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(05/06/2005) Send this articlePrint this Article Send this articleSend this article
A Cushy Fit In Bush Country
Gabrielle Birkner - Staff Writer
Lone Stars of David: Rebecca Price, head of the Hillel at Texas A&M University, and Nick Kohn, an A&M graduate student, at the campus Hillel.

College Station, Texas — The day before a New York-based reporter set out for this rural east Texas enclave in search of Jewish college life at Texas A&M University, an e-mail landed in her inbox from Rabbi Peter Tarlow.

“Texans are a different sort of people than New Yorkers,” the missive admonished.

Rabbi Tarlow, the New Jersey native who has presided over the Hillel at A&M for more than two decades, went on: “You can leave your saddle at home, but there are no taxis in College Station. This is Texas, not New York City. … Be slow and gentle when you speak here. Opinions are thought about rather than expressed.”

The following day, driving toward campus from tiny Easterwood Airport here, Rabbi Tarlow, a former adviser to then-Gov. George W. Bush, offered up yet another warning about Texas propriety: “If you voted for Kerry, don’t tell anyone. People here will think you’re anti-Israel.”

The rabbi made his way down George Bush Drive, past the George Bush Presidential Library, a museum honoring the 41st president, to the A&M Hillel. The Jewish campus center — which calls itself “the friendliest in the nation!” — is housed in a modest mid-century wood and blond brick structure nestled between the Episcopal and Mormon churches.

“We’re the Hillel before there was a Hillel,” Rabbi Tarlow said, explaining that the Hillel Club at A&M was founded in 1920, three years before the national Hillel Foundation was started at the University of Illinois.

Legend has it that the foundation’s quarter-century attempt to close down the A&M club ended when a cadre of Jewish cadets traveled to Washington, where they drew their swords before national Hillel officials and demanded that their Jewish campus group be recognized.

Jay Rubin, who heads Hillel Foundation’s international division, likes to joke that the A&M Hillel was the organization’s first foreign Jewish student center.

“As far as differences in politics, culture and language, on some level it’s like another country,” Rubin said.

According to generous estimates, there are about 1,500 Jewish A&M students in a student body of some 45,000. The overwhelming majority of the Jewish students are Texas natives from Conservative, Reform and secular families.

By virtue of the school’s large pro-Israel Evangelical Christian community, A&M has been effectively untouched by the “campus wars” between the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian factions at many American colleges. On this conservative campus in this, the reddest of the red states, the leftist factions often the most critical of Israeli policy, simply do not exist.

“Most people here are very religious, and they take the position God gave Israel to the Jews. God said it, we believe it, what else is there to discuss?” Rabbi Tarlow said of the Christians on campus.

Nick Kohn, a 24-year-old A&M graduate student from Houston who completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan, explained it like this: “At Michigan, there weren’t two weeks that went by that I didn’t see an anti-Israel rally of some sort. I haven’t witnessed one in the two years I’ve been here.”

Added Austin native Shauna Landsberger, 19, an A&M sophomore: “Here we are at the most conservative school in Texas and we feel pretty welcome. For some people here, you’re the first Jew they ever met. They ask questions like ‘Do you celebrate Christmas?’ and ‘Do you really not believe in Jesus?’ ”

These questions, Landsberger said, come from an innocent curiosity. In fact, she said, there’s more that binds them as Texans than separates them as Christians and Jews.

“It’s a big deal to be from Texas,” she said. “There’s a certain Texas pride, and a certain loyalty to the state that comes from the fact that Texas was once its own country.”

Even in the 2,000-member Corps of Cadets, emblematic of the school’s days as an all-male military academy, Judaism is embraced, said Ben Weiner, a Corps member who will sit on the Hillel board in September.

“The Corps is a very religious-oriented organization,” said Weiner, a freshman from Dallas. “They’d much rather you go to any ‘church’ ”— even if it’s a synagogue — “than no church at all.”

Weiner said that during the High Holy Days, he made his way through the Corps quad wearing a suit, kipa and tzitzit.

“It turned a few heads, but no one made a big deal out of it,” said Weiner.

Being a Jew on campus is easy, said Lauren Reichstein, 19, a freshman from Houston; being a Democrat, an anomaly on this steadfastly right-wing campus, is something else.

