Spotlight On: Midland/Odessa, Texas (31.9425° N, 102.2019° W)

Welcome to the first installment of Spotlight.

A lot of us think the subject of geography is cool. A lot of us are excited when a

geography category comes up during a round of trivia. A lot of us think maps are pretty

neat. But not many of us study geography in college. For those who didn’t have that

opportunity, here’s a geographer to share the first installment of Spotlight, a forum in

which I will be highlighting the regional variations I come across during my travels as an

Education Fellow at the ISJL as they relate to geographical and Jewish topics.

I recently took a trip to Midland/Odessa, Texas to lead programs for the congregation at

Temple Beth-El. For anyone who hasn’t heard of this combined statistical region, it’s

worth a peek at a map. The city of Midland was founded in 1881 as a midway point

between El Paso and Dallas on the Pacific Railway. Traditionally, white collar workers

lived in Midland, while blue collar workers lived in Odessa. Twenty-three miles separate

the cities from one another, but it is clear today that the cities have a symbiotic

relationship. This relationship exists clearly in the business function, the thriving oil

industry, but also in other affairs, such as Jewish life.

There is a full history of the Jewish experience in Midland/Odessa available through the

ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, so I won’t go into much detail on

it. But let’s make sure we do cover regional variations and interesting geographical

features.

When many people think of a combined metro area, some famous ones come to mind–

Maybe Dallas-Ft. Worth or Minneapolis-St. Paul. Most of these metros are less than 15

miles apart. And between the centers of them are suburbs and businesses that serve

both cities. Midland and Odessa, however, are 23 miles apart, downtown to downtown,

and between the two cities lies almost nothing besides the “cash crop”- oil fields. The

cities only agreed to a combined statistical designation recently, as it allowed for larger

companies to come and serve the now combined “Petroplex.” Throughout my visit, I

learned that the synagogue population is split between the cities of Midland and Odessa.

I spent the weekend hanging out in both Midland and Odessa. Erev Shabbat services on

Friday night were at the synagogue in Odessa. I was also hosted overnight in Odessa. A

community lunch the next day was in Midland. Havdalah was at a community

member’s home in Midland. I went on a tour of the “Petroplex” with a community

member, exploring both Midland and Odessa (including George W. Bush’s childhood

home). Religious school on Sunday was in Midland. Last but not least, I was taken to the

airport on Sunday afternoon, located smack dab between Midland and Odessa, among

the oil fields.

In no place is the symbiotic relationship between Midland and Odessa more obvious

than in the Jewish life. There are separate school districts for Midland and Odessa.

There are separate Walmart’s and other businesses of the like for the two cities. But

there is only one synagogue – Temple Beth El, and it draws people from both Midland

and Odessa, to observe Jewish traditions, and also to celebrate a longstanding Jewish

presence in the Permian Basin.

The Jewish community, small but dedicated, consists of approximately 65 families,

mostly located within the Permian Basin. There are approximately 8 students in the

religious school, all enthusiastic and eager young Jewish children. I had a wonderful

time teaching students about the Jewish obligation to social justice and tikkun olam.

You may have noticed that lately at your local gas pump prices have gone down. Some

places in the country have even seen prices well below $2. Midland/Odessa is the hub of

this gas gala that has led to plummeting petrol prices nationwide. Just as Jews were

initially attracted to the Permian Basin in the early 1900s for its oil industry, who’s to

say we won’t see a resurgence of this migration? This post isn’t intended to be a plug for

Jews to move to Midland/Odessa, but hey, if you like the oil industry, this may be the

place for you. And if you like geography, this region is a goldmine. And I didn’t even

touch on the physical geography of the Permian Basin!

Next time on Spotlight we’ll explore Jewish life in the Valley and Ridge region of the

Yellowhammer State!

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