By Alice Adams
In 1995, the city of Houston was emerging from an economic depression and the cellular telephone industry – with only two players – was gaining momentum. Work had begun on the historic Rice Hotel’s renovation, the University of Houston’s “twin towers,” Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, had been reunited to lead the Rockets to its second NBA title, and record job growth was attracting new families to the greater Houston area.
One of those families, Etan Mirwis and his six-month pregnant wife Valerie, along with their two sons, 3-year-old Daveed and 12-month-old Isaac, had come to Houston to eliminate Etan’s regular commute from New York to Houston, where his business, Rockwell Management Corporation, was located. “Coming to Houston was good for our family,” Etan explained, “but we’d only planned to stay a few years.”
Those “few years” magically became 17 years-filled growth of the Mirwis family (Deena, Yoseph, Elisheva, Yehuda and Sara) and with Etan’s and Valerie’s determination and dedication to the revitalization of the Houston Orthodox community and Fondren Southwest neighborhoods, where Young Israel synagogue, Beth Rambam and Torah Vachesed are situated. The couple also has been involved in Sephardic Gan/Torat Emet and Torah Girls Academy day schools, as well as the growth of the Robert M. Beren Academy. Add to that, many mitzvahs, such as Etan providing apartments for displaced senior residents from Hurricane Ike.
Shortly after that storm, Etan was instrumental in beginning what would be Houston’s first daily mincha minyan, which meets September-May at 2 p.m., Monday through Thursday in Brays Oaks Towers, 10101 Fondren, Suite 100. “The minyan began to accommodate out-of-town business people who needed to say Kaddish and needed to catch an afternoon minyan,” Etan explained, “so, I hustled up a number of people to help that happen. When TORCH moved in, we discussed the idea: Why not have a regular afternoon minyan? From the perspective of an observant Jew, it’s another thing that puts Houston on the map.”
This summer, the Mirwis family will move back to the East Coast to finish rearing their family.
Let’s travel back to August 1995, when the family arrived in Houston. “There was no comparison between Houston and New York,” said Valerie, “but we found a diverse community where people were friendly.
“It was an exciting move for us,” she continued, “and people were so friendly. It was so refreshing because, in New York, groups stayed pretty much to themselves. Here, people were – and are – welcoming, open-minded and friendly. Being in Houston, I’ve met people I would have never known, and we have many dear friends from every phase of life. Even today, when I’m driving in Houston, it’s hard to believe that I’m here, in this big state, so foreign from most of what I had known, growing up and I feel very lucky I’ve had these years here.”
Describing herself as not easily influenced and definitely not a follower, but not always the leader, Valerie is very much her own woman as well as a hard-working partner for her husband. “I look at every situation and determine if it is right for our family ... and it’s not important what other people think.
“My husband says I set the bar too high,” she continued, “but I do it, because it feels right for me or my family and I don’t expect others to follow. As an example, I decided to remove soda from our home, simply because it’s healthier for our family.”
Only recently, while house-hunting in New Jersey, a Realtor asked Valerie what sleep-away camp her children attended, thinking they might have friends in common.
“People do this, traditionally, on the East Coast, so when I told her my children had never attended sleep-away camp, the Realtor was horrified. ‘You mean, you don’t send your kids away in the summer?’ the Realtor asked.
“I told her sleep-away camp was not comfortable for me and it was something we didn’t do because we preferred spending the summers with our kids. I’m not sure she got it, but I don’t decide on things, based on what the neighbors are doing or what the tradition is.”
Both Etan and Valerie came from very strong Jewish traditions, attending Orthodox Jewish day schools. Valerie majored in Judaic studies at Brooklyn College, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, and after her marriage to Etan in New York, remained active in the Jewish community.
The Mirwis family will be missed greatly by their friends, neighbors, teachers and students: Yehuda, Elisheva, Sara, (front) Yoseph, Isaac, Etan, Valerie, Deena and Daveed.
After graduating from high school, Etan attended Yeshiva University, earning a degree in accounting from the Sy Simms School of Business. As a college student, he received awards from Mayor Ed Koch and Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden for his volunteer work as a counselor of Mishkon and Ohel Homes. After college, he dedicated a year to doing kiruv (Orthodox Jewish outreach) full time in public high schools and, during the summer, in Israel, for Aish Hatorah.
Accepting a job as an accountant for Ernst & Young, Etan helped organize a Young Accountants Division for the United Jewish Appeal and also founded Young Orthodox Professionals for the Futherance of Yahadut (Judaism).
“My husband and I are very different personalities, but we work well as a team and can make things happen from different angles,” noted Valerie, a fitness fanatic who has completed several marathons.
The Mirwises said that Texas wasn’t on the national radar screen, back in 1995.