“If you say you’re Jewish or that you’re going to Hillel, people don’t say anything,” she said. “But if you wear a Democratic shirt, you’ll get a lot of negativity here. Before the election, people who wore [pro-Kerry] shirts were hissed at.

“Everything you think about a typical red state, it’s here,” Reichstein said. “It’s very pro-Bush, very pro-war in Iraq. It’s anti-gay, anti-atheist.”

Jews at A&M didn’t offer up their political affiliations in casual conversation, yet a significant minority, when asked, said they were Democrats or independent moderates.

‘Aggified’ Jewish Tradition

Texas A&M’s 5,000-acre campus sits atop a green swath of land about 90 miles northwest of Houston. On this bucolic campus, vast fields are dotted with beige low-rise buildings. (Though A&M doesn’t have any Jewish studies courses, the school, known for its agricultural and engineering departments, does offer classes like Recreational Turf, a class about grass, and Woody Ornamental Plants).

While walking around campus, Texas-style friendliness — “howdy” is the greeting of choice here — caught a New York reporter off guard.

So did a sign in an off-campus student dormitory that rents rooms to out-of-town visitors: “No guns permitted.”

A&M, also known as Aggieland — an ode to its days as an exclusively agricultural and mechanical school — is so imbued with traditions that incoming freshmen attend a four-day retreat to learn the school rituals.

The customs here include gathering at midnight during football season to rehearse fight songs at “Yell Practice”; watching the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band of cadets march in intricate formations at home games; and attending Muster, an annual event where cadets fire a 21-gun salute in honor of A&M students and alumni who have died during the past year.

One such tradition — the A&M bonfire — went terribly wrong in 1999 when logs being set up for the occasion collapsed. A memorial plaque to the 12 people who died in the accident rests in the massive student union.

At A&M, even Jewish tradition has been “Aggified.”

“We’ve almost created a Jewish life akin to animal life in Australia,” Rabbi Tarlow said, explaining that Jewish life at A&M is an ecosystem onto itself.

Each year on Yom Kippur, for example, the rabbi’s “Shofar Corps,” a takeoff on the Corps of Cadets, encircles the Hillel. One by one, Jewish students blow a single, uninterrupted blast on their respective shofars.

The Hillel also had T-shirts made recently that put a Jewish spin on the Aggies’ famed football rivalry with the University of Texas Longhorns. Printed on the shirts is the old Aggie battle hymn “Saw ’em off” — as in the longhorns — written phonetically in Hebrew.

Though Jewish and Aggie traditions usually coalesce comfortably, sometimes there is distance between them. Fire-and-brimstone ministers have come to campus preaching Christianity and evangelizing that non-Christians are headed for hell.

“It’s a very pro-Israel campus, but sometimes people will say, ‘You know you can’t go to heaven if you’re not Christian,’ ” Reichstein said.

In addition, a group of young Jews who felt they didn’t quite mesh with existing fraternities last year started an A&M chapter of the historically Jewish fraternity Sigma Alpha Mu.

“There were a lot of Jewish students who wanted a fraternity based on their own ideals,” said Fort Worth native Brian Moe, 20, a junior, who said other houses were composed of either rednecks or preppies. “A lot of fraternities, they did nothing but party, and we didn’t fit in. We focus on brotherhood, about making ourselves into better men.”

Small-Government Hillel

A&M Hillel, known affectionately as Jerusalem on Brazos, the river that runs through the county, is a model of Texas small government. Its annual budget of $150,000 includes the salaries of its two paid employees: the rabbi and the office manager.

The student board, headed by Prime Minister Rebecca Price, does the work that at most schools with a Jewish population of comparable size would fall to Hillel staff and other hired hands. The board dictates the programming; lobbies the A&M administration, most recently to move parents’ weekend, which was scheduled originally to coincide with Passover; prepares the holiday meals; cleans the building; and until Hillel’s lawnmower broke recently, prunes the garden.

Hillel Foundation resources nationally will dry up if Jewish student centers continue to “live like Democrats but pay Republican money” for overhead and programming, said Rabbi Tarlow, who advocates the student-driven A&M model be replicated at campuses elsewhere.

