ELLEN GELLER KAMARAS
Pull quote: “We are not just a shul – we are a family, a second home for our members and a full-fledged community.” ~ Rabbi Daniel Masri
When my editor asked me to interview the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Rambam of Houston, Rabbi Daniel Masri, I immediately said yes. When my children lived in Houston for four years I enjoyed the warm Southwestern vibe and I loved the wonderful community in Houston..
Congregation Beth Rambam is known as a vibrant and diverse Orthodox Sephardic synagogue. After watching a five-minute video about CBR, I wished that Houston was closer to New York so that I could experience CBR’s warm and welcoming ambiance in person and take back some lessons learned to my own shul and community.
A Little History
CBR describes its mission as “preserving our past building towards the future.” It set down roots in the Houston Jewish community forty years ago, in 1982. Already, several Ashkenazic shuls were on the scene, including Chabad, Meyerland Minyan, Young Israel, Heimish, and United Orthodox Synagogue
Back in 1982 there was a clear need for a local Sephardic shul. CBR’s founders, a handful of Syrian and Lebanese families, set their sights on creating a small Sephardic shul in their community. The group initially met in people’s homes for daily minyanim, and moved on to set up their semi-permanent headquarters in the Meadow Walk Townhomes clubhouse, not far from where the current shul building stands. The shul is located in the Southwest Fondren neighborhood of Houston, not far from the Medical Center and the beautiful Galleria mall.
The founding members envisioned the establishment of a synagogue where all Sephardic Jews could feel comfortable and could continue to preserve their Sephardic traditions. CBR’s original members included some Lebanese families, and a few Syrian and Israeli families. The congregation quickly grew to include first and second-generation Americans of Sephardic background, including Israelis, Latin Americans, immigrants from the Balkan countries, Syrians, and Lebanese, as well as Ashkenazim.
Within a few short years, the shul’s founding families’ generous donations funded the construction of its first permanent building at 11333 Braesridge. The Zalta family kindly donated the land for the larger sanctuary and the shul was erected in 1984. A larger extension was added in 2010. The membership now include Israelis, Latin Americans, Persians, Europeans, Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Moroccans, as well as Ashkenazim.
Rabbi Daniel Masri, the current Senior Rabbi of CBR, moved to Houston in 2005 and is a dedicated, energetic, and caring leader of the CBR family and the larger Jewish community. He was born in Mexico City to a Syrian father and an Ashkenazic mother. When Rabbi Masri was seven years old, his family moved to Brooklyn. He proudly states that he was in the first graduating class of Yeshiva Ateret Torah’s elementary and high school.
Rabbi Masri attended Ashkenaz yeshivot including Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, NJ, and Mir Yeshiva in Israel. Rabbi Masri married while he was a rebbe at Ohr Sameach Yeshiva in Monsey. He and his bride moved to Israel for three years. Rabbi Masri received his smicha from Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits at The Jerusalem Kollel, and Rabbi Masri has maintained a relationship with Rabbi Berkovits ever since. Rabbi Masri’s strong foundation in Torah and hashkafah shine through in his Shabbat lectures and shiurim, and in the way he skillfully guides each member of the community.
Houston of 2023
Although Jews have been living in Houston for over a century, the frum community has seen a rebirth over the past 15 years. Every year, the frum community welcomes tens of families from Brooklyn, Queens, Deal, Lakewood, Baltimore, Chicago, California, Israel, and beyond. These families include resident doctors who come to practice medicine in Houston’s world-renowned Medical Center, young families who are attracted to the affordable housing and cost of living, as well as kollel families who come to learn in either Houston’s Sephardic or Ashkenazic kollel. Wherever you turn, Houston is exploding with new energy and Beth Rambam is expanding its resources to welcome the influx.
Communities Working Hand in Hand
Rabbi Masri is very proud that CBR’s members collaborate and connect with their neighboring Ashkenazi communities. Members of both communities interact and come together for happy and social events as well as in times of crisis. When Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, community members sprang into action. Rabbi Masri recalls that Beth Rambam handled the restoration effort and Young Israel handed the food drive (including the delivery of home-cooked kosher food), so that, together, the community weathered the enormous challenge presented by Hurricane Harvey.
In guiding the community, Rabbi Masri works closely with Torah Umesorah and the Orthodox Union to maintain the highest standards of Jewish education and support for the Orthodox Jewish community. Yeshiva Torat Emet is a local frum day school located right across the street from CBR. Rabbi Yerachmiel Garfield, the head of the day school, welcomes both Sephardic and Ashkenazic students and it is beautiful to observe the mix of students growing so beautifully together. Beren Academy is a Modern Orthodox day school led by Rabbi Jordan Silvestri. Many students at the school are from the Sephardic community.
A Wealth of Programs
CBR’s programs and activities are truly something they can be proud of. There is something for everyone, for all ages and walks of life, including children, teens, young professionals, and older adults. CBR provides for the community daily minyanim, a Sunday Hebrew School, bar and bat mitzvah preparation, Shabbat and hagim meals, Bikur Cholim, Shabbatons, Scholar-in-Residence programs, Shabbat groups for children and teens, seudah shelishit, daf yomi, morning study programs, Sunday morning breakfast and learning, Tomchei Shabbat, NCSY, events for young professionals, and more..
