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Deep in the Jewish Heart of Texas
Binyamin Rose (Mishpacha Magazine) | Wednesday, April 07, 2010

It took me less than thirty minutes on Texas soil to have my first and only encounter with the law.

Armed with detailed driving directions from George Bush Intercontinental Airport to the home of my hosts, David and Darlene Schwartz, I assumed I could dispense with a GPS for my rented car, even though it was late at night and I was totally unfamiliar with the roads. Upon realizing that I got off Highway 610 a few exits early, I made a U-turn — which I could tell, in retrospect, must have been illegal, once I saw flashing red and blue lights in my rearview mirror. Can you think of any worse welcome to Houston than being pulled over by a Texas state trooper? You’re in a heap of trouble, boy.

Wobbly-legged from twenty-four hours of travel from Israel, I staggered out of the car, reminding myself to speak English, and not Hebrew, to the men in blue. After explaining my predicament, one of the officers nudged his buddy and said, “I told you he was either drunk or from out of town.” Not only did the troopers let me off the hook without a ticket, but one of them shined his flashlight on my map, and not in my face, and gave me detailed directions to get back on track.

Back on Highway 610, I reflected on the lesson I could learn from this incident. Beyond the need to drive safely and not be overconfident, what struck me was that my obvious, outward Jewish appearance not only didn’t provoke any negative or curious reaction from the lawmen, but they even went out of their way to be helpful. But after spending five days in Houston, I was no longer struck by this. I could see that Houston is a cosmopolitan city, where a Jew can be comfortable with himself, and with his environment — but more importantly, at ease within his own tightly bound Jewish community.

“It is a very friendly and united community,” says Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, who comes to Houston often for family visits. With the dominating presence of the Texas Medical Center’s forty-seven institutions and thirteen hospitals, Houston’s Jewish community has enjoyed unprecedented opportunities to excel in the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim. Jews have even built extensions onto their homes, in order to be able to host (sometimes for weeks on end) visiting families of patients who are receiving treatments for a wide array of serious and chronic illnesses.

“Houston’s Yidden have opened their homes and their arms and their families to the klal. They have been put to the test and they have passed,” added Rabbi Lerner.

You are My Sunshine

I arrived in Houston a week before Purim. The simchah of Adar was already palpable. The Houston Community Kollel — known as TORCH, the Torah Outreach Resource Center of Houston, under its maggid shiur Rabbi Yaakov Nagel — was preparing to celebrate its first ever siyum of Shas at a Melaveh Malkah attended by well over 300 people at the Young Israel of Houston, one of the central institutions of young, Orthodox Houston. The kehillah has more than 100 member families, half of whom have moved in during the past four years, according to its rav, Rabbi Yehoshua Wender, who is marking his twenty-fifth year in Houston.

“When I got here, there were about thirty families, and we were davening in a house about a mile from the present building,” says Rabbi Wender. He is originally from Washington, DC, and received his smichah from Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim in Queens. He became Young Israel’s rav after his chavrusa interviewed for the position and decided it wasn’t for him, but thought it would be ideal for Rabbi Wender.

Today, Rabbi Wender serves the growing community in multiple capacities: principal of its new cheder, Torat Emet/Sephardic Gan; dean of the Torah Girls Academy of Texas (TGA); and as chairman of the Houston Kashruth Association, which supervises Houston’s four kosher restaurants and other kosher food outlets.

“What’s been the key to our growth?” says Rabbi Wender. “Certainly, bringing in the kollel was a major development that made Houston more attractive to bnei Torah; but many young families, looking around for an affordable Torah community in the US, have been directed to Houston.”

Today, the Young Israel, a handsome red-brick building, sits on a freestanding lot at the end of a quiet street, lined with single-family brick ranch homes averaging 3,000 to 4,000 square feet, plus a swimming pool, at an average price of just $200,000. A few blocks away, but still within the community eruv, prices for a three-bedroom house can run as low as $150,000.

The construction of the eruv is a unique story in and of itself. I heard it from Dr. Zev Munk, a longstanding community member and CEO of Pharm-Olam, which provides clinical research services to the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device community. He says that when the need for an eruv became pressing some twenty years ago, the process of obtaining the necessary approvals and easements from the local utility companies appeared to be daunting. Rather than give up, the community decided to take matters into its own hands.

