Temple Shalom's Rabbi Haas
found his Judaism in Texas valley
by Marvin J. Migdol
Special to DJW
Judaism is alive and well in the South Texas Rio Grande Valley bordering Mexico. Ask Rabbi Robert W. Haas of Temple Shalom, Dallas, who will be officially installed as assistant rabbi tomorrow evening at 8:15. Rabbi David Lyon will perform the installation.
To be Jewish and growing up in McAllen, Texas, is a lot different than being in Dallas -- and a world away from the New York City area. It requires a large dosage of accepting that you're part of a tiny minority, along with a closeness and perseverance that big-city Jews usually do not appreciate.
"It was largely a Catholic community," Haas recalls. "Most people had no idea of what it meant to be Jewish."
Yet growing up as the son of Evelyn and Stephen Haas, a family with strong Jewish identification, Haas enjoyed Shabbat, sedarim, High Holy Days, a small Temple Emanuel youth group, hamotzi and more. But no bakery-made challah, matzah balls or kreplach. An imported bagel might come with a side of grits or a taco.
Sh'ma Yisrael had a special meaning.
Haas, who is 33 years old, didn't feel discriminated against, but people inquiring about his religion would conclude that he was different. He sensed that some had prejudice but it was not overt. There was less Yiddishkeit than in a large city, but Judaism was there. While growing up he didn't think that he was missing much from Judaism, but when he was exposed to the universality of the religion, his horizon widened. Yet, Haas says his small-town upbringing gave him his strong Jewish identity.
He is a fourth-generation Haas from McAllen. His great-grandparents moved there in the '20s. Stephan Haas headed his synagogue's ritual committee.
In 1960 there were 32,728 residents; then exploding growth in the '70s; and by 1980 there were 66,281 residents. The area now has over 100,000 people, including approximately 200 Jewish families.
The congregation is Reform but several years ago it was affiliated with the Conservative movement. "Growing up, I didn't feel that I was missing out because I was not completely aware of the scope of Judaism," he remarked.
Haas graduated from McAllen High School in 1987 and The University of Texas, Austin, in '92, where he specialized in education. He became a fourth grade teacher at Cloverleaf Elementary School in Houston. Living in a big city exposed him to leadership roles as a religious school teacher, youth group leader and as a volunteer in several Jewish organizations. His Jewishness was nurtured. Enrollment in the World Union of Jewish Students program in Arad, Israel, was another factor leading him to enrollment at Hebrew Union College.
His first year of rabbinical school was completed in Jerusalem and the remaining four years were in Los Angeles. At HUC-JIR, he was the rabbi for Temple Bat Yam in beautiful Lake Tahoe; a rabbinical intern for Temple Sinai in Glendale,;Hillel director at Occidental College; and assistant camp director for Camp Young Judaea in Wimberley, Texas (south of Austin).
Haas was in the first class of Reform rabbis ordained at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Prior to last May, students completed their last two years of studies at the Cincinnati or New York City campuses.
The percentage of Latin America-born Jews has steadily increased. Haas estimates that they now account for more than one-half of the McAllen congregation. They brought with them especially close-knit families.
Haas is the first in his family to become a rabbi and the second known rabbi from the Valley. The other was a Chabad rabbi.
When he was selected to serve Shalom, the second largest Reform congregation in North Texas, he remarked: "As much as I look back on the rabbinical school experience with fondness, I find it difficult to contain my enthusiasm for what lies ahead. I have spent the last six years in preparation for this moment and at last it has arrived. They say that a rabbi's first pulpit has the greatest impact on his development. It is my firm believe that I could not have found a more caring congregation to serve as my spiritual mentor as I begin this new journey."
The new assistant rabbi is involved in youth programs, young adults, outreach (screening and discussing conversions to Judaism), life cycles, counseling, hospital visits, bar mitzvah instruction and much more.
"The experience in Dallas has been exhilarating. I am enthused by the welcome that I have received and very motivated to share in the growth of Temple Shalom."
Marvin J. Migdol is a member of Temple Shalom.
This story was published in the DallasJewishWeek
on: Friday, April 4, 2003