Everything’s bigger in Texas, including the opportunities. A group of Houston businessmen make the case for why Houston is the new place to be for frum families
Photos: Elisheva Golani Photography
HOUSTON THEN AND NOW
Ten years ago, Mishpacha sent Binyamin Rose to Houston to check out its fledgling Young Israel community. The kehillah was (and still is) headed by Rabbi Yehoshua Wender, who had been there 25 years, and it numbered 100 families. The elementary school had 125 students and there were four kosher restaurants.
The community was already seeing growth then. Rabbi Wender told Mr. Rose that the kehillah had begun with 30 families, and the remaining 70 had arrived within the last four years. But now, a decade later, frum Houston has seen really dramatic growth, boasting about 500 families. There are high schools for both girls and boys in addition to three elementary schools, the kollel is thriving, and the number of kosher restaurants has doubled. Last year, the Young Israel moved into a completely redesigned, spacious new quarters in its old location. The beautiful new building houses not only the minyan with its offices and social hall, but the Kollel of Houston Torah Center, its Lakewood community kollel, has built a new building annexed to the back of the shul.
While housing prices have risen in the past ten years, they’re still a third to a half of what New York area residents pay, and many of the properties come with pools (a necessity, not a luxury, during steamy June through September). With low housing prices, warm weather, Southern friendliness, and all the amenities of frum life, Houston is becoming a magnet for young families looking for a smaller, more affordable community.
But it’s important to do your research: Too many families have moved to out-of-town communities drawn by the low cost of living, only to discover that the local economy is unable to provide jobs. Houston, the country’s fourth largest city, has a booming economy where opportunities are ripe for the taking.
A few of Houston’s leading frum businesspeople met in a local office building to weigh in.
ON THE BUSINESS CLIMATE
Yaakov Polatsek: In general, Houston is a great place for business. It’s the fourth, maybe even third largest city in the US after New York and Los Angeles. [Ed. — Houston and Chicago are neck and neck for third and fourth place.] There’s no state income tax in Texas, and business taxes are low. There’s a franchise tax, but it’s also low — less than one percent.
There’s tremendous opportunity here for professionals. People think of places like Baltimore and St. Louis as big communities, because they have older established Jewish communities, but as cities go, they’re much smaller, and they have much less to offer economically.
Gavriel Toso: The industries here are very solid. The Houston medical center is the largest medical center in the world — it’s like an entire city. My wife is a nurse, and we see great opportunity for anyone in health care. Real estate is spreading exponentially, which creates opportunities not only in that field but in real estate–related fields like construction and legal services.
Yechiel Polatsek: Houston is a great place if you’re an entrepreneur, because it’s so business friendly, with plenty of openings where you can start your own business.
Eric Pines: Ten years ago, I was working as an in-house attorney for Social Security’s Labor Union in Baltimore. My wife and I moved here to be closer to her family, and Houston then was a small but growing community. I was still working for the Labor Union, but I slowly began my own law firm out of my garage —Gavriel Toso was actually my first law clerk! Later he worked for me as an attorney.
In time, I moved into a building with a daily Minchah minyan and regular shiurim by the kollel. I took on a partner who was looking to move here from Far Rockaway, and together, we have hired many frum people from cities like Jerusalem, Atlanta, Baltimore, and New York, as well as members of the local community — from the Young Israel, kollel wives, members of the Chabad community.
Today, the firm has grown to 20 employees in an office located within a five-minute drive of the community — and we also have offices in other states, and even a supervisor in Israel. The business climate here really allows for growth — Hashem has really blessed us! And to think it all started in my garage, just me and Gavriel…
Yaakov Polatsek: People from the Northeast are used to moving at a fast pace, and that serves them well here. Houston has a slow, relaxed mentality — people will tell you, “I’ll call you back in a week,” which turns into two or three weeks. If you’re on top of your game, you’ll seize opportunities before all the others, and by the time they’ve gotten around to looking at the property, you’re already closing on it. I picture it like those third lanes that sometimes open up around traffic lights to allow people to pass — you’ll have people lined up in cars in the first two lanes waiting, and the third lane is empty. The New Yorkers come here and pass into that third lane, leaving everybody else behind.
ON RELATIONSHIPS WITH THE SURROUNDING COMMUNITY
Yaakov Polatsek: For the non-Jews, frum Jews are still little more than a blip on the radar. We live in one area, with the Young Israel people on one side of the road and the Chabad community on the other side. We haven’t attracted that much attention.
Eric Pines: Houston people are generally warm and friendly, and they’re very respectful of religion. Outside Houston, Texas is a red state, very supportive of Donald Trump, but the city itself tends to be liberal, like most metropolitan areas. That being said, non-Jewish people here are for the most part extremely respectful of Orthodox Jews — I have been asked by a few people for blessings after they see my kippah.