“We finally said, ‘Let’s just do it.’ And under the initiative of Etan Mirwis, one of our chashuve askanim, it was up in a matter of days,” says Dr. Munk, as we chatted over glatt kosher Mediterranean cuisine at Suzie’s Grill.

“You established facts on the ground, just like in the Middle East?” I suggested.

“It was a good lesson in life,” said Dr. Munk. “Sometimes if you look at a situation too analytically, you can talk yourself out of doing it, but if you jump into the Yam Suf first, things have a way of working out.”

Houston may not be near the Yam Suf, but its proximity to Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico has made it one of America’s leading ports. Houston is America’s fourth-largest city, and it may leap ahead of Chicago into the number three position after this year’s census. Sprawled over 600 square miles, Houston covers twice the area of New York City, but with just one-fourth of New York’s population.

Houston’s frum neighborhood is much less expensive than the most in-demand neighborhoods in the center of town near the medical center, but is only twenty minutes away from the center by car. As America’s second-largest state, land for housing is readily available, so Texas never experienced the housing shortages and subsequent bubble conditions that drove prices sharply higher — then sharply lower — as were seen in other parts of the nation.

The Orthodox neighborhood is downright tranquil. The quiet, and the less hectic pace, are maybe the only things that give Houston a Southern feel, because other than geographic location, it has precious little taste of the South.

At 7 a.m., unless one of your neighbors is rushing to the second minyan, or to work (Houston’s standard workday starts at 8 a.m.), you won’t see anything in the street other than your shadow. I didn’t even see my own shadow during my brief stay, as the skies were uncharacteristically overcast. Quite a few people repeated to me the quip about the local weather, that Houston has ten months of summer, and then there’s July and August.

Homeowners can use their swimming pools most months out of the year, although this winter’s frosts turned the normally lush green lawns into a beige and brown tangle of dead grass. There was one brief period of sunshine, on Shabbos morning, when I overheard a policeman — another friendly one — posted outside the Young Israel, wishing one of the congregants well by saying, “I think this sunshine is all because of you.”

The quiet contributed to the community’s Shabbos atmosphere. A park, which is part of the community center right next door to the shul, was full of frum families and their children as I returned to shul for Minchah.

Hashem’s Messengers

Perhaps because much of Houston Jewry is not home-grown — having come from Lakewood, Flatbush, Passaic, and even Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin — there is no stereotype of a Texas Jew. The black hats outnumbered the ten-gallon hats by about fifty to one.

Rabbi Lazer Lazaroff shared some of his memories with me about rural Texas of the “old days.” He remembers riding with his father once a week to a dairy farm north of Houston with a five-gallon metal can to milk his own cow, so the family could have chalav Yisrael milk.

Today, Rabbi Lazaroff is director of Aishel House, which is currently expanding to include twenty-five apartments in five contiguous buildings in the heart of the medical center area. Aishel House provides lodging and strictly kosher food, as well as daily minyanim on the premises — a lifesaver for patients, and their families, who often find the need for an extended stay at one of the local hospitals.

Rabbi Lazaroff arrived in Houston from Detroit in 1972, at age five, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz”l, sent his father there on shlichus.

“It was big mesirus nefesh then,” he recalls. “There was one shul that was considered Orthodox. It didn’t have a mechitzah, but it did have a microphone.”

After more frum families moved into the area, his father persuaded local grocer Ken McCracken to “import” chalav Yisrael cottage cheese from New York. “I think it will really sell well,” Rabbi Lazaroff’s father told him. It did, and Mr. McCracken began to stock more kosher items. Eventually his store closed, but Mr. McCracken’s kosher connection served him well. Today he is the local representative for Twin City Poultry, one of America’s leading kosher wholesalers.

But it was a pivotal incident in the life of Rabbi Lazaroff and his wife that led to their becoming community leaders in hachnassas orchim.

Aishel House’s main building was originally purchased by Rabbi Lazaroff’s father in 1984, to serve as Rice University’s Chabad House. In 1992, Mrs. Lazaroff, who was expecting a child, developed complications on a Friday night, and had to go to the hospital. When her labor stopped in the middle of the night, the hospital wanted to release her, but refused once they understood the Lazaroffs would be walking home, and not driving.

