by Eric Berger – Chabad.org
Rabbi Mendy Traxler drives hours each week from Houston to various regional correctional facilities to spend time with Jewish inmates. He also organized a Chanukah event last year in front of Houston City Hall for more than 2,500 people. When asked about the long drives and impressive events, the program director at Chabad Outreach of Houston responds: “I guess we do everything Texas-sized.”
Others have taken notice of Traxler’s efforts. The Houston Business Journal recently named the 33-year-old rabbi to its annual “40 Under 40” list. More than 500 individuals from across all industries were nominated this year, with the honorees ranging from CEOs and other leaders at major for-profit and nonprofit companies to a Texas state representative and, well, a rabbi.
“He has committed his life to making communities more engaging, fun, and connected,” Daniel Cotlar, the chief marketing officer of Blinds.com, wrote in nominating the rabbi. “He is uniquely able to pull diverse constituencies together in pursuit of ambitious community goals.”
The large-scale Chanukah event and prison chaplaincy work are just two examples of how Traxler makes a determined effort to build Jewish community in Houston.
Traxler was born in Austin but moved to Houston as an infant when his parents, Rabbi Moishe and Shoshana Traxler, started a Chabad center there, Chabad Outreach of Houston. “My whole life revolved around finding ways to help other people through programming or just with an actual helping hand; it’s really all I know,” says Traxler, a father of three girls.
That ability to help other people was tested early in Traxler’s career. In 2005, he was working at Camp Gan Israel in Parksville, N.Y., when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,000 people and causing some $100 billion in damages. Chabad leaders directed Traxler to travel to Baton Rouge, La., to lead services and provide kosher meals for Jewish residents and volunteers. Some of the food came in the form of Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs, the type of provisions usually handed out to military troops. Traxler also cooked meals himself and had them come in catered from Houston. All told, he spent a month in the city, including during the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.
“It was just a lot of devastation,” he recalls, “and having a chance to help someone a little bit in that situation, you can see that it picks them up emotionally.”
‘See the Good Inside’
In addition to helping people and an abundance of tzedakah in Katrina’s wake, another good thing came from the storm: Traxler met his wife, Rachel, because she and her family had evacuated New Orleans and taken refuge in Houston, where they were introduced.
Since then, the pair has dedicated much of their time to a variety of community endeavors in Houston. At the correctional facilities, Traxler will lead services and discuss the week’s Torah portion, or talk with inmates about a range of issues, both Jewish and personal.
“The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught us to see far enough into any person to see the good inside of them. You’re never too old, you’re never lost; it’s never too late to start anew,” says Traxler. “This is why I visit ‘my prisoners,’ as I call them. I didn’t send them there, but I will make sure they have access to spirituality and a chance to set a new course.”
Chanukah Fest 2015 was by far the most inclusive, and largest, such event in Houston’s history. It featured jugglers, live statues and live music, food vendors, arts-and-crafts and a menorah-lighting with leaders from the Houston community, topped off with a fireworks show.
“It really raised the bar for Houston Jewish events,” Cotlar wrote in his letter.
In keeping with his Texas roots, Traxler also helps organize the annual Houston Kosher Chili Cookoff, a fundraiser for local organizations like the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center’s “Meals on Wheels” program. And every year, he produces and sends out the Jewish Art Calendar to the 18,000 Jewish households in the Houston metropolitan area.
Traxler gets particular enjoyment out of the Living Legacy program, in which he visits various Jewish day schools and supplementary education programs around holidays. As part of that effort, he makes matzah, shofars and Havdalah candles with the students. “It’s always awesome when I’m walking through the halls and the kids say, ‘Hey rabbi, are you coming to our class today?’ Because they know when I’m coming, something fun is going to be there.”
While not impartial, Rachel Traxler thinks her husband’s honor is well-deserved. “He really has a special way of connecting with people when he delivers the d’var Torah,” she says. “People can relate to him. He’s fun. He’s engaging. He’s very real.”