From small meetings in 1980s until today, congregation keeps growing
By Judy Tashbook-Safern
Special to the TJP
When most families take a Sunday drive, they may be looking for a restaurant and hoping to find a good parking spot. When Rabbi Aryeh Rodin and his wife Rebbetzin Henny used to drive around Dallas in the 1980s, they were looking for mezuzahs and a place to park their Torah scroll. Where they found mezuzahs, they found Jewish pride, a pintele Yid (a little spark of Judaism) and, when they found that in Far North Dallas, they knew they had found a place to build a shul.
Thirty years later, several hundred people are gathering at the JCC on Sunday, Jan. 15, to celebrate Congregation Ohev Shalom with the Rodins, the shul’s founders, Ohev alumni and the current crop of Ohev Shalom families.
We all know it takes more than a building, more than a Torah scroll, and more than a rabbi to make a shul. It takes what the Rodins would call siyata d’shmaya — heavenly assistance.
“We were building God’s house,” says Rebbetzin Henny Rodin with a warm smile on her face. “For that, you don’t rely on a contractor; you go straight to the top. You ask for divine intervention.”
“Usually, when you think of a shul and what makes it special, you think of the community,” Rabbi Rodin says. “And today, when we talk about Ohev Shalom, it’s all about the community, the wonderful people who make this the warm, welcoming, truly holy place that it is. But back then, we didn’t have any congregants. There was no community to speak of. When my wife and I came to North Dallas, we wanted to build a shul for people who didn’t even know they wanted a shul.”
So, if you build it they will come, right?
“Not necessarily,” Rabbi Rodin laughs gently. “Not so fast! At first, we had one congregant. Ted Fishman. Ted came every week, every Friday night, every Shabbos morning … even when it was just himself and me. When she could, his wife Laura came Shabbos morning with their children and they joined Henny and myself and our children. Soon, they brought Laura’s sister and brother-in-law, Zvi and Ruchama Berkovitch and their children.”
It wasn’t too long before single mom Ralene Klugman, and young marrieds Michael and Joan Margolies, discovered Ohev Shalom and started coming to services with their children. Ralene eventually remarried and her husband Isaac Botbol became a dedicated member of the slowly but steadily growing Ohev community, as did her brother and sister-in-law, Ivan and Melanie Sacks. Dr. Don and Charlotte Bernstein began attending services, along with a kindly couple named Sam and Sandy Mandelbaum, who met the Rodins and started coming to shul with their teen and young adult daughters.
“Then Susan Mandelbaum, who had just graduated from Einstein Medical School and married a wonderful young man named Ron, moved back to Dallas,” Henny recalls with pride. “When I look around now and I see so many children who grew up in our shul who are now newlywed couples and young families with small children who have chosen to move to our community … I think of Susan and Ron and imagine what pleasure they would have seeing the shul like this!”
There is another Susan who is absolutely integral to the Ohev Shalom story. In fact, one can’t genuinely understand or fully appreciate the shul or the community without knowing Susan Baum’s story. Susan was a young wife and mother whose husband Michael Baum was a loyal student of Rabbi Rodin’s, whose love for the shul led to him becoming the original vice president of the Ohev Shalom board of directors. The shul’s founding congregant Ted Fishman was the president and Susan Baum, the shul’s first “Kiddush lady,” who is ever ready with a well-timed wisecrack or a gentle quip, teased Laura, who was by then called Chana, “Hey! You’re the first lady!”
And while that was true — Chana Fishman was the first lady of Congregation Ohev Shalom — Susan Baum has been the heart of the shul for 30 years.
Everyone from the old days remembers watching Susan’s tow-headed boys Jordan and Eli sitting with their father Michael in shul each week, learning to sing Adon Olam and then the more complicated Anim Zemiros.
One year, right before Pesach, in the prime of her young life, Susan was diagnosed with cancer. Susan’s pain, Michael’s pain, their terror was shared by everyone in the growing Ohev community.
Meals were cooked. Babysitters and playdates were arranged. Rides to chemo appointments were provided. Hugs were shared. Tears were shed. Prayers were sent on high and many, many hours of Torah were learned in the merit of a full and speedy recovery for the beloved Susan Baum. More and more people found their way to Ohev Shalom and they joined spiritual forces to pray for Susan. It was perhaps this crisis that cemented an assemblage of North Dallas neighbors into the solid Jewish community that has since seen such tremendous growth in strength and numbers.
