Houston — The Geralniks from northern New Jersey, a young Orthodox family, weren’t looking to leave the New York area. But a job opportunity in Houston came up. They came here for a visit last July, and moved here the next month.
The Yarmush family of Great Neck, L.I., also young Orthodox Jews, had been searching for six months for a new community. Greater New York was too expensive, too chilly. They investigated several cities before deciding to visit Houston for a Shabbat. They moved here last June.
Both families settled in Houston, the country’s fourth biggest city, with assistance from the Move to Houston initiative of the Houston Modern Orthodox Partnership (HMOP). HOP (movingtohouston.org) is a coalition of four local institutions — the Robert M. Beren Academy day school, the United Orthodox Synagogues and Ahavas Israel congregations, and the Bnei Akivat youth movement — formed to strengthen the Modern Orthodox community by offering a combination of informal advice and a variety of financial incentives to families with school-age children. Among the incentives: tuition discounts at Beren for the first four years of enrollment, reduced membership fees in the participating congregations, and discounts at the day school’s Camp Moshava and Houston’s Jewish Community Center.
HMOP is part of a growing trend: Orthodox communities establishing programs to bring new members from other parts of the country, mostly young families, mostly from the New York area. An upcoming sign: the third Job & Home Relocation Fair sponsored by the Orthodox Union, which will be held here Sunday at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Midtown.
Three dozen communities — including, for the first time, several from the Greater New York area — will send representatives to the conference (see accompaning story). Twelve communities took part in the first conference, in 2008; that number doubled in 2009. About 500 people came to the first Fair; that figure also doubled in 2009, and more people are expected this year, said Frank Buchweitz, who coordinates the Fair as the OU’s national director of community services and special projects.
The growing interest in the Fair and the continuing calls to the OU’s Job Board indicate that the economy still has not fully recovered from the recent recession, Buchweitz said. The prospect of relocating to a city with thriving job prospects and low housing costs remains attractive, he says.
While newcomers to smaller Jewish communities from anywhere are welcome, the incentives are considered particularly appealing to people who live in New York City, where the real estate and financial services industries were hardest hit by the recession, and where housing prices are considerably higher than elsewhere, Buchweitz says.
“Cost of living” — and a thriving job market — “is the major factor” that influences people to move, he said. “We’re in a tight economy.”
For the first time, the OU is requiring participating communities to provide formal information on the availability of local employment, mortgage rates and the price of housing, as well as incentives that often include grants and low interest loans, as well as lowered day school tuition and synagogue membership.
“It’s a competitive market,” Buchweitz said.
The OU Fair grew out of visits that Steven Savitsky, then OU president, made to Jewish communities around the country a few years ago — he heard a frequent complaint: “out-of-town” synagogues and day schools and other institutions offered the basics of Jewish life at an affordable price with a no-pressure lifestyle, but they needed more members. They weren’t known outside of their immediate area, they told Savitsky, who urged the OU to sponsor its first Fair.
No one keeps exact records, but Savitsky estimates that “well over 100 families” have relocated because of the first two Emerging Communities Fairs.
Today, participating communities send teams of a half-dozen people or more — sometimes including natives of the communities who live in the New York area — who staff tables where they show videos and Power Point presentations, and offer information kits, subsidized Shabbat come-and-see visits, and free kosher goodies.
Jewish communities taking part this year include major cities like Dallas and Detroit (Southfield, Mich.) and smaller locations like Allentown and Harrisburg, Pa., and San Antonio, Texas. All share a need for more synagogue members and day school students. In their pitches, they stress warm climate and cultural attractions, the variety of available necessities for observant life like kosher shopping and an eruv, the opportunity to make a difference in a small community where newcomers are not anonymous, convenient commuting times to work, and learning opportunities for adults.
Houston, which has sent representatives in the past, won’t this year.
Houston, home to the sprawling Texas Medical Center and a hub of the oil-and-gas industry, weathered the recent economic downturn better than most American cities.
Houston, with a Jewish population of about 50,000, is the largest city with such a program.
While HMOP does not provide direct grants, as some programs do, Houston has a unique pitch: a big city with small city amenities, a community with Southern charm and a sizable number of northern transplants. The initiative’s slogan is “Great lifestyle and affordable homes.”
Homes in the heavily Jewish Meyerland section, cost about half what they do in New York, Jewish Houstonians boast.
Of the families with 13 Beren-enrolled children who have moved here in HMOP’s first year, probably none came just because of the financial breaks, but “it definitely helps,” said Rick Guttman, a small business owner and community volunteer who moved to Houston after college two decades ago and heads the Partnership.
The Guttmans are among the 70 percent of Orthodox Houston Jewry with out-of-state roots.
Tova Geralnik, like most of the newcomers, lives in Meyerland, near a selection of synagogues, kosher restaurants, and kosher delis and bakeries in major supermarkets.
“There’s not a lot of [Jewish] things you can’t get.”
One more advantage: short commuting times. “I can leave work at 5:30,” Geralnik said, “and be home at 5:45.”
The Emerging Jewish Communities Fair will take place Sunday, March 27, at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Midtown. For information: (212) 613-8188; firstname.lastname@example.org; oucommunity.org.