OU Designates Houston as First “Affordable Orthodox Living” Community

09 Feb 2012


“Affordable Orthodox Living” may be a contradiction in terms, given the expenses of Jewish education and many other aspects of Orthodox life, but to the Orthodox Union the term now defines a newly announced program to highlight communities where full Orthodox lives may be experienced, but at a much more moderate cost than in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, among other cities. The objective: To interest Orthodox Jews to resettle there and to help the community grow.

The pilot community is Houston, Texas, the fourth largest American city, with an estimated 2010 population of 2,100,000, but with a cost of living far more affordable than the three largest, which of course are New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. According to one local rabbi’s estimate, there are 400-500 Shomer Shabbat families in Houston. The goal of the program is to have 100 families move there over the next few years.

The program represents a joint effort of the OU and the Orthodox community of Houston – its synagogues, day schools and other institutions – with the Texas metropolis projected to be followed by four or five other communities once the program takes hold. Meanwhile, Houston is first, to the delight of both the OU and the Orthodox population of that city.

“We determined that Houston would be the ideal community for us to promote,” said OU President Dr. Simcha Katz. “At the OU, we’re very excited about this project.”

Focusing on one city is the logical development in an initiative first put forward by OU Chairman of the Board Stephen J. Savitsky, when he served three terms as President. Under Mr. Savitsky’s guidance, the OU presented three “Emerging Jewish Community and Job Fairs,” which drew hundreds of people from the New York Metropolitan area to each event to focus on several dozen communities at once — including Houston.

“If we were going to be successful at the OU, we had to focus on smaller Orthodox communities (even if the city is large) to provide options for our people,” Mr. Savitsky explained. “The communities we evaluated for the fairs and now for Affordable Orthodox Living had to be established – with synagogues, schools, kosher food, kosher restaurants, mikvaot, an eruv. Housing had to be affordable and jobs available. We wanted the host community to come together as one to work on this project. Houston has people who share our vision and are willing to work with us. The OU is prepared to provide the financial and human resources to make this program work.”

According to OU Managing Director Rabbi Steven Burg, “The OU objective is about ensuring that the Orthodox and the greater Jewish community can survive and thrive. This cuts to the heart of the problem – how do we build Orthodox communities? How do we afford Orthodoxy? In Houston, there is less pressure in your life; there are lovely shuls and lovely schools; and Houston was able to unify behind the effort. You are not sacrificing by moving there. We are proud that Houston is the community that we are starting with.”

Mr. Savitsky scouted out the community with many visits there, including Shabbat. With New York’s notorious Long Island Expressway in mind, he said, “You can drive downtown to work in 10 minutes. There are all kinds of jobs there, a booming economy. There is no state income tax. You can get a job there and have an affordable life. There is a simchat hachayim there, a joy of life. ”

Orthodox Union Chairman of the Board Stephen J. Savitsky (center), who has become a frequent visitor to Houston, welcomes Rabbi Moshe Davis (left) and Etan Mirwis of the community to OU headquarters.

The Orthodox Union played host to two of Houston’s community representatives last week, both non-native Houstonians, Etan Mirwis and Rabbi Moshe Davis. Mr. Mirwis, a native New Yorker in the real estate business who moved there 16 years ago, said, “What brought me to Houston is what kept me in Houston. After two years, my wife and I said, ‘Why should we go back to New York?’” They didn’t.

He was joined by Rabbi Davis, who has been hired jointly by Houston’s CHAT committee — Come to Houston and Thrive — and by Affordable Orthodox Living, and whose salary is paid by both CHAT and the OU.

“Houston is no longer the mosquito capital of America,” Mr. Mirwis said, crediting central air conditioning for making summers livable, while winters are mild. He said there are 11,000 housing units within the eruv area, with a good home available starting at $150,000 and apartments at $800 a month. Regarding economic and job growth he said, with its foundation in the oil and gas industry, “Houston is off the charts. Unemployment is down; affordability is up.”

“The OU is doing a tremendous chesed (loving-kindness) saying to Orthodox people, ‘We are investigating future opportunities for you for an improved quality of life.’ The city has come a long, long way in terms of Orthodoxy,” Mr. Mirwis said.

Rabbi Davis, who is from Chicago and whose wife is from the Five Towns in New York, came to Houston four years ago. For the past six months he has been “developing this community-wide growth initiative.” He explained, “It’s a tight-knit, warm community. Your neighbors are your best friends. You can have Shabbos meals booked for six months.” He brought with him to the OU offices an impressive collection of materials which gave some of the following details about the economy in Houston, based on various recent surveys:

• #1 fastest growing millionaire city in the United States;

• #1 most affordable city to do business worldwide;

• #1 wage growth;

• #1 lowest cost of living – large metro areas;

• #1 best cities to start a new career;

• #1 best cities for young professionals;

• #1 best city to get ahead; and

• #1 nation’s healthiest housing market.

The two visitors were joined by leaders of the Orthodox community who spoke via teleconferencing from Houston, both attorneys, Michael Wadler, President of the United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS), one of the two OU member shuls in the city; and Shira Yoshor, past President of UOS and a member of the Board of Directors of Yeshiva University and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Stern College of YU.

