By Deb Silverthorn
Dallas’ Jewish community is nearly 175-years-old, its earliest starts in South Dallas miles away from the center of its core today. At 10 a.m. Sunday, March 26, at Congregation Shaare Tefilla, the Dallas Jewish Historical Society’s (DJHS) Jim Schwartz Annual Lecture Series will present a conversation with Dr. Hannah Lebovits of “Where Did the Shtetl Go? Investigating Jewish Self-Erasure in Dallas, Texas.” The event is free and open to the public.
“We are about learning, telling and holding onto the stories of our people, of our community. Dr. Lebovits’ work, about making sure we learn and know and remember our start — the start of all Jews in our community — is a perfect fit,” said Debra Polsky, DJHS executive director.
Polsky referred to objects, items and sites that have been lost over the years and how that has impacted our lives as Jews.
The DJHS reports that German Jews settled first in downtown Dallas as far back as the 1850s. The Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas notes that by 1911 the Jewish Community numbered near 7,000, with many from Eastern Europe and Russia. Their businesses were mostly in Deep Ellum; those residents lived nearby in neighborhoods then called Goose Valley, Frogtown and Little Jerusalem.
“There is so much lookback,” said Polsky. “We are compelled to ask about our whole histories. Dr. Lebovits’ efforts to look at our Orthodox community are significant to all of us.”
Urban preservation practices are strongly associated with identity, belonging and collective memory. Buildings do more than just encase a practical function of where we work, shop and live.
Lebovits, an assistant professor of public affairs and urban planning at the University of Texas at Arlington, is a seasoned qualitative researcher and a prolific writer whose work has been published in peer-reviewed journals and numerous public media including The Forward, for which she is a contributing columnist.
“I have always believed in blooming where you are planted and thriving where you are,” said Lebovits. She moved to Dallas in 2020 and presented this subject at last October’s Annual Southern Jewish Historical Conference in Charleston, South Carolina, during a “Politics of Preservation” panel. There, she and Polsky met.
Lebovits studies the retention, passive loss and active destruction of the historic Orthodox Jewish community in Dallas. She identifies key factors that have impacted the community’s ability and interest in preserving material Orthodox Jewish life since its beginnings.
“The origins of Dallas’ Jewish community are in South Dallas, and I’m interested in its preservation, or lack thereof: who and what was the Orthodox community then, and how has that been layered by the flourishing community over the years. This is work for every generation, not just the ‘elder stalwarts.’”
With research interests in state and local governance, homelessness, socially sustainable community development, environmental justice, housing and homelessness and religion in urban contexts, Lebovits earned a bachelor’s degree from Lander College for Women at Touro University and master’s and doctoral degrees from Cleveland State University.
Out of the classroom and away from work, Lebovits is a member of the Chevra Kadisha, which provides tahara — the preparation of the deceased for burial. In performing that mitzvah, again history is not lost on her.
“As I care for each person it always strikes me what their years brought them, who they were and what was their experience. We must capture as many histories as we can in order to continue with our own. Our individual memories build our community’s memory,” she said.
A self-described metalsmith “in training,” Lebovits creates wearable art sold through her Mikhadesh Designs. The necklaces, bracelets, earrings, cufflinks and more, of brass, copper and sterling silver often in patterns of circles and links, are like that of her tradition. In them, her hobby meets her professional focus.
“We’re not the ‘first’ here, none of us here are the first as Judaism is built out of the links in our chain,” she says. “There is massive benefit to valuing and holding onto the people who came before us and the sacrifices they made.”
To register for the March 26 DJHS Jim Schwartz Annual Lecture Series event, visit tinyurl.com/DJHS-March-26. To contact Jessica Schneider, DJHS archivist, to donate historic items, email firstname.lastname@example.org.DJHS answers ‘Where Did the Shtetl Go?’ on March 26