This made the Lazaroffs realize the pressing need for lodging near the medical center. Mrs. Lazaroff subsequently gave birth to a baby girl, who developed multiple health problems and was nifteres eleven months later. Her blessed memory provides the Lazaroffs with the drive and dedication to help patients in similar straits.

“This house is in a very convenient location,” says Arthur Coch from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who joined my conversation with Rabbi Lazaroff. Mr. Coch was an Aishel House guest while undergoing a five-week intensive proton and chemotherapy treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center. “It’s safe here, and it’s provided at a rate that’s very reasonable. When you’re got difficulties in your life like I have, you don’t need a lot of extra expenses, so that’s helped out a lot in that respect.”

“For a lot of these people, I’m the first Jewish person they’ve come into contact with,” says Rabbi Lazaroff. “Once, someone from Wichita Falls hugged me and said, ‘When G-d made y’all the Chosen People, He certainly knew what He was doing.’”

Rabbi Lazaroff’s brother, Rabbi Chaim, is also a community leader. He is program director of the Chabad Lubavitch Center’s Texas regional office, which is responsible for twenty-two Chabad Houses on Texas college campuses, including seven in Houston. Chabad also has its own day school in Houston, for children from eighteen months old to eighth grade; three mikvaos; and a night kollel.

Curative Powers

The doctors who serve Houston’s patients are also benefitting from Houston’s frum community.

For this, Houston can thank Rabbi Yossi Grossman, who, along with his wife, was among the original four TORCH kollel families at its founding twelve years ago. At the time, Rabbi Grossman was learning in Yeshivas Shaarei Torah in Queens, where he met Rabbi Yaakov Lipsky, who was looking for yungeleit to move to Houston. “We met halfway between Baltimore and New York, underneath the Delaware Memorial Bridge, at a memorial park for veterans,” recalls Rabbi Grossman.

The Grossmans spent a Shabbos in Houston and were favorably impressed, but decided not to discuss it further until they got back to New York. However a “bas kol” interrupted them, en route.

“On the plane,” remembers Rabbi Grossman, “two gentlemen sitting in front of us order scotch on the rocks, and make a l’chayim and say, ‘Here’s to Texas, where there are no state taxes.’ My wife and I looked at each other and said, ‘We’re going.’ And the rest is history.”

A year after his arrival, Rabbi Grossman took a look at the estimated 3,000 Jewish doctors working in Houston’s medical district, and decided to offer a class in medical ethics related to the weekly Torah portion. Six years ago, he launched an annual conference on Jewish medical ethics, which now draws well over 250 participants.

At one such conference, Dr. Avraham Steinberg of Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Hospital and author of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics, and Dr. George Noon, the leading medical disciple of famed Houston heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey, shared their experiences on assessing risk in patient care. Both had recently been involved in delicate heart operations involving elderly patients. In Dr. Steinberg’s case, it was Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, shlita. In Dr. Noon’s case, it was his medical mentor, Dr. Michael DeBakey, who, ironically, at age ninety-seven, had to undergo the very surgical treatment that he himself had pioneered.

“The kiddush Hashem at this conference,” recounts Rabbi Grossman, “came after Dr. Steinberg’s presentation. Dr. Noon was so impressed with it, he asked if Shaare Zedek could conference him in on calls when they have an ethics committee meeting. In front of 250 Jewish doctors, the biggest doctor in Houston asks to be conferenced in so he can hear the Torah’s view on a medical topic.”

Sometimes the victories are smaller in scope, but victories nonetheless.

“I gave a class for five years in Baylor Medical School,” says Rabbi Grossman, “and I would bring in a kosher lunch for the students. One of them told me that he treated the rats in the lab differently after he learned about tzaar baalei chayim. He looks differently at a cadaver, now that he understands the concept of b’tzelem Elokim. The biggest success is that, practically, people see they can use the Torah in their everyday professions, and it helps them and changes their lives.”

Im ein kemach, ein Torah

The financial needs of Houston’s Orthodox community have grown in proportion to the population. Although the community struggles along with all the others, Hashem nevertheless provides. The arrival of Andy Serotta is one such example of Hashgachah pratis.

Mr. Serotta is a principal of Logista Capital Management. He gained fame in the financial press two years ago for having racked up a reported $100 million in profits for his employer, by trading oil futures when the price of a barrel was steaming along on its heady ascent to $147.