Mr. Wadler is something of a rarity in Houston’s Orthodox community – he was born there. “We are excited about the program and about working with the OU,” he said. “It’s a very nice, very safe community. There is meaningful Jewish life that is flourishing in Houston.” He noted, with satisfaction, “Our winter lasts two days.”

Mrs. Yosher, is a native of Charleston, South Carolina who came to Houston almost 19 years ago and refers to herself as a community activist. “Working with the OU is an opportunity to go beyond kashrut,” she said. “To make this work, there is a close interaction among all parts of the Jewish community.”

Another factor that is vital to make the initiative work is jobs. The OU Job Board | Employment and Resumé Opportunities, under the direction of Michael Rosner, has broad experience in filling positions for an educated community. He says that the Job Board has already started to “host” Houston jobs, and will hire an OU staff member to work exclusively on Houston employment. “We’ll be here as the head hunters, the traffic controllers,” he said, to guarantee that prospective employers receive resumes only from qualified applicants. Mr. Rosner is planning a “virtual job fair,” at which employers in Houston will be able to interview applicants online.

The material brought by Rabbi Davis listed the following as careers available for placement: accounting, banking, business development, engineering, finance, healthcare, information technology, manufacturing, purchasing, sales and marketing.

The institutions in the Orthodox community may also be a source for positions. These institutions include eight synagogues: Bellaire Jewish Center, Beth Rambam, Chabad, Meyerland Minyan; Torah VaChessed, Young Israel of Houston; Ahavat Yisrael and UOS, the two Orthodox Union member shuls.

There are five Orthodox schools: Robert M. Beren Academy, Sephardic Gan/Torat Emet (whose president is Mr. Mirwis), Torah Day School – Chabad, Torah Girls Academy, UOS Goldberg Montessori.

Houston’s day schools are ready to receive newcomers moving to the community.

There is the Houston Kashrut (Kosher) Association, Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family Service, the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston; and restaurants, ice cream parlors, Judaica stores, youth programs, mikvaot, grocery stores/bakeries, kosher assisted living and senior care services — even a shatnez lab.

NCSY | Jewish Youth Leadership, the international youth movement of the OU, has begun to develop a serious presence in the greater Houston community. Along with seven Jewish Culture Clubs in local public high schools and three Latte & Learnings at local coffee houses in the community, NCSY is engaging more than 40 Jewish teens on a weekly basis. Additionally, many of the teens participate in the Greater Southwest Regional Shabbatons and attend NCSY summer programs in the United States, Israel, and Europe. While there are many great programs currently being run, NCSY hopes to build its presence in the community in the coming years, running new activities for both public school students as well as yeshiva day school teens.

Regarding Houston’s synagogues, Rabbi Barry Gelman, a native New Yorker who also served a congregation in Montreal, has been the rabbi of UOS for nine years. “I interviewed here in the shul, I liked the lifestyle, it’s a warm shul, a very diverse shul in terms of the congregants, their backgrounds and their approaches to Jewish life,” he said. Since his arrival, he explained, “I have observed growth in the number of observant families that have moved into our community. I have observed a lowering of the median age of the shul – it has become younger although still very diverse; our minyanim and shiurim have grown. Our youth group has grown tremendously. The number of children we send from our shul to Orthodox sleepaways has exploded.”

Starting with Mr. Wadler, the president, the UOS congregation is very much involved in the joint effort, Rabbi Gelman said. “We are being asked to continue our welcoming ways; to make sure that people who come to check out the community have a first-hand feeling of its warmth. We are creating a hospitality committee to work with families that are interested and have learned about us from the OU,” Rabbi Gelman said.

Rabbi Yehoshua Wender, from Washington, DC, came to the Young Israel of Houston in 1985, when there were less than 100 Shomer Shabbat families in the city. “There were two Orthodox schools but not that many Orthodox kids in the schools,” he recalls. Besides the growth in his membership, “nowadays, almost everyone who comes here learned in day schools, yeshivot. It is a very different group from the original members.” His congregation, he said, “is thrilled” that the OU has chosen Houston as its model community.

“At last count,” he said, “we had 100 people who have been in touch who would move here if they had a job. Working with the OU Job Board, we know that jobs will become available.”

Not only jobs, but OU programs that are familiar to people in the New York area, will be coming to Houston: “Positive Jewish Parenting” and “Positive Jewish Marriage;” kashrut education (and perhaps an OU Kosher rabbinic field representative living in Houston); visits from OU leadership.

“We’re committing the resources of the Orthodox Union to help the community grow,” Mr. Savitsky told the visitors from Houston. “Anything and everything we can do to help achieve that objective, we’re going to do. It’s a fantastic community. I believe there are a lot of people in New York, in Los Angeles, in other major cities who are struggling and who would be interested. People are choking on the expenses. At the OU we are looking one and two generations ahead, to the future of our people. The fact that we selected Houston among all the cities of the United States – we want it to be a winner. It will help the Orthodox community, and the Jewish community as a whole.”

The Houston CHAT Committee can be reached at www.relocatehouston.org, via e-mail at info@relocatehouston.org, or by calling 713-487-9295.

OU | Enhancing Jewish Life