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Heart of Texas

A new initiative encourages Orthodox families to move to Houston, where Jewish life is affordable—but will New Yorkers be enticed by kosher chili?

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Ryan Ward)

“You may all go to hell,” Davy Crockett famously told his fellow Tennesseans before leaving his home state. “I will go to Texas.”

Lured by his romantic notions about the imminent Texan rebellion against Mexico, Crockett left for Texas to fight in 1835. The rest is legend: Six months later, he died at the Alamo, an event that some savvy Texas politicians affectionately call “Texas’ Masada.”

Earlier this month, the Orthodox Union announced its own initiative to encourage Orthodox families to migrate to Texas. But like Crockett, the newcomers encouraged by the O.U.’s plans may face battles ahead.

The O.U. partnered with Orthodox leadership in Houston to devise the plan—at this stage primarily a public-relations campaign—in an effort to help large Orthodox families facing financial duress in New York and New Jersey, where housing costs and day school tuitions have continued to rise even as the job market has been slow to rebound since the start of the recession.

Houston, the fourth-largest city in America, is a logical alternative from a financial perspective. Texas has no state income tax, and Houston in particular is noted for its affordable housing and low cost of living. On the strength of its medical, tech, and energy industries, Houston flourished during the recent recession and continues to have a strong job market.

“Compared to New York, Chicago, L.A., the unemployment rate is far lower and the cost of living index is incredibly lower,” said Rabbi Moshe Davis of Houston, who helped coordinate the initiative. “The average cost of a home in the city of Houston is $124,000. In Queens, New York, it’s $450,000. All those numbers are mind-boggling when you think about what it’s like to live in Houston comfortably.”

With a substantial Jewish infrastructure, Houston also makes sense from a religious perspective. The city has a Jewish population of nearly 45,000. Major grocers sell kosher meat, there are two large mikvahs, and one of the city’s largest public schools even offers Hebrew, taught by a notoriously ruthless Israeli martinet. Just miles from the city’s business and medical centers, eruv enclosures cordon off the two large Orthodox neighborhoods.

“We’ve got a great system here,” said Davis, who is Orthodox. “It’s much cheaper, we’ve got a nice quality of life, we have all the amenities we need: six Orthodox shuls, five Orthodox schools, a strong federation, and a strong JCC. We don’t have a Main Street or a Central Avenue with 30 kosher restaurants, but we have enough.”

Still the Orthodox community, numbering just 500 or 600 families, is small enough that an influx of newcomers—the O.U. says it hopes to bring 100 new families to Houston in the next few years—raises the possibility of tipping the demographic scales between the two Orthodox communities, one Modern Orthodox and the other ultra-Orthodox. A few years ago, a small number of female students at the Robert M. Beren Academy—Houston’s only Orthodox co-ed day school—left the school to help found the Torah Girls Academy of Texas, a new girls-only high school. While the negative effect for the Beren Academy was small, there is a fear that this shift could be a harbinger of future tension should the demographics of the Orthodox community radically change. If the newcomers further disrupt the demographic balance between the two Orthodox communities, some fear the ultra-Orthodox may benefit—in terms of financial resources, or students—to the detriment of the Modern Orthodox.

“Some people are concerned,” said Riva Collins, president of the Beren Academy. “I am very optimistic about what growth will bring. If anything that departure, if that’s what you want to call it, solidified our mission statement. To some degree, it was a blessing the way I see it because now the Modern Orthodox movement in Houston really understands where we stand.”

Some in the community admit feeling apprehensive about the social implications of a large Jewish influx. The climate in Houston has not always been friendly to the Jews, and as a result, various movements stick together in ways that would seem alien in larger cities: Educational panels and volunteer projects draw from wide swaths of the community. And the most symbolic of Jewish Texas events—the annual kosher chili cook-off—has become a tradition across communal lines.

“I am concerned that New Yorkers could negatively impact the cooperative spirit of the community,” said one local leader, who asked to remain anonymous. “The Houston community tends to diminish denominational differences and that makes this a very special place. The newcomers will have to realize this unique quality and make sure they help to sustain it.”

All told, the concerns and objections of the community as well as its excitement may be premature. While the O.U. and the Houston community have put resources into a public-relations push, subsidies for tuition, housing, or relocation are not yet being offered, and a larger question lingers: Will they come at all? Regardless of its economic vitality, when envisioning the newest frontier for Orthodox Jewry in America, the Bayou City seems an unlikely destination for Jews from the Northeast.

“One of the greatest obstacles Houston has in attracting people from the Northeast is the perception that we are backwards, and that J.R. Ewing and Rick Perry represent the state,” said Michael Wadler, president of United Orthodox Synagogues, Houston’s largest Modern Orthodox shul.