“You’re famous,” I mention, as we shake hands in the conference room of his friend and colleague, Yakov Polatsek of Interra Capital Group.

“Don’t believe everything you read,” he quips back with a smile, although he freely admits that he never experienced the level of success in trading that he has since moving to Houston.

“I’m not a fancy guy,” says Mr. Serotta, who is, however, a kohein. “I still drive my beat-up 2003 Nissan Altima, but HaKadosh Baruch Hu blessed me with this opportunity so that I could help build the Jewish community in Houston.”

The Serottas moved from Passaic, New Jersey, in September 2005. He says that Houston has afforded them opportunities — to grow spiritually and to become community leaders — that would have been less available in an established city such as Passaic.

“First of all, I would tell you that any growth you do in an out-of-town community, you really own in a way that you didn’t before. My wife wasn’t covering her hair in Passaic, and if she had been, it would have been because of peer pressure. She came here and decided to do it. I give a Pirkei Avos shiur on Motzaei Shabbos. In Passaic, who was I to give a shiur?”

In addition, Mr. Serotta was a prime mover behind the Young Israel’s late Maariv minyan, which is well-attended, thanks to the nightly Beis Medrash program that precedes it; and he was also instrumental in the development of the girl’s high school. “Moving to Houston is like standing in a field of footballs. You pick up anyone you want and run with it, and you’ll get a touchdown.”

Yakov Polatsek, who formerly served as the kollel’s executive director before going into business, pointed out another advantage he sees in Houston’s affordable lifestyle and less crowded conditions. “The costs of living and commuting time takes its toll on a family’s budget and shalom bayis,” he says. “I personally think the overall trend in the American Jewish community is toward smaller communities such as Houston.”

“People think that we’re out in the middle of nowhere, but there is really very little that we are giving up or sacrificing by coming to Houston,” says Binyomin Medetsky, who is a principal in Sky Capital Group, a real estate investment company.

Yakov Polatsek’s brother, Dovid, followed his brother to Houston, and also is pleased with his move. “The only thing you’re giving up in Houston is your family, and the community becomes your family.”

Eli Grunfeld, one of the community’s newest members, arrived six months ago from Flatbush, drawn by a sense of better economic opportunity. The Grunfelds also considered Atlanta, Dallas, and Memphis. “Houston has the most young people living close to each other, a big sense of community, one main shul, and the type of religious atmosphere we were looking for,” he says.

It took a month or two for him to find work in the accounting field, but once tax season started in earnest, a firm named Bentley, Bratcher and Associates hired him. He wears his yarmulke at work and feels at home as an Orthodox Jew. “They’re respectful of my religion, and even though we’re very busy with tax season, they don’t mind me not working Saturdays and leaving early on Fridays,” says Eli.

Apparently the firm’s respect applies to Mishpacha Magazine, as well. “I even told them about this interview, and that I’d be late because of it, and they didn’t mind,” says Mr. Grunfeld.

Yechiel Polatsek moved to Houston this past summer, becoming the third Polatsek brother to do so — but you could have fooled him.

“I’m from a family of thirteen children. I wasn’t aware I had brothers,” he kibbitzes. Yechiel was living in Monsey and working for his father’s Manhattan engineering firm, when an attractive real estate market lured him away from the family business to Houston.

“We came for Succos a year and a half ago, and we said, ‘Let’s just look at houses for the fun of it,’” he recounts. In addition to finding a home twice the size of what they had in Monsey, with a pool, and at a third of the cost, Yechiel also found a job managing a 1,000-unit housing development, owned by a frum New York developer.

Dovid Zweig moved to Houston from Elizabeth, New Jersey, where he had been working for a small yeshivah and kollel. His wife’s cousin is married to one of the Polatseks, and they were getting not-so-subtle messages to try Houston. “I said, ‘You have to be meshugge to move to Houston, Texas! What’s there?’”

Once Dovid arrived, he found out.

“You don’t feel like you’re living in the boondocks, or lacking in physical needs, and there’s such a strong young dynamic crowd, you feel this is an exciting place to be,” says Dovid, who found work in commercial leasing. Dovid didn’t exactly pick up footballs, but he did step up to the plate and got involved in community activities. “In my first year here, I chaired a school fundraising event, and am now on one of the committees looking for a rosh kollel. In a larger city, who is going to ask a young fellow to do all that?”

