On a cold and blustery December day, three ultra orthodox rabbis jump in cars topped with enormous menorahs.
As the men in yamulkes and long, bushy beards make a swing through southwest Houston, they broadcast snippets of information about Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that begins at sunset.
It’s part publicity stunt, part practice run, part business as usual for Houston’s small group of Chabad Lubavitch Jews, who will do almost anything to promote their religion and pull other, often unaffiliated Jews into the fold.
Over the next eight days, they will host a series of parties including a latke fest and menorah lighting at City Hall, a parade featuring 20 “menorah mobiles,” another menorah lighting at a Houston Rockets game and still another lighting of what is reputed to be the world’s largest menorah — made of candy, chocolate and doughnuts — in the Galleria area.
‘Whatever it takes’
While religious Jews are often thought of as a somber and introspective group, these folks in the far right wing are bent on outreach.
“Most (mainstream) rabbis tend to their own congregations, but our community is made up of 50,000 people — all the Jews in Houston,” says Rabbi Mendel Traxler, who has been heavily involved in the Hanukkah preparations. “I don’t mind silliness, light, whatever it takes to get people’s attention and do something good.”
Traxler, who probably never met a Jewish holiday he didn’t like, loves Hanukkah.
“People describe it as a minor holiday, but it’s extremely major,” he says. “A lot of the world is in turmoil, people are very concerned about many things, and the message of Hanukkah has to do with the triumph of light over darkness and freedom over oppression.”
Traxler is one of about a dozen Chabad rabbis who tend to the small but devoted group whose roots in Houston date back to 1972, when the revered Rabbi Menachem Schneerson dispatched a few, lonely emissaries here from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Strict, but caring
Today, they still follow the strict rules of Jewish orthodoxy. Lee Wunsch, president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, ticks off a few examples: Men and women sit in separate sections in synagogue, only same-sex dancing is allowed at weddings, men and women who are not married do not shake hands or even sing together.
Perhaps more important than what sets the Chabad and other orthodox Jews apart, Wunsch says, are the qualities they share with all of Houston.
“They’re very caring, very outgoing, they do wonderful work in terms of outreach and highlighting the joy of Hanukkah,” Wunsch says. “Sometimes the Jewish holiday gets lost in the Christmas rush.”
Traxler and fellow rabbis seem determined for that not to happen as they drive their menorah mobiles down Fondren, turn onto South Braeswood, then North Braeswood, then loop around to the Jewish Community Center.
When the rabbis get blank stares or no attention at all, they seem not to notice. If one person waves or gestures with a thumb up, they feel rewarded.
When they’re greeted by fingers pointed in the wrong direction, Traxler just shrugs. Tomorrow, those same folks may see the light.