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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?

Adam Chandler
February 17, 2012
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Ryan Ward)
(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.”

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.