Even in the best of times, Orthodox Jewish living comes with a hefty price tag.
There's the premium Orthodox Jews pay for kosher food, religious school tuition rates that can top $30,000 per child per year and the high cost of living in the metropolitan area where most Orthodox Jewish Americans live: New York.
In the current economy, many are feeling the squeeze.
This month, the nation's leading Orthodox group, the New York-based Orthodox Union offered a solution: Move to Houston.
In a first-of-its-kind partnership for the organization, the OU is working with Orthodox Jewish Houstonians to promote America's fourth-largest city as an alternative to life in the densely populated, expensive Orthodox communities of the New York area. The OU hopes to help 100 East Coast families relocate to Houston.
It's not just that Houston has a stronger job market, less expensive housing and better weather than New York, Houston boosters say, but during the last two decades the city's Orthodox community has achieved critical mass. Today Houston has all the key ingredients: Jewish schools, Orthodox synagogues, kosher restaurants and eruv enclosures that enable Orthodox Jews to circumvent the prohibition of carrying keys or pushing strollers on the Sabbath.
"The community, we felt, is at a tipping point," said Stephen Savitsky, chairman of the board of the OU. "Houston has sustainable, affordable housing. There's no state income tax and a great job market. It has affordable Orthodox living."
The OU has launched a public relations campaign, is hiring an employment specialist, is helping pay for an ambassador of sorts for Houston, Rabbi Moshe Davis, and says it will move some of its annual conferences to Houston. There is no formal budget yet.
The campaign supplements a local initiative begun two years ago by a coalition of Jewish institutions in Houston that offers Orthodox newcomers steep discounts on school tuition, synagogue-membership dues and other perks.
"Houston is showing its desire to grow the community, and everybody involved is mobilizing to help make it happen," said Samantha Steinberg, director of admissions and marketing at the Robert M. Beren Academy, a southwest Houston Jewish day school that is part of the program, called the Houston Modern Orthodox Partnership. "We were very excited about the OU's plan because it highlights our own Move to Houston program. To have this coordinated effort is very helpful to families."
Beren is offering new students from outside Houston 50 percent tuition discounts for the first two years and 25 percent discounts for years three and four. This year, 27 students from 12 families from New York, New Jersey, Israel and Venezuela enjoyed those discounts, although they're not formally part of the new initiative.
Regular tuition at the school ranges from $10,790 per year in kindergarten to $18,883 in high school. By comparison, tuition and fees at the SAR Academy in New York range from $21,300 to $29,200.
"What has happened to affordability in New York is out of control," said Etan Mirwis, a Houston businessman helping coordinate the effort locally. Mirwis is also president of Torat Emet, a Jewish elementary school in Houston.
"With the number of children the average Orthodox family has, what are you going to need to make to pay your bills, live comfortably and not be on scholarship? In New York, it's in the hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Mirwis, who has seven kids. "In Houston, you can do it for under $100,000."
Twenty years ago, Houston wasn't on the Orthodox map. Though it had just become America's fourth largest city, its Orthodox population was just a fraction of those of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Its first eruv enclosure had just been built and there was a dearth of synagogue, kosher food and school options. But that began to change as young couples moved to the area, drawn by job growth in the city's energy and health care sectors. Today, there are about 500 to 600 Orthodox families in the city, among a total Jewish population estimated by the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston at 40,000 to 45,000. Though the federation isn't involved in the Orthodox effort, its president, Lee Wunsch, said that may change once the OU ramps up the program.
Within the Orthodox community, individual community members are getting involved, fielding phone inquiries, coordinating appointments with real estate agents and providing home hospitality for prospective newcomers.
"We're doing this in a very hands-on way," said Rabbi Barry Gelman, spiritual leader of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston. "We know that relocating is complicated and difficult. The goal is to make this process as easy as possible."