“As soon as we got here,” said Etan, “we knew the move was the right thing for our family. But, once we had rented our first home, we became aware there wasn’t an eruv ... anywhere to allow someone to carry to the synagogue on Sabbath.”
Within three months, Etan was heading a group to build the first eruv extension in the city.
Soon after settling into their new home, the family joined the Jewish Community Center, Valerie became involved in Houston’s Chevra Kadisha and she and son Daveed joined a “Mommie and Me” group at the Center. Eager to get to know other mothers, the newcomer eagerly accepted an invitation to go to lunch. “But, when they told me where they were going, I told them I couldn’t go,” Valerie recalled, “and, when they asked me why, I told them it was because I was kosher.
“The women were unbelieving,” she continued. “ ‘You mean people still do that?’ they said, and when I said our family kept kosher, several asked if they could join us for Shabbat and, of course, we were very glad to have them at our table. That was 17 years ago, and the Orthodox community is growing and much more vibrant.”
Involvement runs deep
“We moved here in August,” remembered Etan, “and, by Yom Kippur, we were co-chairing the annual Israel Bonds Kol Nidrei Appeal for Young Israel, something we did for the next 15 years.”
Etan’s involvement also included serving on Young Israel’s board.
“I grew up consumed in Jewish life,” he said. We lived in Brooklyn all but three years of my early life. … Our family’s involvement in the Orthodox community reaches back several generations because, in 1958, my grandfather received a thank-you letter for chairing the UJA appeal for New York from Israel’s Finance Minister Levi Eshkol, who became prime minister when David Ben-Gurion resigned the office in 1963.”
Aside from the young couple’s individual contributions to New York’s Orthodox community, Etan was so passionate about bettering his community, he became the youngest Orthodox Jew elected to public office – at 24 – when he was elected as district leader to the 45th Assembly District.
As a young man, the energetic Etan also served on AIPAC’s state committee, was an elected delegate to the 1988 Democratic Convention and was a member of AIPAC’s Young Leadership Steering Committee, registering more than 1,000 voters on his own.
In a 1966 article in New York’s The Jewish Press Magazine, Etan’s mother, Hilda, was quoted as saying, “One of Allen’s [Etan’s father’s] strengths is that he is not easily discouraged and this became clear that a new yeshiva was needed. The idea for Yeshiva of Manhattan Beach began in our living room,” she said. “It was a test of strength and we didn’t know, from year to year, if we’d make it, but our daughter Anina, who was 4, when the school was established, was a member of its first graduating class.”
“My mother Hilda and my father Allen engrained this sense of civic responsibility in us,” he said, “and I knew nothing else but to be involved. It was a multigenerational thing. You find out what needs to be done and you do it.
“When we moved here in 1995, there weren’t but a handful of Orthodox couples, where both had the experience of 12 years of Orthodox Jewish day school education,” Etan continued. “Valerie and I realized we were so blessed in having this experience and we felt an obligation to share what we had had in an Orthodox Jewish world with Houston. Between my civic sense of responsibility, engrained by my parents and combined with our faith, we felt we had to get involved.”
The TORCH is lit
Within two years of the Mirwis family’s arrival, they had founded Torah Outreach Center of Houston, with Etan serving on its original board as its first treasurer. “I never had been involved in founding a 501-(c)(3),” he said, looking back, but when people said they wanted this, I said, ‘I’m down.’” He has been its president the past few years.
Over the intervening years, the couple hosted numerous fundraisers for TORCH and Valerie has been a lecturer at TORCH’s annual Conference for Jewish Women and in ASCENT’s Females in Torah program.
“We loved being active in TORCH,” Valerie said. “It was a place where you could come and continue to learn, no matter what your background ... and, in the years we were involved, I especially loved the one-on-one learning, where someone with a strong Jewish background was paired with someone with less experience. You might imagine this would be a one-sided relationship but, in fact, you both brought much to the table to share.”
In 2006, Etan’s and Valerie’s contributions to TORCH were recognized when they were honored with the Jewish Spirit Award.
As their tenure in Houston continued, Etan and Valerie devoted themselves, among other projects, to help strengthen the Orthodox Jewish schools because, as they believe, in order to attract new families to Houston, the educational opportunities for their children must be solid.
But, this commitment hasn’t merely been lip service: Valerie has taught at many levels, from preschool to adult education, was on the board of education at the Robert M. Beren Academy and, for four years, she taught high school Judaic studies at Houston’s Hebrew Academy, all in addition to being a full-time mom.
Back in 1997, Etan became a volunteer basketball coach at the Hebrew Academy (later named the Robert M. Beren Academy).
