In what started out as a mere lunch-n-learn program nearly a decade ago, today, has become West Houston’s newest full-fledged Jewish education institution, complete with children’s Hebrew school, adult-learning classes and, of course, Shabbat and holiday events.
The Chai Learning Center of West Houston, located at 14133 Memorial Dr., one block west of Kirkwood Dr., is the product of a growing and spiritually hungry Jewish community on the city’s west side, explained the center’s founder and director, Rabbi Dovid Goldstein.
“We’re calling the institution the Chai Learning Center – chai meaning ‘life’ – because we want to ignite people’s lives through learning,” Rabbi Goldstein said.
Emphasis is placed on reaching out to previously unaffiliated Jews of all backgrounds and observance levels, the rabbi added, and to working in partnership, rather than competition, with the area’s preexisting congregations.
The center operates under the auspices of Chabad Lubavitch of Texas. The “chai” in the institution’s name serves as an acronym for “Chabad Ignites.”
“The philosophy of Chabad is to be the igniter, the lamplighter, to go out into the darkest parts and generate light through mitzvot, good deeds, good actions and through learning,” Rabbi Goldstein noted. “My job as a rabbi is to make every Jew proud and happy in his or her Jewishness.”
The center moved to its Memorial Drive location earlier this fall, following a period of sustained growth and community support. Rabbi Goldstein, who serves as associate director of Chabad Outreach of Houston, and is a past winner of the Harold Reingold Yavneh Award from the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston’s Bureau of Jewish Education, began work in West Houston in 2001.
Lunch-n-learns for adults went on for a few years, then were supplemented by the occasional holiday program for families. These grew into bimonthly classes for children, taught by the rabbi and his wife, Elisa Goldstein. Chabad of West Houston, as it became known, held all of its programming at the Jewish Community Center’s West Houston location at 1120 Dairy Ashford St.
Five years ago, Rabbi Goldstein began leading High Holy Day services in West Houston. Attendance has doubled from under 100 people to nearly 200 people this past year. Along with the addition of HHD services, Rabbi Goldstein was approached by a group of unaffiliated families to start a Hebrew school for their children. Temporary premises for the newly named Chabad Jewish Learning Center of West Houston were set up at the corner of Westheimer Rd. and Eldridge Pkwy. The Sunday school opened with a dozen enrolled students, and since has grown to three times that amount.
With the center facing further growth at all levels, Rabbi Goldstein was introduced to Gerald “Jerry” Harris, who the rabbi credits for helping take the operation to the next level. This past summer, they worked together on a plan to further develop programming and find a suitable, more spacious, facility.
A resident of Southwest Houston, and a member of a well-established synagogue there, Harris said he was surprised to learn that the city’s west side was home to a sizable Jewish population, but was inspired by Rabbi Goldstein’s commitments and work.
“Here I am, a Reform Jew, who has put his heart and soul into helping make Rabbi Goldstein’s dream become a reality,” Harris reflected. “Rabbi Goldstein has so much to offer, and this new center has so much to offer all the Jews of West Houston.”
In August, the rabbi rented a two-story space on Memorial Dr., and the operation acquired the new name, Chai Learning Center. The new building hosted Yom Kippur services, and is home to the Hebrew school, which meets every Sunday morning. A monthly teen program has been started, focusing on community service projects. Adult education classes are held twice a week, Friday lunchtime and Monday evenings. Monthly offerings include classes for Hebrew school parents and all community members, as well as a “complete Shabbat experience” program, made possible, in part, by the Chai Learning Center’s new kosher kitchen.
“The excitement is growing, and so are we,” Rabbi Goldstein remarked.
Beneficiaries of the Chai Learning Center share the excitement. Like Harris, they also are inspired by the institution’s leadership.
“Rabbi Goldstein, as a spiritual leader, is very dynamic,” explained West Houstonian, Mirl Cohen. “He has an uncanny ability to reach children and get them enthused about their Judaism.”
She continued, “One of the challenges in our area is that everything is secular. So, it’s an absolute necessity to have this center, which welcomes all Jews – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and unaffiliated. Rabbi Goldstein is such a blessing to the kids and to the adults. He touches the soul of everyone, and lives the motto: ‘No Jew left behind.’ ”
West Houston neighbor, Rivkah Weilbaecher, agreed, describing the Chai Learning Center as “an oasis of hope, inspiration, peace, joy and immense spiritual connection.”
“The atmosphere inside and out of this ethereally enriched learning center is a sacred place of pure bliss, inspired by the glowing spiritual presence of Rabbi Dovid Goldstein. Wherever he goes, people follow, because what we all receive from him and his enlightenment is truly enriching,” she pointed out.
“Everyone shines so brightly in an eclectic atmosphere of true friendship, bonding with old and new friends and welcoming of newcomers,” Weilbaecher continued. “Chai Learning Center deeply enhances our lives and imbues in us a long echoing yearning of Jewish kinship and connection to Hashem.”
Rabbi Goldstein, himself, said he is following the guidance of Rabbi Shimon Lazaroff, executive director of Chabad of Texas. In explanation of why Chabad has invested in a full-fledged West Houston operation, Rabbi Lazaroff noted, “There are two ways to promote Torah and Yiddishkeit: The first way is to build centers and offer programming, where people will come to you.
“The second way is, as the Baal Shem Tov said, that you have to bring Torah to the people to promote Judaism. Chabad is making centers all over the world, and this includes in West Houston. There’s a demand and a need,” he concluded.