Chabad’s 50-year Lone Star Journey



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    Chabad’s 50-year Lone Star Journey

    Fifty years ago, Rabbi Shimon and Chiena Lazaroff arrived in Texas with little more than an ambitious Jewish vision and four children in a green station wagon. Following the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Lazaroff’s goal was to strengthen and grow Judaism in untapped territories • Full Story

    Jewish Herald – Voice

    From holding services inside a small apartment to inspiring tens of thousands in Texas

    Fifty years ago, Rabbi Shimon and Chiena Lazaroff arrived in Texas with little more than an ambitious Jewish vision and four children in a green station wagon.

    Following the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Rabbi Lazaroff’s goal was to strengthen and grow Judaism in untapped territories.

    “When we got to Houston, people kept asking us, ‘Why are you moving here? What are you going to do here?’” Rabbi Lazaroff told the JHV.

    “My older son, Lazer, was 5 years old and would say real innocently, ‘We are selling Judaism.’ And, that was a big hit.

    “So, since then, that’s what we’ve been doing – selling Judaism.”

    Five decades later, the Lazaroffs are now celebrating 50 years of Chabad in Texas.

    What started out as a simple minyan in an apartment building on North Braeswood Boulevard at Stella Link Road has grown into an organization that teaches, supports and inspires tens of thousands of people in the Lone Star state.

    Chabad now features 58 shluchim (emissaries) couples – 116 community leaders – serving 37 branches around Texas, each comprised of multiple organizations and programs.

    There are 13 Chabad Houses in the Greater Houston area, 11 in Dallas, five in Austin, two in San Antonio and several others spread out across Texas.

    Each Chabad House features numerous services that may range from programs like a synagogue to a school, camp, mikvah, library, MKT kosher certification and much more.

    “When we first came here, there weren’t many places for an observant Jew to practice their Judaism,” Rabbi Lazaroff said. “We looked at that as a great opportunity.

    “In Texas, the sky was the limit.”

    Read the full 12-page Special Section honoring Chabad in Houston with lots of stories, photos and info and everything Chabad in Houston.

    In the beginning
    When the Lazaroffs first arrived in Houston on May 10, 1972, they were entering a new frontier.

    As part of the Rebbe’s 70th birthday, Rabbi Schneerson wanted to establish 71 new Chabad institutions across the United States. The Lazaroffs were living in Detroit at the time and left the observant Jewish life they knew to take on Texas.

    “People from back home asked us, ‘Were you afraid when you came here?’ There wasn’t the Jewish life we were used to,” Mrs. Lazaroff told the JHV.

    “We said, ‘No, we will just make it happen and create what we don’t have.’”

    The Lazaroffs hosted services at their apartment for several years, starting out in their dining room and later moving to an adjacent apartment. They opened their home to the community, hosting study groups, leading prayers and sharing hospitality.

    Around town, Rabbi Lazaroff began to make a name for himself, teaching in synagogues and schools and making connections with community leaders and organizations.

    He also built very strong connections with college students, giving weekly Torah classes on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin and he met with students at Texas A&M, Rice University and the University of Houston.

    In Houston, the couple set up a kosher co-op, in which families would split the costs of kosher food trucks coming to town a few times a year, and the Lazaroffs would go to a farm for kosher milk.

    As the Lazaroffs established themselves, and their own family began to grow, so too did their following.

    Within a few years, it began getting tough to attract people to an apartment for services, so the Lazaroffs started collecting donations to put toward a new building.

    Building a following
    The only real Jewish Orthodox pocket in Houston surrounded United Orthodox Synagogues, but that is not where the Lazaroffs built their Chabad Center.

    “At first, we thought we should be closer to UOS because that was the more observant Jewish neighborhood, but the Rebbe said just the opposite,” Mrs. Lazaroff said.

    “He said, ‘Go where there is nothing. Go to a neighborhood where you would not be in competition.’ He did not want to create differences. Instead, he said, ‘Create your own space and the people will come to you.’”

    In 1977, construction began on what now is the current Texas Lubavitch Headquarters on Fondren Road – the world’s first Chabad Center built from the ground up.

    A new school was started with the help of Carol and Stuart Nelkin, with Torah Day School opening its doors in 1977 in a one-room trailer with seven students – the Nelkin and Lazaroff children.

    Quality instructors were scarce at the time, particularly in terms of Orthodox Judaic education, so Mrs. Lazaroff often doubled as co-director and teacher.

    While the young kids were in school, the Lazaroffs also educated the parents, bringing the services to them for easier access.

    “When you educate a person, you have to allow them the opportunity to use their new knowledge in observances, and you have to make the observances relevant to them and easy to do,” Mrs. Lazaroff said. “It shouldn’t be a challenge.