Houston bears little physical resemblance to Northeastern cities. It has no serviceable public transportation, and its lack of zoning makes chaos the city’s principle of order. “Keep Houston Ugly” remains both a popular bumper sticker and defiant city credo.

Yet Houston shares many cultural qualities with the urban centers of the Northeast. It’s diverse: Houston is home to over a million foreign-born residents, and over 90 languages are spoken there. Despite its conservative milieu, Houston consistently votes blue in presidential elections and is the largest American city to elect an openly gay mayor. A patron of the arts will brag about the Houston Museum District and the world-class opera, ballet, and symphony of its theater district, the second-highest concentration of theater seats in an American city.

Only time will tell whether Houston has enough selling points to inspire a Crockett-like fervor in Jewish communities in New York and New Jersey—or in Los Angeles and Chicago, where the O.U. will also reach out to potential migrants. The O.U. may be more optimistic than its members. Abraham Karesh, who currently lives in northern New Jersey with five children, was nonplussed by the idea.

“Sure, things can be tough right now,” he concedes, noting the rising cost of living. “But Houston? In Texas?” If things got that bad, he suggests, he’d find another way to stay in New Jersey: “I could move in with my brother, too.”

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Worthy article, but Houston now has METRORail, an excellent light rail service.

Proudjew says:

Wonderful article highlighting the real issues with this program. It seems like the OU did the famous act of “Ready, Fire, Aim”. They made a big hoopla without a real concrete plan for how this will actually effect the community or any real “plan” at all. If Texas jews wanted to live in mini-New York, they would move to New York. While the community is strong and would love to have more families, the families that this OU program targets are those already in a tough financial situation. To suggest that they will move to Houston and suddenly their economic woes will disappear shows that this program has not been well thought out. The OU should take a step back before taking any more steps forward.

Proudjew says:

I would also like to point out the community (long before the OU came along) has provided financial incentive to move to Houston. visit http://movingtohouston.org/

Adam Chandler says:

Thank you. And yes, the Metrorail is great for the medical center and baseball games, but most still need a car to get there to the stations.

Houstonian says:

It may be hard to sell Houston but it is a great city where the living is easy and the Jewish community warm. Great piece.

Michael Wadler says:

I am president of United Orthodox Synagogues and was (mis)quoted in the article. I am a fourth generation Texan and my family has lived within 1 hour of Houston for more than 100 years. I have lived within the Houston city limits for over 20 years. I have never heard of any slogan “Keep Houston Ugly”. Houston offers a fantastic quality of life. Not only do we have all major sports, but there is not a 20 years wait to get tickets. We offer Grand Opera as well as the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and everything in between. We are less than one hour from the coast. We are only two hours from the beautiiful Texas Hill Country. Houston is centrally located in teh UNited States, and the east and west coasts are only a three hour flight. You can play golf in January as well as July. In the last census, New York lost congressional seats while Texas gained four. People are moving to Texas in droves for a reason – quality of life!

Most people don’t realize the fabulous history we have of Texas Jews. Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston helped resettle thousands of European immigrants in the late 1800s, early 1900, sort of a Jewish underground railroad. He had connections to dinky Texas towns where he sent these new immigrants to be peddlers, all the way through to New Mexico and up to St. Louis.

The Texas Jewish Historical Society has two fantastic books on the subject. And of course, there’s my new award-winning poetry chapbook, “There’s Jews in Texas?” winner of the 2011 Poetica Magazine award…www.sociosights.com for a sample!

It is important to note again that the Jewish community if Houston is both diverse and unified. Due in most part to its rabbinic leadership Houston has not suffered any of the “who is a Jew” nonsense that was so prevalent in the rest of the country.

David Zohar says:

Texas? Why not move to Israel?

Ellis Jayus says:

Be wary of NY Orthodoxy moving to your city. Witness Seattle, Washington, where a vibrant Orthodox community invited all-comers beginning in the early 1990s. They came from everywhere, especially east, insinuating that Seattle was a community lacking real yiddishkeit and they were going to “frum” it up. They sure did but in the process splintered the small “O” population. Kollel rabbis promoted instant religiosity but left town as quickly as they appeared, only to be replaced by another cadre of same. An award winning day school was termed not frum enough for hiring a female head of school, albeit one of the country top educators, spawning a “Torah” day school. A mentality of “Ashkenazi Tahor” developed, causing tension between Ashkenazim and Sephardim as to whose Judaism is truer. The uniform (black suit, white shirt, long tzitzis) found its place on the streets. The major Orthodox shul saw a virtual 80% turnover of members in less than 20 years and countless young people have come and gone, never to return. The local Va’ad has a stranglehold on all matters halachic, from conversion to kashrus. Certainly, a weak leadership and influence from the return of locals from east coast yeshivas allowed that to happen. So Houston – if you go with the OU program, you must remain strong in your conviction that your current practice of Judaism works for your community. Your leaders must re-affirm that what works in NY, NJ or Baltimore is not necessarily the right fit in Houston TX. Ask that the newcomers fit into your system, not create a new paradigm that will force Houstonians to choose. Abie Gezunt, Buena Suerte, Mazel Tov.

