The OU has announced a program to highlight communities where full Orthodox lives may be experienced, but at a much more moderate cost. The objective is 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. According to one local rabbi’s estimate, there are 400-500 shomer Shabbos 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 shuls, day schools and other institutions - with the Texas metropolis projected to be followed by four or five other communities once the program takes hold.
“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 OU 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 shuls, schools, kosher food, kosher restaurants, mikvaos, and 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, “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 for Shabbos. 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 and a booming economy. There is no state income tax. You can get a job there and have an affordable life. There is a simchas hachayim there, a joy of life. ”
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 toNew 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 that 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, with its foundation in the oil and gas industry, “Houston is off the charts,” he said. “Unemployment is down; affordability is up.”
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 in large metro areas;
• #1 best city to start a new career;
• #1 best city for young professionals;
• #1 best city to get ahead; and
• nation’s #1 healthiest housing market.
Rabbi Yehoshua Wender, of Washington, DC, came to the Young Israel of Houston in 1985, when there were less than 100 shomer Shabbos 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, yeshivos. It is a very different group from the original members.” His kehillah, 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.”
“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 that there are a lot of people in New York, in Los Angeles, and 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.”