Fixing Things Up

Rabbi Avraham Yaghobian didn’t come to Houston from any place in America, at least not directly. He took a circuitous route. Born in Tehran, he fled with his father when he was three, just three months before the Islamic Revolution. “My father was planning on moving anyway, but he didn’t have an exact plan,” says Rabbi Yaghobian. “Once the ‘noise’ started, he said, ‘Why do we need the headache here? Let’s just move.’”

The family settled in Givatayim, a Tel Aviv suburb, then moved to Los Angeles. As a bochur, Rabbi Yaghobian returned to Eretz Yisrael and learned in the Mir. He felt that kiruv was his life’s calling, however. He came to Houston on a Ner L’Elef program because there was a Sephardi synagogue, Beit Rambam, looking for an outreach professional.

Some 8,000 Sephardim, many of them Israeli, live in Houston — providing a tailor-made community for the Yaghobians. With his wife acting as director, and Rabbi Yaghobian handling the fundraising and policy planning, they opened the Sephardic Gan about six years ago with twelve pupils. When the school’s enrollment passed fifty, an attractive building became available; it was large enough to accommodate both the school and the shul where Rabbi Yaghobian is presently rav.

The shul has daily minyanim, and on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur the attendance swells to 400, with half of them having to stand in the hallways. At least fifteen families have become shomer Shabbos and have bought homes in the neighborhood in the past two years, thanks to the Yaghobians’ kiruv efforts.

“We get the sense that Hashem is trying to rush things, to get whatever last tikkunim need to be done in the city, so we can fix up the 6,000 years of history, and earn the reward that has been in store for us,” said Rabbi Yaghobian.

Lighting a Fire

Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe, executive director of TORCH, the Houston Community Kollel, is also one of the community’s leading kiruv professionals. Rabbi Wolbe, a grandson of the famed mashgiach, Rav Shlomo Wolbe, ztz”l, moved to Houston from Fairfield, Connecticut, where he had been outreach director for the Yeshiva Gedola of Bridgeport. Prior to that, he had earned his smichah in Eretz Yisrael from Rav Yitzchok Berkovits, shlita, of the Jerusalem Kollel.

In the twelve years since its establishment by Rabbi Nate Segal of Torah U’Mesorah, TORCH graduates in Houston have made a major impact on the community, having contributed to the development of several new institutions.

One of Rabbi Wolbe’s favorite success stories is that of a local girl who came from a Jewish family that celebrated December 25th. After being attracted to Judaism, following her attendance at a community Purim festivity, she began attending Torah classes and soon became a “bas bayis” at the Wolbes’, where she was drawn in further by the warmth of a Jewish home. “She would become very meragesh, [affected] when she saw us bentsching our kids on Friday night,” Rabbi Wolbe said. This year, the girl is learning in a Jerusalem seminary.

In the near future, besides adding more yungeleit to the kollel, TORCH wants to institute a Sunday school for public school children. This past year, TORCH initiated a high school program with NCSY called Jewish Student Union (JSU), and runs clubs in six local high schools — including schools with such names as Episcopal High and St. Johns.

Nobody turned you down?

“Only one school said we couldn’t,” says Rabbi Wolbe, stressing that it was not because of anti-Semitism. “They were just worried about separation of church and state.”

TORCH outreach also includes a professional division and a “kollel without walls.”

“We have no center yet, but we will learn with people in the JCC, Starbucks, public libraries, or in their offices,” declares Rabbi Wolbe. “We are not a movement, we’re just Torah.”

The Meyerland Minyan now has ninety member families, and is unique in that it is a pure kiruv shul., Its rav, Rabbi Gidon Moskovitz, presides over two minyanim every Shabbos, a regular one for those who are fluent in their davening, and a second one called a “learner’s prayer experience.”

“We start them out with a taste of davening, a short parshah discussion, and then I give a drashah,” says Rabbi Moskovitz. “I run out in the middle of Mussaf to do this.”

Rabbi Moskovitz, originally from Massachusetts, also takes new congregants on out-of-town trips. They have gone to established Orthodox areas, such as New Square; but also to Eretz Yisrael, where he took seven men for a program that included a half day of learning and half day of touring. “Looking back, the guys bonded and became much closer to the Ribono shel Olam just by being in yeshivah for a week. If only we could have kept them there for a month.”