    “When you learn about it, it speaks to your heart, and you realize how meaningful the mitzvah is.”

    Growing in numbers
    The Chabad Headquarters opened its doors in time for the High Holy Days in 1978. The building could accommodate more than 100 people, quite an increase from the old apartment.

    The next year, the Chabad center’s first of what would become three Mikvaot, Mikvah Taharas Yisroel, opened, and enrollment at Torah Day School reached 40 students.

    As families decided to move closer to the Fondren Southwest Center, the neighborhood surrounding Chabad-Lubavitch Center also expanded. On Shabbat, more and more Jews could be seen walking the blocks in their kippot and tzitzit.

    Keeping kosher also was becoming more common, and Fondren Southwest fast became a hub of Jewish life in Houston.

    “The Fondren area used to be all rice fields, and the street was almost like a dirt road,” Mrs. Lazaroff recalled. “Then, the South African population bought and built homes in that area, and it began to become a high-end neighborhood.

    “A lot of the older congregants we had were attracted to the revival of the kind of Judaism they remembered. They may not have been as personally observant, but they appreciated it and became a part of Chabad.”

    Expanding in Texas
    Within a few years of their arrival to Texas, the Lazaroffs were already seeing a need to expand beyond Houston.

    Rabbi Lazaroff had built quite a following in Austin, including Rabbi Moishe Traxler, who was one of Rabbi Lazaroff’s early pupils.

    Rabbi Traxler was so impressed with Rabbi Lazaroff, he decided to become a rabbi and follow in his mentor’s footsteps. In 1980, Rabbi Traxler and his wife, Shoshana, were appointed as shluchim of Chabad in Austin.

    Over the next few years, more new shluchim followed, as Lubavitch rabbis and their wives were appointed to open or lead Chabad Houses all over the state.

    In 1984, Rabbi Mendel and Baila Dubrawsky went to Dallas. The next year, Rabbi Chaim and Rivkie Block opened in San Antonio. In 1986, Chabad El Paso was established with Rabbi Yisroel and Chana Greenberg appointed as directors.

    Offices in Plano and Fort Worth soon followed.

    “The idea was to bring the services to where people are, so people could access them easier,” Mrs. Lazaroff said. “And, it worked.”

    “Who would have thought so many people would find their Judaism in Texas?”

    As locations began to grow in number and coverage area, so did the services, including an afternoon Hebrew school for children, ages 7 to post-Bar Mitzvah, and Camp Gan Israel, Houston’s first Orthodox Jewish summer camp.

    Chabad also began to create more of a public presence, especially during holiday times.

    In 1999, more than 800 people witnessed the lighting of an ice menorah during a Chanukah on Ice presentation at The Galleria.

    There also were outreach programs, including Purim parties, an olive press program and a shofar factory.

    “When we first came, everything was built from the bottom,” Rabbi Lazaroff said. “Today, it is much better developed with activities and guidelines.”

    Creating a legacy
    Over the past 50 years, each Texas Chabad House and shluchim have continued the tradition started by Rabbi and Mrs. Lazaroff – bringing schools, synagogues, study groups, summer camps, mikvaot, social services and outreach to the communities around them.

    And, the expansion continues to this day, with Houston opening its latest Chabad House in 2020 – the Israeli Center, serving Hebrew-speaking and Israeli families of Houston.

    “People said, ‘How can you move into a city that has no infrastructure and do what you do?’’ Mrs. Lazaroff said.

    “To us, we felt like we were soldiers – the army of Hashem or the Rebbe’s army. We have this approach that we can do it and get it done.

    “It’s an ongoing thing still. We haven’t touched everyone yet. We are still on the journey.”

    And to think, it all started with an ambitious, baby-toting couple arriving in Houston in a station wagon their friends nicknamed the Greenbaum.

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    1. Sarah (Susan) Tobolowsky Barth

      I had the privilege of being among the first group of participants in the apartment so I can attest to the humble beginnings and discovering what Chassidut was all about and the Rebbe and my gratitude to the Rebbe is enormous for sending the Lazaroff family as shaluchim and of course to Rabbi and Rebbetzin Lazaroff who took me under their wing and embraced me as an additional family person. I got to watch their family expand and benefit from the early Chumash and Rashi classes and the holiday observances. Today I consider myself a Shalucha of the Rebbe in Eretz Yisrael for shalom bayit and the roots of my orientation are deep in the heart of Texas (my birthplace) and to that little apartment full of hospitality and warmth and the essence of the Rebbe’s teachings all displayed in full by the entire Lazaroff family. The Lazaroff’s exemplify the best of Chabad and all I can say is how fortunate I am to have been an eye witness to those early days and cherish them for the path they set me on.

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