Yakov Polatsek: The frum and non-frum get along very well here. The Federation truly celebrates the growth of the frum community. We have an annual community-wide Day of Learning, and everybody goes, it’s very successful.
Eric Pines: Houston is still small enough, Jewishly, that Jews are excited to see another Jew walking down the street or outside the general neighborhood. It wasn’t like that where I used to live in Baltimore, simply because of the demographics. In larger communities, you don’t say “Good Shabbos” to every Jew you see, or you’d be saying it nonstop.
ON OPPORUNITIES FOR YESHIVAH GRADUATES
Gavriel Toso: The frum community is close here, with everybody trying to take care of everybody else. I look for passion in my employees, and menschlichkeit, and when someone is bright, hardworking, and capable, we’re excited to help him find a position — we think, “Let’s grab this guy, he’s bright.” Andy Serotta, who owns Logista Capital, hired two or three people from the kollel, and so did Eric.
Eric Pines: Some jobs require specific skills. At Ner Israel, a lot of the guys went to law school at night — I’ve hired a few of them straight out of law school! I look for a bright, Talmudic mind for my practice.
Yaakov Polatsek: There are definitely jobs around; the question is more who’s hiring. If you go look online, don’t just submit your résumé to Company X, because it will probably end up in the garbage. Ask us first.
When I got here, there weren’t many people to help with job placement — I had a lot of siyata d’Shmaya, but I also made my mistakes — but now, we may know someone who knows someone at that company. In the Jewish community, there’s usually only one degree of separation between people, and we can make the introduction for you. Houston is big, but the business community here is relatively small!
Eric Pines: A lot of unofficial mentoring goes on here. The people who have been successful have tremendous hakaras hatov to Hashem and to the people who helped them along the way, and they’re eager to pay it forward.
ON THE COVID IMPACT
Yaakov Polatsek: Baruch Hashem, Houston never had the high death rates that existed in New York. In the frum community, we had no deaths and only a few hospitalizations, and those didn’t involve intubations, so our businesses never really shut down fully. There were always at least a handful of people in our office.
My business is commercial real estate, and baruch Hashem, our tenants have continued to pay rent. My staff was in touch with each other twice a day, once by phone and once by Zoom. We were able to work well remotely because we’d already built strong staff relationships, but to start building a team remotely or hire someone that way would have been very hard.
Eric Pines: I don’t know anyone here who lost a job due to COVID, and I didn’t find my business slowed down too much in the federal employee representation area. However, some people were hesitant to spend money on legal fees at the beginning of the pandemic. My firm began doing personal injury cases to diversify after our field took a hit from President Trump’s anti-labor regulations. We took a big hit in the personal injury side of our practice since fewer people were going out and driving, and there were fewer accidents to cause injuries. Baruch Hashem, I didn’t have to furlough any employees, although one of my female employees left to take care of her kids and was not able to return because of the pandemic. We were all home and working remotely for the first two or three months, and yes, it’s hard to run an office that way. Many of us are back in the office now and we’re grateful.
Yaakov Polatsek: The economy here didn’t really suffer, and most people in Houston didn’t lose parnassah — maybe a bit in the beginning, but there were government loans to help. We’re pretty much back to normal now, meaning the new normal — masks in shul, outdoor as well as indoor minyanim, social distancing. In Houston, Jews are a minority, so we’re very careful about respecting restrictions and not making a chillul Hashem. We got so used to wearing masks that when my wife and I went to a simchah in New York recently, we realized we were the only ones there wearing masks.
Eric Pines: All in all, the pandemic has been much more contained here, with our highest numbers occurring over the summer. We are starting to see a small spike now, but it’s not like the rest of the country. Overall, it’s been night and day compared to New York. We even acquired 15 new families in the community, with 40 new students in our schools.
Yaakov Polatsek: We were surprised anybody came, to be honest! Some of the families had planned to come anyway, and others chose to leave New York during the pandemic.
ON APPRECIATING GROWTH
Yechiel Polatsek: If someone who worked for me grows out of his job and moves on, we celebrate it! Houston is big enough for everyone to be able to have a piece of the pie. I had people who left me to start their own businesses, but Houston is so big, it was no threat to me. One guy who worked for me left to become a sub-contractor dealing in concrete — he saw an opening, and he took it. Now my company uses his services, as do others, and it’s benefited all of us.
Eric Pines: A number of firm members have found jobs as lawyers in other fields here — some have entered other legal fields, and some are actually competing with me. But Houston is too small to have bad feelings! In fact, my chaburah is filled with former employees. We’re still the closest of friends, shteiging together at nights and on Shabbos — at least before COVID.
