The 13th anniversary Gala Dinner on Nov. 20 for Torah Outreach Center of Houston – a sellout – was held at the Bayou City Event Center. Guests were treated to a wine reception before dinner and a formal program. Co-chairs Bryan Miller and Belinda Denn welcomed the crowd.
Highlights of the evening included honoring Dr. Leonard Goldberg, recipient of the Houston Jewish Spirit award, and Malka G. Levy, recipient of the Talmud Torah award. Both passionately told stories of inspiration from their learning experiences and spiritual growth through TORCH and encouraged guests to give from their hearts and continue supporting TORCH's important mission.
A touching moment came when Dr. Goldberg was surprised by a video from his mother, who is in her late 90s, living in Minneapolis and unable to attend the gala. Alan Levin, who introduced Levy, shared a photo of his newborn grandchild, a product of a union sparked through TORCH. David Barish called upon the guests to begin learning with TORCH, as he plans to do this year, just having become connected with the organization through his good friend, Leonard Goldberg.
Rabbis and congregants from many synagogues filled the room, creating a feeling of unity and joy for Judaism.
TORCH executive director Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe said, “I can’t believe that we’ve accomplished something tonight we’ve never done before … A soldout event with over 430 people. We are engaging people in ways that no other institution or organization is doing. … The reason for this … is because it makes no difference to us, at TORCH, where one is coming from. We only care that you have the opportunity to learn and grow as a Jew. As I say regularly in my classes, I don’t buy into the label; whether Conservative, Reform or Orthodox. That’s meaningless in my world.
What we value is growth, and only growth. I firmly believe that Torah teaches us “Morasha Kehilat Yaakov” – an inheritance for every Jew. The Torah isn’t only for those privileged to grow up knowing about their Judaism or who were fortunate to attended day school education. Torah belongs to every single Jew, and everyone deserves to have access and the opportunity to learn it!
“This is what we emphasize in our mission: “to Connect Jews and Judaism by providing meaningful learning opportunities for every Jewish individual, irrespective of background, affiliation, denomi-nation or level of observance and to enable them to experience the joy and vibrancy of Judaism in a welcoming environment.”
Rabbi Wolbe also mentioned that TORCH was selected by Slingshot as one of the top 50 most innovative Jewish nonprofits in North America. “TORCH is not only the first organization in Houston to be selected, but the first organization in Texas to be selected! We are proud that our efforts to be always available, inclusive, and nonjudgmental were something Slingshot recognized and chose to emphasize in our selection.”
Board president Etan Mirwis remarked, “It is impossible to sustain our Jewish identity without Jewish learning. For 13 years, TORCH has had one mission, to connect Houston Jews to their Judaism. Our rabbis explain that there was a specific reason why the entrance into the Temple was a ramp, as opposed to steps. The ramp served as a symbol to remind us that, in life, we are either going up or going down; we can ill afford to be complacent in our physical, professional or spiritual lives without negative consequences. Learning alone is not sufficient. Taking that knowledge and applying it to making a substantive change in our beliefs, commitments and community service is what Torah learning is all about.
“Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of Jews in Houston and throughout the country are unaffiliated,” added Mirwis. ”Over the past 13 years, TORCH has invested tremendous efforts in reaching out to those who have lost the desire or never had the opportunity to be a part of the Jewish community. What makes TORCH special is that we are not only about strengthening individual connections to Judaism, but we have strengthened individual connections to Houston’s Jewish institutions.
TORCH recognizes the vital role synagogues, day schools, youth groups, senior centers, the Jewish Federation, and the JCC play in the lives of Jewish Houstonians. Thankfully, the demand for Jewish education by our existing institutions is high. Every institution that has asked for our assistance, we have provided it. And, then some. Thousands of Jewish Houstonians have become more connected to their Judaism because of TORCH and more committed in their affiliations. The entire Houston Jewish community has benefited from the efforts of TORCH’s staff and lay leadership.”
To view the gala video online or sign up for a class or program, visit torchweb.org. Classes are offered in nine area synagogues as well as several coffee shops and offices. Individual or small group learning at work or home may be arranged upon request. Call 713-721-6400.