The smiles and cheers at the recent tearing down of a Texas synagogue and community center may seem out of character for a people still mourning the 2,000-year-old destruction of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple.

But according to officials at the S. Antonio-based Chabad-Lubavitch of South Texas, it was the easiest way to expand and make room for a new 10,000-square-foot Center for Jewish Life on the four-acre site.

“Seeing the building demolished brought out mixed emotions for everybody,” commented Jesse Adelman, project coordinator for the expansion effort. “So much has happened there, but its coming down was an enormous step towards an amazing future and bringing this dream to reality. Everyone there had a sense of optimism and happiness.”

Since 1987, the previous structure had housed community meals, prayer services, preschool classes, lectures and life cycle celebrations. Rabbi Chaim and Rivkie Block, who founded the Chabad center in 1985, lived in the five-bedroom house until 2002. Six of their children were even born there.

But although the building had been renovated several times to accommodate the growing community, people realized back in 2000 that the institution needed a new space to host programs for the estimated 10,000 Jews who call the region home.

According to Elaine Cohen, chair of the building committee, the original plan called for the construction of a 16,000-square-foot $4.5 million building in place of the demolished structure. Then, the economy tanked and “we decided to take a more affordable route.”

The new plan allows for the construction to occur in phases according to the community’s overall need and budget. The new center will include a sanctuary, social hall, classrooms, offices and a kitchen. Chaim Block said that an outbuilding on the property is currently serving as a temporary location for the synagogue. The center’s preschool is located on the same property in its own 3000 sq ft building constructed 12 years ago; the local Jewish Community Center, meanwhile, is hosting the Chabad Hebrew school.

At the demolition last month, which was attended by some 150 people, the rabbi waxed nostalgic and reflected upon the “thousands of meals that were held in the building and the thousands of people that walked through its doors.”

He then explained a seemingly unrelated concept from Jewish law to underscore the importance of tearing down to build anew.

“We learn from the Talmud that if you destroy something on Shabbat, you are not liable [for transgressing the holy day],” he said. “But if you destroy for the sake of construction, you are liable.”

Rabbi Chaim Block stands with community members as the demolition gets underway.
Rabbi Chaim Block stands with community members as the demolition gets underway.

In essence, he concluded, the demolishing of the Chabad center’s former home was a creative act.

“We are celebrating,” he stated, “because this demolition is for the sake of something new and better.”

Still, community members like Dr. Lawrence M. Cohen, who has known the Blocks for more than two decades, admitted that they’ll miss the old building and are looking forward to making the new place their spiritual home.

“We have really grown over the years, and the building has held together and been an incredible facility,” he said. “It’s served as an incredible home for so many people and so many things, and it’s amazing that despite [its condition], we were still able to bring in more people and more programs.

“You can see that it’s the contents,” he added, “not the envelope that’s important.”