ON COMMUNAL GROWTH
Gavriel Toso: When I arrived 15 years ago, there was never any net gain in the frum population — ten families would come, but ten families would leave — but that’s changed drastically. This year, we lost one family, but we gained 20.
Yakov Polatsek: As the frum infrastructure grows, it becomes more of an option for people to settle here. We now have a kollel, shuls, schools, restaurants. In the last five to eight years, we’ve seen our growth snowball as the infrastructure becomes stronger.
According to a study the Jewish Federation of Houston did two years ago, there are 62,500 Jews in Houston, including 5,000 Israelis. Rabbi Moshe Friedman, the director of the kollel, estimates we have about 500 families in the community, and with Chabad and the others, we maybe have as many as 800 frum families.
Yechiel Polatsek: Our community builds everything with future growth in mind. The girls’ high school only has about 30 girls now, but the building can hold close to 120. The boys’ mesivta will double next year and continue to fill.
Eric Pines: Nine years ago, when I came here, there wasn’t a Lakewood kollel; there were maybe five or six guys learning on a typical night in the beis midrash. Since then, the kollel has grown exponentially. There are close to 60 guys learning there on a typical night, although only a dozen or so are full time. Prior to COVID, most of us would go to the kollel in the evenings — we hope to again soon.
Yakov Polatsek: At this point, I think you could characterize Houston as a “young adult” community. We’re not brand new, but we’re not mature either. The crucial point of maturity is when the children who’ve grown up come back here to live. The Chabad community is at that point already, but they’ve been in Houston longer than the rest of us — we’re not there yet.
ON WHAT HOUSTON IS LACKING
Gavriel Toso: We need a frum dentist. We don’t have one yet in the community, which is surprising given all the candy the kids eat in shul. And we need a good bakery and takeout place.
Yakov Polatsek: Yes — and we need heimishe people for that, to make great kugels and cholent and the rest.
Yechiel Polatsek: A year ago, you could have said we needed a mesivta, but this year we opened one up with a full staff. We started with four boys, but this year there are 12, and we expect it to keep growing every year. In a few years we’ll open it up to out-of-town boys. Rabbi Akiva Rotenberg moved here to spearhead this initiative, he has created an environment where the boys feel really special. Being in an out-of-town community with fewer external pressures allows the boys to flourish into bnei Torah at their own pace — I think fewer kids fall between the cracks here.
Yakov Polatsek: Houston is a calmer, healthier environment. In larger communities, people are more likely to outsource chinuch to the yeshivos — you send your kid to school and press play. Here, you have to be more involved: The community is less insular and homogenous, and children are raised with an understanding and an appreciation of their family’s hashkafah and why we do what we do. Parents have a personal relationship with the rebbeim, moros, and the schools’ hanhalahs, resulting in a more gestalt-like approach to chinuch.
ON WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE MAKING THE MOVE
Yakov Polatsek: Don’t come without a job! Yes, the cost of living is lower here, but it still costs money to live.
Yechiel Polatsek: If you have a special-needs child, be aware that Texas isn’t a state that offers extensive services and resources.
Yakov Polatsek: The attitude of the government is we won’t bother you, but you have to take care of yourself and don’t bother us; it’s a Republican state.
Eric Pines: The tuition here is a little higher than what we paid in Baltimore, but it’s still lower than places like Los Angeles or Bergen County in New Jersey.
Yechiel Polatsek: Full tuition runs around $12,000 to $14,000 a year for elementary school. There are scholarships.
Eric Pines: When I first came here in 2010, we struggled financially. But I never had to worry that I wouldn’t be able to send my kids to school because of financial reasons — those in charge of tuition decisions were aware of my recent move, and my situation was clear to those involved in the decision-making process. As my business has grown, baruch Hashem, I have been blessed to give back to others. I was the head of the tuition committee at Yeshivat Torat Emet, I’m now the president of Torah Girls Academy, and in both capacities, I try to pay that kindness forward to those in legitimate financial need. My wife serves as the director of development at YTE, and I see how the entire community comes together to assist her to raise the funds necessary to educate our precious young neshamos.
Yakov Polatsek: Another thing to know: If you come to Houston, you have to be willing to tolerate diversity. We’re a small community, so we accept every Jew.
Gavriel Toso: People here get along, and everyone respects each other even when we’re not exactly the same. And you have to accept that you’re not in a New York environment any more. You’ll have everything you need, but we’re still small and out of town.
Yakov Polatsek: Don’t come if you want to be invisible. If you stop coming to minyan, people will notice and ask if everything is all right. Each person counts more in a small community. Also, you get schlepped into helping with lots of things. That’s a positive thing — in Houston, you can really make a difference.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 843)
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