What do you consider to be your greatest success here?

“Every time we kasher someone’s house and get them a pair of tefillin, it’s a success story,” says Rabbi Moskovitz.

A Succos to Remember

While Houston Jewry builds its strength from within, many members of its Orthodox community are also stalwarts in contributing to the community at large.

Rabbi Dovid Goldstein, who moved to Houston eleven years ago, is the official consulting rabbi of the Texas State Prison System, and he deals with some seventy-five Jewish inmates. Rabbi Goldstein established a kosher kitchen at the Stringfellow Unit in Rosharon Prison. Twice a week, Rabbi Goldstein makes the rounds of the various units, counsels inmates one-on-one, and learns with others. He recruits community members to join him on Friday afternoon to help make a minyan for Minchah Gedolah, and to bring inmates grape juice and challos for Shabbos. In the process, he has earned the respect of state prison officials.

One Chanukah, a county jail made a special accommodation to allow Rabbi Goldstein to light Chanukah candles, but once he finished, a fellow supervisory chaplain wanted to blow them out, so he could get home. When Rabbi Goldstein explained the need for the candles to burn for a half hour, his colleague replied, “I can see you guys are trying to uphold G-d’s law and make this world a better place, so it will be my honor to stay for a extra half hour and watch them burn down.”

One Erev Pesach, a Jewish man who had been arrested and charged with a crime was due to be released; normally, though, such releases are only processed at night, which would have meant that he would be released too late for him to make it to a Seder. “So I called the captain [warden], with whom I have a good relationship. He actually made an accommodation of going down to the processing unit to take this guy out and get him processed in time for the Seder.”

One former inmate has actually gone “all the way,” as Rabbi Goldstein puts it, and is a full-fledged baal teshuvah. But perhaps his most bittersweet success story involves an already-Orthodox inmate from Montreal who was serving a seven-year sentence, and always desperately wanted to have a succah, which was finally approved in the sixth year of his term.

The portable succah arrived, and with it, the head of the state prison system, to inspect it to ensure that it didn’t pose a security risk. The official finally ruled that while the inmate couldn’t keep the succah up all eight days, he would approve it as long as security guards could pop it up or down as the need arose.

“This was in Elul,” says Rabbi Goldstein. “The next Shabbos, this inmate collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. It turned out he had leukemia and died within a week,” says Rabbi Goldstein. “He passed away on Rosh HaShanah, before he could use the succah. I guess it was his tikkun that the succah should come into existence through him, because that was the big breakthrough. Now I have a massive succah that we build every year, and the prisoners have all their meals in there.”

Mutual Respect

Leah Muller is another Orthodox Houstonian who contributes to the greater good of the Jewish community, in her role as coordinator of senior services at the Jewish Family Services Alexander Institute. Her responsibilities include management of 600 cases, home visits to senior adults, assessments for the kosher meals on wheels, aid to the area’s aging Holocaust survivor population, and family consultations.

Mrs. Muller says that when Hurricane Ike struck Galveston in 2008, “we were the first responder.” Some eighty-eight seniors were displaced because of damage caused to one of their residences. The JFS took care of all of their needs until they were able to return eight months later. More recently, JFS has been assisting Houstonians hurt by the economic meltdown. The Federation set up employment workshops, but the JFS handles all of the case assessments.

“For people who were once donors, it’s a very shameful time for a lot of them,” she points out. “But we are able to give them assistance to reassess their living levels, and either help them adjust, or give them breathing space.”

Lee Wunsch, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, shared some of his insights into the generally sound relations between the Jewish and Christian communities. Mr. Wunsch enjoys close ties with Pastor John Hagee, head of John Hagee Ministries, based in San Antonio, Texas, and one of America’s chief Christian supporters of Israel. Mr. Wunsch described himself as one of the “gatekeepers” for Hagee’s funding to pro-Israeli and Jewish causes. Their relationship goes back more than twenty years.

“In 1981, after Israel bombed the nuclear reactor in Iraq, and in the wake of the huge international criticism that followed, he got very incensed, and he wanted to do something,” says Mr. Wunsch. “So he put on ‘A Night to Honor Israel’ in his San Antonio church for his parishioners, and he’s still doing it all these years later. Last year he had 150 such nights. He believes that G-d blesses those who bless the Jewish people.”