“We’d been here about two years, and some kids were visiting our home for Sabbath,” he recalled. “When I asked them if they were looking forward to high school, the group responded, ‘High school sucks,’ and when I asked for particulars, they said, ‘We don’t even have a basketball team.’”
That next Monday, a determined Etan Mirwis marched into the academy’s head of school’s office and asked, “Mrs. Friedman, why is there no basketball team?”
The explanation was simple: The academy had no gymnasium and no financial resources for equipment, uniforms or a coach, but when Etan offered to find a gym for the team to ‘borrow’ and coach for free, the team was off and running. “I was the first basketball coach for the Hebrew Academy,” he said, proudly.
Recently, some 15 years later, Jewish basketball also was at center court. The Mirwis’ son, Isaac, was an all-district point guard on Beren’s varsity basketball team, when the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools nearly eliminated the Beren team from the state semi-finals, which were being held on the Sabbath.
“I became involved, because we felt our son was entitled to live his dream,” he said. “An injustice was being done to those kids and every resource to right this injustice, whatever it took, I was willing to do. The Beren parents were fighting for their kids and the team to be able to participate and still honor their Sabbath.
“Growing up as someone who marched for Soviet Jewry, to me this was an opportunity for all Jewish people to champion this cause,” he continued. “Beren was a new school in TAPPS and expected to be treated fairly and accommodation made for them to participate fully,” Etan pointed out. “In this and every case, we expect to be treated as Jews and be provided equal opportunities in the 21st century, without precondition, ... and we should be as welcoming and accommodating as we expect others to be of us.
“The reality is, this instance of TAPPS and its rulings is not dissimilar to a religious community. People found it, society changes, the community grows and participants are willing to make small modifications,” he explained.
“At some point, there are people like Etan Mirwis who believe doing the same thing doesn’t have to go on forever. This reflects both my communal and my religious values.”
As president of Rockwell Management, now one of the largest commercial real estate companies in Houston, he said he is proudest of the Brays Oaks Management District in Southwest Houston, which he personally helped create, fund and lobby for. “As a quasi-government focused on redevelopment, we have an annual tax base from commercial entities and have been able to collect and invest millions into Southwest Houston for business development and mobility and transportation, which is not an easy task. We now have a board of diverse community leaders to continue the revitalization of the area that has the largest concentration of Orthodox Jews in the area.
“I’m always trying to find opportunities where 1 plus 1 equals 11, where I can find a way to connect the unconnected dots,” he added.
Through his real estate firm, this entrepreneurial volunteer also has helped provide affordable, quality rental properties to help young families move to the community, and to offer the opportunity for families who rent to become homeowners. Thus far, more than 25 families have been able to purchase their first home through this effort.
As they prepare to move back east, the Mirwis family will have more than packing to do.
“We’re resigning from 10 boards with which we’ve been actively involved,” Etan said. “We’ve spent maybe 40 hours or more per week, between us, working to create or build within the community. I’m walking away from projects I’ve founded, nurtured and whose futures aren’t as financially secure as I’d like for them to be.
“However, after a family meeting some months ago, we voted – unanimously – to make this change, because it is the right thing for us to do at this point in the lives of our children and of our family,” he said, “and in setting these priorities. I will continue to commute to Houston.
Valerie will miss the Bayou City. “Here in Houston, I can be who I want to be, and I love the diversity. Of course, I will miss my husband’s office being only three minutes from our house and I will miss the fact that I can meet many Jews in one day from lots of different worlds. I find that fabulous, and Houston offers a very easy and uncomplicated way to live. There are so many options here and you can fill your life with many rich experiences,” she said.
Who in the community will fill the void that’s inevitable, when such a dynamic family moves away?
“When a need is known, someone will step up, and it is exciting to see more people taking advantage of all the opportunities, all that’s going for Houston’s Jewish community,” Valerie said. “We certainly did.”
In the meantime, both Valerie and Etan hope some of their contributions will add to a greater sense that Houston is a national or international Jewish city that welcomes all. “When we first came to Houston, we saw this potential in Houston, as long as people are willing to invest time and energy to build the community,” Etan explained. “Of course, there are no guarantees, but with everyone working toward the same goal, it’s a bit more probable.”
Daveed, 2011 Beren Academy graduate, is returning to Yeshivat Mevaseret Tzion in Israel for a second year, then to Yeshiva University. Isaac, 2012 Beren Academy graduate, will attend Yeshivat Torat Shraga, then Yeshiva University. Deena, 10th-grader at Torah Girls Academy, will be going to Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, N.J. Yoseph, graduating Sephardic Gan/Torat Emet middle school, will attend Torah Academy of Bergen County High School for Boys in Teaneck. Elisheva, sixth grade; Yehuda, fourth grade; and Sara, kindergarten, are leaving Sephardic Gan/Torat Emet and will attend Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, N.J.