Chana Fishman suggested that the community say psalms. Everyone in the Ohev family volunteered to say a psalm or two. Those who knew Hebrew said their “kepitel Tehillim” in Hebrew, those who knew English said it in English, those who knew French or Spanish best pleaded with God in their mother tongue. The entire book of Tehillim, all 150 psalms, was recited daily.
Reader, at this point in the article, I must interject that I am a minor character in the Ohev Shalom story. I was a 19-year-old student at UTD. I walked 3 miles (that’s 6 miles round-trip) to shul each week. And during Jewish holidays, I walked 6 miles round-trip several times a week. When my brother Charles used to come visit, he was the only Kohain at the minyan and he always got a warm welcome. “Chaim Tuvia ben Yoel Meir HaKohain!” the minyan welcomed him with the first, most honorable aliyah.
Before cancer struck Susan, I used to baby-sit for the Baums’ children every Tuesday night. I loved their family and I built my image of a happy home on what I saw in theirs. While Susan was still undergoing treatment, however, I graduated college and moved to New York. My life moved on. I attended much bigger shuls than Ohev Shalom. Years passed. I heard Susan had recovered, thank God, but I still said Tehillim in her merit every day. I didn’t once call her; I never took two minutes to mail her a card. I was, in some respects, a terrible friend…but I never stopped praying for her health, her wholeness or her happiness.
Twenty years after Susan’s cancer diagnosis, many years after the Rodins started that little shul, I moved back to Dallas with a young family of my own.
What a transformation! Now the kehilla met in a converted house — not a storefront behind the Albertson’s on Hillcrest and Arapaho that had been my spiritual home, but a large home (God’s house) at the corner of Hillcrest and McCallum. And now there were dozens of families. And there was Susan Baum, smiling, arms wide-open to give me a hug. And there was someone beside her. A beautiful young woman with a warm smile, whom Susan proudly introduced as her daughter Miriam. A miracle baby who was born to the Baums after Susan’s complete recovery from cancer, now a miracle teenager. I think I cried more than I smiled that day but it was all the same.
Alas, one day not too long after that, my former babysitting charge Eli Baum, then 28 years-old, on a walk home from the library, suddenly collapsed and died on a North Dallas sidewalk, just a few blocks away from the shul where he grew up. May his memory be a blessing. Within seven months, his father Michael Baum, of blessed memory, who many will remember went on to serve as an ever-helpful, ever-smiling, ever-holy mashgiach at the kosher Tom Thumb, also passed away.
“Those two were always so connected,” Susan says. (See why she’s the heart of Ohev Shalom?)
These losses resonated deeply for everyone at Ohev Shalom. This is a shul of people who “love peace”; that is what our shul means.
So, we gathered by the dozens and hundreds to mourn and to offer comfort to the mourners, just as we gathered to pray, just as we gathered to celebrate when Miriam Baum went on to graduate high school, went on to study in Israel, went on to a career in medical diagnostic imaging in New York, and then got married. Oh, how the Ohev Shalom community celebrates!
A life of its own
The Rodin children grew up, too, of course: Reuven, Shoshana, Avraham and Shalom (the twins), Hillel, Dovid, Menucha and Akiva. Reuven and Shalom Rodin are now both also known around Dallas as “Rabbi Rodin.” Av Rodin lives with his family in New York, where he works as a businessman. Shoshana married a SEED boy named Danny who is now better known as Rabbi Daniel Ringelheim, a rosh yeshiva at Texas Torah Institute, thank you very much! Dovid and Menucha are married…there are daughters-in-law, sons-in-law and many grandchildren, thank God. At this point, the Rodin family could be their own minyan! And what’s interesting is that the shul has taken on a life of its own.
Walk into Ohev Shalom any Shabbos morning, any Jewish holiday, and you will find Avi and Toby Grossman, Zak and Chani Klein, Eli and Dana Tabaria, Andrew and Shani Margolies, Aaron and Dalia Yurowitz (current president of Ohev Shalom’s flourishing sisterhood), Danny and Shoshie Strassman, Isamu and Rochel Hartman, Evan and Susanne Rosenhouse, Charles and Sharon Michaels, Lou and Diane Calmenson, Yehuda and Nina Istrin, Lane and Hanki Harris, Chaim and Ellen Gutgold … plus dozens of other families … and a hundred children or more. The Rodins built it and they eventually came.
The current president of Ohev Shalom’s board of directors, Dr. Ian Neeland, says, “Ohev Shalom offers a friendly atmosphere with a diverse family of wonderful people from all walks of Jewish life. I am proudest of our growing Beis Medrash and high-level learning programs, our super-vibrant young families (16 moved in this summer alone!), and our extremely fast growth. We are without a doubt the fastest-growing synagogue in Dallas. Our membership has doubled in the last few years alone. We are a mainstream Orthodox shul that offers a full array of Jewish services and needs from the most learned to the newly initiated. This is what makes Ohev unique from any other shul in Dallas.”