Do you ever talk religion with him?

“We talk about all types of things. There are some things we don’t agree on, but I have things that I don’t agree on with my friends or with my wife. That’s what a friendship is all about: discussion, and give-and-take on the issues.”

Mr. Wunsch’s already cordial ties with the Orthodox community grew stronger in the past year, after his father of blessed memory passed away, and Mr. Wunsch diligently attended daily synagogue services to say Kaddish for him.

In many parts of the country, there are conflicts between Federations and Orthodox groups regarding funding. How does that play out in Houston?

“In a lot of communities in North America, there’s a lot of animosity, but that’s just not the case here. Houston is a very heimishe Jewish community. Some of that has to do with the fact that we are a smaller Jewish community, and one that has a rich history of representing a cross section of Jewish life. It is also a result of Orthodox rabbis promoting mutual respect. We have five day schools that have been around for a long time; we fund two of the Orthodox schools, and there are some new schools emerging in the Orthodox community. I don’t know where that’s going to go in terms of funding, but I do have personal relationships with them.”

A Bright Future

When asked to convey his main goal for the future, Young Israel’s Rabbi Yehoshua Wender said it was to “bring Mashiach.” Until that great and wondrous day, however, there is still work to be done in Houston. “I think right now, for most people, the major focus is the chinuch,” says Rabbi Wender, “and to continue to build a community that different kinds of people will be comfortable in. We’d like to have a mesivta for boys. Our kollel numbers went down with the economy, but that’s one of the things we want to build up again.”

What short-term projects are you working on?

“We have to make sure the new schools that are catering to this particular part of the community continue to grow into viable institutions. That requires a combination of enrollment and finances. The enrollment has gone very well. The elementary school two and a half years ago had fifty kids, and now it has 125. Next year, the girls’ school is moving out into their own facility, and that will provide a good ‘excuse’ to start training people to take more responsibility.”

Both Rabbi Wender and Dr. Zev Munk noted that they are beginning to see signs of a positive new trend: young people who grew up in Houston, and moved away to learn in various yeshivos, are returning to Houston to live.

What’s drawing them back?

Dr. Munk: “First of all, there is a group of individuals learning in a regular place on a regular basis, and this has attracted some members of the community to learn with them. The kollel has been a very good kiruv machine, which has brought many people closer. Some do move on to other cities, but now we’re starting to see some of those individuals moving back, or more people who recently became frum staying here, because Houston has more to offer. The whole attitude has changed. People are looking at Houston as a place to live and raise and establish families.”

When did this start to change?

“Very slowly, over the last twelve to fifteen years. My children notice when they come back here from New York or Lakewood for a visit. They say, ‘What’s happened? This place has really blossomed!’”

As a community leader, what challenges are you coping with?

“I think developing the educational infrastructure to meet current needs, as well as the needs of families who may be moving here in the near to intermediate future. Having better facilities, giving more services to the children, all that requires money, and the growth has been rapid. It’s been a challenge to keep up with the growth.”

What’s going to keep people here?

“Several things. If you dislike winter, it’s a really good place, although the summers are challenging. The economy, compared to other parts of the US, is excellent, and offers tremendous opportunities to someone who is either entrepreneurial or professional. It’s a good business milieu where the housing is relatively inexpensive.”

On the Road Again

The ride back to the airport, was thankfully, less eventful than the ride in. Again, I mistakenly exited the highway before reaching the airport, but a helpful gas station attendant straightened me out without police intervention.

As I was listening to a local radio talk show railing against government spending on health care, it reminded me that I was in the conservative South — perhaps my one and only reminder during my short visit. Suddenly, my cellular phone rang. In Texas, it is legal to speak on your cellular phone while driving, unless you are a young driver, a bus driver, or you are texting in school zone. So I answered. It was a friend calling from Israel, who didn’t realize I was in chutz l’Aretz.

You’ll never guess where I am, I said, but it starts with an H.

After he guessed wrong on Hebron and Hawaii, I said Houston.

Silence.

“Houston? I went to law school there,” he said. When I asked what neighborhood he lived in, he said Meyerland. I told him about the nice frum shul I visited there, and it gladdened his heart. “There was nothing like that when I was there,” he said.

Houston’s Jewish community has come a long way, but it was also heartening to see that they are continuing to make strides forward, one step at a time.

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