“Since we have no program director, if someone wants to do something or doesn’t like something, it’s easy to change,” said Price, an A&M senior and a fifth-generation Texan whose (non-Jewish) ancestors fought for the state’s independence from Mexico at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836.

Last year, for example, the board with little fanfare changed its constitution from an American-fashioned democracy to an Israeli-style one: Instead of voting for a president, students elect a board, which in turn chooses its prime minister.

A&M Hillel is not a hub of pro-Israel activism, Price says. Nor is it a center that prioritizes outreach to unaffiliated Jews or aggressive fundraising. Rather it caters to students who seek it out, serving as their home base on campus.

“We’re like a little family,” Price said. “Rabbi is like everyone’s second dad.”

Wayne White, a 1997 A&M graduate agreed, adding, “He takes an extraordinarily active interest in the lives and well-being of his students.”

White, 40, on a recent weekend drove 18 hours from his home in Denver, so Rabbi Tarlow could officiate at his daughter’s baby-naming ceremony.

“He tells them what he thinks is best for them, even if it’s not what they want to hear,” White said.

Rabbi Tarlow is equally vocal about issues like his support of President Bush or his disdain for France, which he called a “racist” country where anti-Semitism masquerades as liberalism.

“France is more evil than Germany” under the Nazis, he said during an impromptu oration one morning at Hillel.

The Movement West

Texas, with a statewide population nearing 21 million, is home to about 131,000 Jews, according to the American Jewish Yearbook. Jewish communal life in the Lone Star State dates back to the mid-1800s, when New Yorkers began to make their way west.

“These were the adventurers who heard about Texas and were intrigued with the idea of a place that was still wild and still the frontier,” Hollace Ava Weiner, author of the book “Jewish Stars in Texas: Rabbis and Their Work” said in an interview. “They were the wandering Jews, often immigrants who said, ‘Let’s go one more place. That’s where I’m going to make my fortune.’ ”

These pioneers-turned-merchants and ranchers were joined in the early 20th century by some 10,000 Eastern European Jews who arrived in Texas as part of “The Galveston Plan,” engineered by New York financier Jacob Schiff to decentralize the American Jewish community outside New York. The state also saw an influx of Jewish transplants from both coasts in the 1970s and, again in the 1990s, when the high-tech boom brought jobs to Dallas and Austin, Weiner said.

She said the biggest misconception people have about Jews in Texas is that there aren’t any.

“People say, ‘Oh, Jews in Texas, isn’t that quaint?’ ” she said. “In a small Jewish community, everybody matters and everybody pitches in. There’s a sense that if you don’t jump in and join the Sisterhood or become president of the synagogue, maybe nobody else will.”

Rabbi Tarlow, ordained in the Reform tradition, arrived in College Station in 1983 after a four-year stint as a pulpit rabbi in Santiago, Chile.

“When people called me a Yankee, I said, ‘I just came from Chile. [Comparatively], you’re all Yankees,” said Rabbi Tarlow, who is also a consultant specializing in the impact of crime and terrorism on tourism.

The 58-year-old father of two grown children has fully embraced his inner Texan. Rabbi Tarlow said that Texans tend to be more hospitable and less materialistic than their East Coast counterparts.

“Students tend to be less superficial, much nicer [than back east],” said the rabbi, who is known to take calls from students in the middle of the night.

“There is a sort of gentleness here,” he continued. “You don’t have the anti-Semitism, the anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish racism that you have on the East Coast.”

That Southern hospitality was on display a day before Passover began. Since the Hillel house already had been cleaned for Passover, Rabbi Tarlow treated students to a Shabbat dinner at a local Chinese buffet. After feasting on egg rolls and lo mein, students returned to Hillel for Reform-style Shabbat services.

The next morning about a dozen students spent the afternoon at Hillel preparing seder plates, peeling boiled eggs, baking chicken and kugels, and setting tables for the first Passover meal. Rabbi Tarlow led the seder for 70 — turnout was smaller than usual since the holiday fell on a weekend, and many students went home — chanting in Hebrew, delegating readings and ultimately serving dinner alongside students.

The meaning of the holiday likely wasn’t lost on the students. Here they were in a kind of Texas-size Promised Land. As the Passover song says, “Dayenu,” to be at home in a place where their Jewish, Texas and Aggie identities can coexist: It was enough. n

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