In May 2022, Beth Rambam launched the CBR Learning Center. It is a full-day kollel in which accomplished Torah scholars were appointed to learn together throughout the day and engage the community with Torah study in the evenings. The daytime program is a Choshen Mishpat halachah kollel led by Rabbi Sheya Lazenga, the Rosh Kollel, and is under the auspices of Beth Din Maysharim of Lakewood, NJ. The evening program is coordinated by Rabbi David Azancot, the Assistant Rabbi and Outreach Director. The CBR Learning Center hosts a number of weekly shiurim including gemara classes, practical and business halacha classes, and parashah and hashkafah classes. The hope is that the CBR Learning Center will expand to one day touch each and every member of the community.
Rabbi Masri views the children as the “lifeblood of the congregation” and the programming caters to their spiritual and educational needs. Rabbi Masri teaches ta’amim and pizmonim on Shabbat afternoons to the boys. Mrs. Ashlene Azulay, the Hebrew School Director, runs Shabbat groups for the younger boys and girls, and Rabbi Golfeiz runs Shabbat learning groups and seudah shilishit for the older boys.
Rabbanit Nomi Masri, a software engineer by profession, teaches a weekly Tanach class and coordinates the woman’s programming and Shabbatons for the shul. Additionally, she is the founder of Kivun, an organization dedicated to the inspiration and growth of women in the Houston community.
Rabbi Samy Soussan, the CBR hazzan and Director of Marketing, is the former Assistant Regional Director and City Head of NCSY, and he was enormously instrumental in its success. NCSY creates learning and social programs to connect teens with their Jewish identity and to and foster self-confidence. Today, Rabbi Soussan continues to remain active in the coordination and marketing of CBR events.
J-HYPE – Jewish Houston Young Professional Experience – is led by Rabbi Johnny Ouzzan. The shul website posts: We are a community of growth oriented Jewish young professionals…aiming to cultivate meaningful relationships with each other and with our Jewish heritage through exciting programs, trips, events, and educational initiatives. Our goal is to provide every Jewish young professional, regardless of affiliation or denomination, with the beauty and wisdom of Jewish life and learning, while building community and friendship among peers.
Rabbi Nechemia Golfeiz, a former writer for ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications and member of the CBR Learning Center, publishes the weekly CBR Connect. The publication includes an article with the rabbi’s thoughts on the parashah as well as a list of upcoming community events. Houston’s Jewish Herald-Voice, the largest and oldest Jewish newspaper in Houston, runs Rabbi Golfeiz’s weekly article on the parashah in his column titled “New Perspectives.”
CBR’s Tomchei Shabbat program ensures that every Jewish family in Houston has enough food for their weekly Shabbat and Jewish holiday table. The shul coordinates volunteers to pack and deliver food for families in need. Deliveries are made in a way that preserves the families’ privacy, with no names on food packages. The food packages are dropped outside the door, so no one is embarrassed by having to face someone in person.
Aside from the day-to-day functions of the shul, CBR hosts activities and events for the community throughout the year. Recently, the shul hosted a children’s Chanukah Bingo Bash, with over two hundred adults and children attending. Last year, CBR held a Sephardic Festival in which the community came together to learn about the history and culture of Sephardic heritage. Booths were set up to feature the culture of key Sephardic countries including Syria, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, and Morocco. Each booth presented that country’s cuisine and a brief biography of the rabbis who lived there.
Growth and Future Outlook
The synagogue is growing and thriving, with new families regularly moving to Houston. The rate of migration to Houston from California, New York, and other states increased during the pandemic.
When Rabbi Masri came to Houston in 2005, CBR had 60 families. Today over two hundred families are affiliated with the shul.
As Houston (“the Space City”) continues growing into the third-largest city in the U.S., more and more people are moving to Houston for its economic appeal. Houston boasts one of the largest health care systems in the world and is home to the headquarters of 24 Fortune 500 companies.
Rabbi Masri is very optimistic about the future of CBR. The shul has an excellent infrastructure, and a fabulous staff. The shul staff works to attract members both from inside and outside of the Houston community. Rabbi Masri believes that the new Learning Center will have a positive impact on the congregants and the community and will attract new shul members. Rabbi Sheya Lazenga, the Rosh Kollel, regularly invites rabbanim and dayanim from Lakewood, New York, and Israel to give shiurim to the avrechim of the kollel and to the community, either in-person or via Zoom. Rabbi Masri is passionate that Beth Rambam should serve as a vital makom Torah for the Houston Sephardic community, should provide a strong learning environment for its Torah scholars, and should create an inviting atmosphere for all who enter its Bet Midrash.
“We are reaching out to people within the community and without to come and learn. Some live far away from the shul. But Torah is engaging and thought-provoking for them and they enjoy it. That’s how we connect with them. We try to connect with people in whatever way that speaks to them, to be part of the community.”
As Rabbi Masri so aptly summed it up: “CBR is an in-reach shul, a frum shul, and an outreach shul. Everyone finds their place here.”
Please check out the synagogue’s website, https://bethrambam.org/ and drop in if you are in the neighborhood!
Ellen Geller Kamaras, CPA/MBA, is an International Coach Federation (ICF) Associate Certified Coach. Her coaching specialties include life, career, and dating coaching. Ellen is active in her community and is currently the Vice-President of Congregation Bnai Avraham in Brooklyn Heights. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org (www.lifecoachellen.com).