Former president of the Ohev Shalom Sisterhood, Marcela Abadi Rhoads, says:
“The Ohev Shalom community is amazing. My family moved from Panama, where we had a vibrant and united community. When we moved to Dallas in 1978 there was no community that we could find. After many years we met the Rodins and began to be part of his shul and his community that he started. The people that go to our shul never cease to amaze me. They became our family. The Rodins embody the meaning of chessed (kindness) and are role models for our community. When my stepfather Lee Darr, of blessed memory, was dying of brain cancer and bedridden, Rabbi Rodin took time after Yom Kippur had ended and before he broke his fast to come and blow the shofar for him. And after my stepfather died, the rabbi took my brother, who was 12 years old, under his wing and taught him his parsha for his bar mitzvah. It was so special and so wonderful. We are forever grateful for all he did for our family during those hard months.”
Jillian Notelovitz has a powerful story to share, as well:
“Our family went through a very challenging time when I suffered from severe postpartum depression after our daughter was born in 1999. This was no baby-blues and the depression lasted for about four months. Rabbi Rodin and Henny hired a night nurse for us during those first few weeks and were constantly supportive, with practicalities and incredible chizuk. The amazing ladies in the community rallied together and literally organized shifts to come to our apartment and help us cope day to day during this difficult time. We were the recipients of such an outpouring of non-judgmental, patient love and support, from so many people in the community, from meals, to babysitters, clothes and baby accessories and so much more.
“Rabbi Rodin was so sensitive to our daughter’s special needs. She was extremely sensitive to crowds and loud noises and got terribly upset when people would clap and shout ‘Yay.’ So when we had a cake for her birthday at Kiddush, Rabbi Rodin would make sure to tell everyone to ‘clap silently and whisper Yay’ so she could enjoy her birthday cake experience!”
“Some shuls succeed because of what might be considered the ‘cult of personality,’” says the shul’s original president, Ted Fishman, from his home in Chicago. “Rabbi Rodin is beloved, but that’s not the only key to Ohev Shalom’s success. This community grew organically and authentically. No organization has more earnestly earned its place than Congregation Ohev Shalom. And Rebbetzin Henny is a true partner in the success of this shul. I remember coming to visit the Rodins on a Thursday night when the shul was still in their house and there was the rebbetzin, a busy young mother with so many responsibilities, scrubbing the floor of our sanctuary.”
“Rebbetzin!” Ted remembers crying out in horror and shame that he witnessed such degradation. Henny Rodin. No more noble or honorable woman ever drew breath; she should be scrubbing a floor like that? The shul, he resolved, would raise more money, if only to hire a janitor. And raise money we did, for the rabbi’s salary, for prayer books, for a building, for a janitor…but Henny’s response to Ted’s alarm set the tone for the next 30 years:
“This is God’s house,” she smiled warmly. “How can we go into Shabbos unless the floors sparkle? Don’t take away my mitzvah.”
The rebbetzin’s piety is the spirit of Ohev Shalom. That, and Ted Fishman’s determination that these holy Rodins would succeed in building a Jewish community in North Dallas. That, and the extraordinary commitment of Ivan Sacks, who eventually succeeded Ted Fishman to serve as longtime president of the board. That, and the kindness of Rachel and Moe Gabbai and the modesty of Mike Nathan, who, for more years than anyone can count, has every week taken it upon himself to clear the plates and cups after Kiddush. No one asked him. Mike doesn’t often accept help. Like Rebbetzin Henny, he doesn’t want anyone to take this mitzvah from him. Mike is often the last one to leave the building Shabbos morning after Kiddush simply because he won’t leave until God’s house has been put to rights and it sparkles, ready for the next service. This is the spirit of Ohev Shalom. And this is why hundreds of members, present and past, will gather on Sunday, Jan. 15, to celebrate the 30th anniversary.
“Our gala is being held at the JCC because, thank God, we have more people coming than room at shul to host them!” says longtime Ohev Shalom minyanaire Dr. Larry Shafron. “We need a new building.”
“We need to raise $5,000,000 for the new building,” says former President Ivan Sacks, who never minces words. “This is a magnificent shul, an extraordinary community, and now it is time for a proper building that has enough room to accommodate our growing family and that reflects the beauty of Ohev Shalom. We need to raise 5 million dollars.”
“We need siyata d’shmaya,” Henny Rodin smiles patiently.