HannaH says:

I live in Houston for a while
there is a great Jewish community in Texas. I fell in love with Texas and it people

George K says:

I attended college for two years in Houston before transferring to Oklahoma. I am from the Albany, NY area. I went to Houston because I had family there and relatives. Houston is a great city with a wonderful Jewish community. Beware, of the humidity in summer it is like going to Old Atlantic City or Wildwood, NJ. The City is diverse and you can get Kosher food. The city didn’t have zoning laws like the NE so you will see a mansion next to a smaller house which is part of the charm of the city. If you are from the NE you will find many fellow NYers and NJites in Houston. Once, we sell the house I am moving back.

Is an openly gay mayor and a consistently “blue” presidential vote real selling points for Orthodox Jews? Are you kidding?? And GENUINELY Orthodox Jewish men do NOT attend opera, due to the prohibition against hearing the female singing voice. So why are these being trumpeted as “selling points”?

JCarpenter says:

an article on Jews and Texas, and no mention of Kinky Friedman? :?)
I’ll settle for (in) Austin or San Antonio before Houston, thank you.

Proudjew says:

Lisa, I am genuinely orthodox and I love the opera. I think there are multiple views of the halachich prices. No need to be so closed minded and define “genuinely” orthodox.

Will Edwards says:

Houston is not the heart of texas… just the largest most polluted traffic snarled low wage city in the state.

Here in Dallas we have a well established and friendly Orthodox community that would handily welcome all newcomers. Austin is nice I hear. FYI

Will Edwards says:

Wow… I really smacked on Houston didn’t I…heh heh.

Menachem says:

Howdy Pard. Wut about Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, B’eer Sheva, Haifa, or Eilat? I’ll betcha ther’s plenty a’ eruv’s ‘n mikvas ‘n setch in them parts. everthi’n an ultra, modern and not too orthodox Jew could want. They’ll even larn yuh t’ handle a shootin’
arn, a knife, an’ a pomagranite t’ perteck th’ womenfolk. Er larn th’ womenfolk t’ perteck yu. Who needs Houston?

Yes.Please go to Dallas.
AN, Houston, TX

Proud PR Jew says:

While it appears that Houston was “open minded” enough to elect an openly gay mayor, what many people do not realize is that the vast majority of Houston is broken up into “villages” with their own mayor and city council. There are also huge areas of Houston which are unincorporated. Therefore, these residents are ineligible to vote for the mayor of Houston. That being said, Houston is a fantastic place to live. I am a native New Yorker and I love living here because of the quality of life. The Jewish community here is wonderful and very friendly.

Michael Wadler says:

In our initial meeting with the OU, it was clearly stated that while the ideal is to make aliyah, it remains impractical for many people and that a move within the United States may be a practical reality for many observant Jews who are struggling with obtaining a decent quality of life in the Northeast.

Adam Chandler says:

Let’s not try to make this about Dallas, folks. Dallas is a terrible place.

Michael: I didn’t disparage the quality of life in Houston. I also urge you to Google ‘Keep Houston Ugly’.

Wow. The author really plays up the Modern Orthodox-Yeshivish divide. It really isn’t such a big deal here.

Proudjew says:

Ephraim, I am not so sure i agree it is being “played up”. He is merely pointing out that those that move to a community from outside may not have the respect of the community’s cooperative spirit. It is important to note the TORCH kollel has posted a Matzav.com version of the OU initiative. It has completely left out the existence of the Modern Orthodox community in Houston….

Houston Guy says:

Abraham Karesh is not invited to Houston

Mar Tzahov says:

I lived in Houston for a while. The people were warm and welcoming, and the Jewish infrastructure was great.

Attitudes like those expressed by Abraham Karesh are ridiculous and highly provincial. There is nothing inherent in New Jersey that makes it more Jewish than Texas or Georgia. Yes, a lot more Jews live there, but New Jersey isn’t the Promised Land and the Jewish communal life there was also built up by migrants. There is no reason to disparage any place where people are trying to develop a real Jewish community.

David Zohar and Menechem are right that moving to Texas cannot compare spiritually to moving to Israel. But not everyone can or wants to make aliyah. Not to mention that taxes and daily expenses in Texas are a lot cheaper than in Israel and the natives are a lot friendlier.

Texas is our most interesting state and more Jews can only make it more interesting. There is a lot not to love about the Northeast, so I think it’s a great idea. Personally, though, I would choose San Antonio if I were going to leave the Northeast for Texas.

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Heart of Texas

A new initiative encourages Orthodox families to move to Houston, where Jewish life is affordable—but will New Yorkers be enticed by kosher chili?

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