking to enhance, so our plan is to work together.

“Texas in general, and The Woodlands and the Jewish community in particular, are quite unique in how welcoming, down-to-earth and friendly everyone has been, and we love this,” the new rabbi observed. “As religious Jews, we do notice that there’s not a lot of religious infrastructure, such as kosher foods, so we have to plan in advance and shop for necessary food items when we go into Houston.

Like his counterpart, Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff, Rabbi Blecher pointed out that Chabad emissaries must be innovative. “Our outreach takes advantage of new trends to spread Judaism. Just as the Rebbe spoke of radio as a medium to spread teachings of the Torah many years ago, we are now using new technology to get the message out in a way people communicate with each other,” he pointed out. “We bring age-old traditions to the people of today in ways they can relate to.

“We’re here for every Jew, no matter how they might define themselves,” Rabbi Blecher continued, “whether they live in The Woodlands, Spring, Tomball, Conroe and the surrounding areas. We are nonjudgmental, we wish to share, and our inspiration is Judaism and the joys of it with the Jewish community. We might look a little different; I might have a beard, but we welcome and accept everyone.”

The Shul of Bellaire

Rabbi Yossi and Esty Zaklikofsky and children Mendel and Mushka.



Rabbi Yossi Zaklikofsky and his wife Esty have opened The Shul of Bellaire. A graduate of the rabbinical college of Miami, Rabbi Zaklikofsky spent two years in Israel before returning to the U.S. and working at Chabad’s global headquarters in New York. There, as director of extracurricular programs for the Chabad Yeshiva, he was responsible for providing programs and materials for 3,300 Chabad centers, stretching from Brooklyn to Melbourne.

Rabbi Zaklikofsky said he and his wife were first asked to move from New York to inaugurate a Chabad center in Bellaire. “Because I had no Houston experience,” he said, “it seemed best for us to begin our work in the suburb of Pearland, serving the Jewish community there so we would have the opportunity to get to know Texas, the city of Houston and to meet the other rabbis and the leadership of the Jewish community.”

Upon their arrival 18 months ago, the rabbi and his wife found that “every Jew we met thought they were the only ones in the Pearland-Friendswood area. But, once they came to events or services, they often found there were other Jews living on their block.

“Our challenge was to identify the Jewish people and then bring them together,” Rabbi Zaklikofsky continued. “There were no lists, so we worked to meet them, one by one. Now, we know there are more than 100 Jewish families in that area, just south of Houston, but some had not been in a synagogue for decades and, in one case, it had been 40 years – since their Bar Mitzvah and since they had been inside a shul.”

Last year, a 9-foot-tall menorah was erected in Pearland’s Town Center and 120 people participated in Chanukah activities, an event the rabbi termed as “nothing short of a modern-day miracle.” But, he is quick to point out that identifying Jews is only the first step.

“Bringing people together is an initial accomplishment, but our goal is to instill Jewish people with Jewish pride,” Rabbi Zaklikofsky pointed out. “Everything leads to the goal of people learning more about their Jewish heritage, even if they haven’t been involved. It’s not about adopting something they are not, but discovering their own Jewish identity – to bring out a Jewishness that’s there already – and to do that, we offer classes on all facets of Judaism, from the Talmud to the Bible.

“Once that’s accomplished, it’s the learning,” he continued. “Learning gives adults the opportunity to discover how rich Judaism is and how it enriches them. Only after you’ve learned, you can appreciate it. So, we encourage learning. We invite every Jew to join a class and discover Judaism, and it usually takes on a life of its own after that.”

The rabbi and his family permanently moved to Bellaire on Jan. 2, 2011. “Everyone has been so warm,” Rabbi Zaklikofsky said. “Right now, we’re working out of our home and for events, we use community spaces. For example, our Purim Party was held at The Gatherings, but we hope to have a permanent space within the next month or two.”

“Since moving to Bellaire, we’ve met with many families and they have all been wonderful,” the rabbi acknowledged. “Now, it is our dream to complement the existing Jewish institutions and our hope is for every Jew in the Bellaire area to be active in a Jewish congregation.”

According to available data, at least 50 percent of Houston’s Jewish population is unaffiliated.

“Just last week, we had five families at our Shabbat table and four out of the five are not members of any congregation,” he continued. “There’s a lot of work to do.” The Zaklikofskys also hope to play a role in providing education for all ages through The Shul at Bellaire.

“... people are thirsty for meaning and are looking for happiness,” he said. “Sadly, they may not find it in career success, but they can find it in growing in their own Judaism and in their discovery of who they are.”

Chabad rabbis from across the greater Houston area give high praise and credit to Rabbi Shimon Lazaroff, the man they refer to as “the trailblazer of Texas” and its now 22 centers.

“He came to Texas – and to Houston – before outreach was in style,” Rabbi Zaklikofsky added.

Some have termed outreach kiruv rechokim, “drawing close those who are distant.” Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, pointed out: “No Jew should be characterized as “distant,” for, in essence, we are one.”

For more on Chabad in Texas, particularly in the greater Houston area:

Chabad of Texas www.chabadtexas.org

Chabad of Houston www.chabadhouston.com

Chabad Outreach www.chabadoutreach.org

Bellaire – Shul of Bellaire www.jewishbellaire.com

Pearland www.jewishpearland.com

Sugar Land www.chabadsugarland.com

Texas Medical Center area www.chabadtmc.org

Uptown www.chabaduptown.org

West Houston www.westchabad.org

The Woodlands www.jewishwoodlands.com


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