It was published here, but here's the original version.
Shortly before leaving his native Tennessee, Davy Crockett--Texas’s most venerated adopted son--famously told fellow statesmen, “You may all go to hell, I will go to Texas.” Crockett’s departure for Texas in 1835 was precipitated by a series of events: his humiliating defeat in a congressional election, the imminence of the romantic Texan rebellion against Mexico, and the repellent notion of a Martin Van Buren presidency. The rest is legend. Less than six months later, Crockett died at the Alamo, an event that some savvy Texas politicians affectionately call “Texas’s Masada.”
Earlier this month, the Orthodox Union, a body whose members also don distinctive hats, announced an initiative reminiscent of Davy Crockett’s proclamation, albeit for slightly different reasons. With the job market in the American northeast slow to rebound, the cost of housing still swelling, and tuition for private day schools continuing to grow, the OU admitted that an alternative was needed for large Orthodox families under financial duress in New York and New Jersey. Their solution: Houston, Texas.
Houston, the fourth-largest city in America, is an easy sell for a number of financial reasons. In a state with no income tax (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_income_tax#States_without_an_individual_income_tax), Houston 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 (http://www.bizjournals.com/houston/news/2011/12/16/houston-unemployment-rate-continues-to.html). The city also houses (by a large margin http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune500/2011/cities/) more headquarters of Fortune 500 companies than every American city but New York.
“In terms of large metropolitan cities, we’re at the top of the list in terms of unemployment rate,” said Rabbi M. Davis of Houston, who helped coordinate the initiative. “Compared to New York, Chicago, LA, the unemployment rate is far lower and the cost of living index is incredibly lower. The average cost of a home in the city of Houston is $124K, in Queens, New York, it’s $450K. All those numbers are mind-boggling when you think about what it’s like to live in Houston comfortably.”
Perhaps most surprisingly though is how Houston has developed into a city with intricate Jewish infrastructure. In the late 1970s, spurred by the Arab Oil Embargo, the city’s petroleum industry exploded, matching its already internationally renowned medical center. Houston prospered--earning the name “The Golden Buckle of the Sunbelt”--and its population boomed, drawing in new Jewish families from the northeast as well as Europe, South America, Israel, and South Africa. Today, the city has a Jewish population of nearly 45,000, including an estimated 500-600 Orthodox families and countless proud mothers of innumerable Jewish doctors. Unthinkable just decades ago, major grocers have kosher butchers, there are plenty of mikvaot watering holes, and one of the city’s largest public schools even offers Hebrew, notoriously taught by a 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. “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. ”
But this lack of Jewish geographical centrality, while spiritually apropos for a city that infamously has no zoning, also raises issues of how an influx of Jewish families might tip the demographic scales between the two Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities. A few years ago, a small number of female students at the Robert M. Beren Academy--Houston’s only Orthodox Jewish 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.
“Some people are concerned,” said Dr. R. 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.”
While many other leaders have registered excitement about the potential expansion of the Orthodox population in Houston, some in the community admitted their apprehension about the social implications of a large Jewish movement from the northeast on the existent Jewish ecosystem.
“I am concerned that New Yorkers could negatively impact the cooperative spirit of the community,” said a local leader, who asked to remain anonymous. “New Yorkers are not especially well known for their tolerance in these matters. The Houston community tends to diminish denominational differences and that makes this a very special place. The new-comers 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 its excitement may be premature. While the OU and the Houston community have put resources into the initiative, at this stage, the OU program is mainly a public relations push. Subsidies for tuition, housing, or relocation are not 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 of the northeast.
“I believe that 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,” says M. Wadler, the president of United Orthodox Synagogues, Houston’s largest Modern Orthodox shul.
In addition to its distinctively Texas swagger, Houston’s physical make-up could not be more different than the metropolitan areas of the northeast. Like many regional cities, it’s flat, hot, humid, and lacks a serviceable public transportation system. The vertiginous diffusion of schools, smog drifts, strip malls, mega-churches, city parks, high rises, and acre-plotted residential neighborhoods within the city limits makes chaos the city’s principle of order. “Keep Houston Ugly,” remains both a popular bumper sticker and defiant city credo.
Despite these physical differences, Houston shares other qualities with the urban centers of the northeast. A demographer will attest to the city’s ethnic diversity: Houston is home to over a million foreign-born residents, over 90 languages are spoken, and because of heavy immigration (legal or other), it has one of the youngest populations in the country. A political pollster will tell you that despite its conservative milieu, Houston consistently votes blue in presidential elections and its last Republican mayor left office in 1982. In December 2009, with the election of its current mayor, Annise Parker, Houston became the largest American city to elect an openly gay mayor. A patron of the arts will brag of the treasures held within 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 the northeast. The OU 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...but Houston? In Texas? I could move in with my brother too.”