By: Eitan Lipsky  | 

For Winter Break, YU Students Head to Houston, TX for CJF Mission

This winter break, the Center for the Jewish Future ran another installment of its Jewish Life Coast to Coast program, as it sent 10 students to spend a week of their vacation in Houston, Texas. The Coast to Coast program, which had last run a winter mission in the United States in 2014, is an experiential education mission which brings YU students to interact with a Jewish community outside of the tri-state area. The trip was led by Naomi Kohl, the Director of Student Life on Beren Campus, as well as Natan Bienstock, the Stanton Fellow for the OSL.

Houston is the fourth-largest city in the United States and it is also home to over 50,000 Jews. Of that number, about 2,000 identify as Orthodox Jews. The community has two major shuls, divided by a distance of about five miles. The students were invited to join the United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS), an orthodox shul under the leadership of Rabbi Barry Gelman. In addition, they were sent to the Robert M. Beren Academy, the local Orthodox school that houses students from nursery through high school, where they led Torah classes and discussions with the students.

In addition to teaching the adults and children of the community about Jewish values and experiences, the YU students were also able to learn from the community members about life in Houston. They heard about the terrible floods, which had ravaged the UOS community twice in the past 20 months, displacing many of the community members from their homes and destroying much of their possessions. They spoke to Amy Goldstein, one of the brave women who was able to keep calm enough during those hard times to make sure that the community members who needed help were assisted, and who fought through government red tape to get additional support for her community.

The students also heard from shul member Barry Tobias, an Orthodox Jew who works for the national space organization, NASA, about his life as a “Jewish rocket scientist.” NASA headquarters are located in Houston, and the students also took a trip to the local NASA Space Center Museum. NASA wasn’t the only local employment center that the students visited. They also spent time at the Baylor Medical Center, one of the country’s top medical facilities where many of the community members work.

One point that the community members tried to impress upon the YU students about living in a smaller Jewish community was the ease with which one is able to get involved in a major way. The students heard from Elise Passy, Harry Brown, and Steven Plumb, who are involved in running the local mikvah, the chevra kadisha, and the Houston Kashruth Organization (Houston is home to seven kosher restaurants and several catering halls), respectively. Each of these people works a typical day job, but felt that it was their contribution to the community to step up and play a major role in the operation of regular Jewish life.

In addition to the unity of the Orthodox community, which could be seen from the stories of how everyone in the community  helped each other during the floods, the students were also shown a display of unity outside this community as well. Rabbi Gelman invited several local Conservative and Reform Rabbis to join for a panel discussion where the students were free to ask any questions. The students were shocked to see this interdenominational discourse and to find out how these rabbis all respect each other and even come to each other with questions on occasion.

The next shocking presentation was when Rabbi Gelman brought in local Christian Pastor Becky Keenan to speak to the students. She spoke about her support for the Orthodox community, the close professional relationship with Rabbi Gelman,  and her advocacy for Israel on behalf of the Jews. The students also learned first hand about the attitude of non-Jewish Houstonians towards Jews. On several occasions, random strangers approached one of the students and, seeing them dressed in Jewish garb, remarked about their beliefs that the Jews are a blessed people. For some of the students who lived in cities where one sometimes feels uncomfortable being stared at by passersby for dressing differently, this was a very unique experience.

As part of the YU mission, the students also had an opportunity to meet with two members of YU’s Board of Trustees who reside in Houston: Ira Mitzner and Michael Gamson, for a steak dinner. At the dinner, the students were asked to reflect upon their feelings about YU and reported certain areas in which they felt their experiences could be improved, Mr. Mintzer and Mr. Gamson were very receptive to the students’ input.

The trip ended with a beautiful Shabbos spent with the UOS community, where the YU students led inspiring tefillot and gave additional Torah classes to the community. On Shabbos day, the students had lunch at the home of Drs. Jeff and Bella Morgan, who had sponsored this mission partially in recognition of their gratitude towards Yeshiva University.

The students that participated in this mission were touched by many different aspects of their experience. "What impressed me most was the Orthodox community's involvement in both inter-denominational and interfaith work,” said Moshe Kurtz, a second-year psychology major who participated on the mission. “Where I live in New York the Orthodox community is sometimes in great need of just intra-denominational work alone. As a Rabbinical student my aspiration is to model the unity and virtues of the Houston community's religious leadership and pursue a framework of camaraderie and cooperation amongst all members of my future community." Second-year computer science major Miriam Liebling enjoyed the intimate time spent with the community on Shabbos. “After spending several days interacting with the students at Beren Academy, it was spending Shabbos at UOS that really showed me the achdus in the community” she said. “The same faces we met in school appeared in shul and it was incredible to see that the sense of community extended much further than the classroom”.

Overall, the YU students came out of this trip with insight about living in a smaller Jewish community. They gained tremendously from this experience and agreed that they would have to at least visit Houston again sometime soon.