The Jews of the lone-star state

Why, if many other Jewish communities are shrinking, are Austin and Houston, Texas becoming a magnet for Jews?

Israeli scouts in Austin, Texas (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli scouts in Austin, Texas
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is at least one US city in which the Jewish population has more than quadrupled in the past 30 years, and it isn’t in California, Florida or along the East Coast.
Austin, the capital of Texas, in the heart of Bible Belt country, is home to a thriving Jewish community. And it is still growing. Fast.
So fast, in fact, that the Dell Jewish Community Campus, which is home to the Jewish Community Association of Austin (JCAA), has recently gained planning permission to expand. The JCAA provides an array of services and programs, from enrichment opportunities for all ages to support services for families, from health- and wellness-oriented programming to global philanthropy.
As an umbrella organization, the JCAA includes four main divisions: the Jewish Federation of Greater Austin, the Jewish Community Center (JCC), Jewish Family Services, and Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). These branches work together to address the community’s needs in collaboration with area congregations, schools and community organizations.
Although the population numbers are small in absolute terms – from about 4,000 in 1981 to at least 16,000 today – this is clearly a community with great prospects for the future.
“Many Jewish communities are aging and shrinking,” says JCAA CEO Jay Rubin.
“But Austin’s is young and growing. This city is a magnet for young single adults and young families, and we have an average age in the 30s.”
Rubin is clearly excited by what is happening in the city, to which he returned in 2006 to take up his current position. A New Yorker by birth, he lived in Austin from 1978 to 1981, and has since worked for Jewish organizations all over the US and overseas.
“We expect the community to keep growing, and it will probably double in size over the next 20 years,” he speculates.
“As well as the young people, who make up the majority of the newcomers, we are even getting baby boomers who move here in retirement. They come to be near their children and grandchildren, or just to enjoy Austin’s lifestyle.”
The city is proving a popular destination for Jews from all over the US and even further afield. It is not difficult to see the attraction. As the gateway to the hill country of central Texas, Austin has one of the most beautiful and under-hyped natural landscapes in America. The Colorado River runs right through the center of the city, and the streams, creeks and natural springs that flow into the river form an extensive network of natural swimming holes and hiking paths. It is also the unofficial “live music capital of the world’ and is home to a diverse and growing creative and hi-tech scene.
The happening-and-friendly vibe is palpable, and Austin consistently makes the top 10 lists for the greenest and most desirable cities in the US. Forbes named it the No. 1 boom town in America. The city offers economic opportunities, low state taxes, and attractive cultural events.
“To my knowledge, I was the first Jewish community ‘concierge’ to be hired by a Jewish community center to assist newcomers with getting connected and learning about the local Jewish community,” says Lisa Apfelberg, director of community outreach at the JCC. “We created this position because of the high number of people moving here. My phone is literally ringing off the hook.”
While many of the newcomers – and those calling to learn more – are from California and New York, there are many others making the move from further away.
“I have had a bunch of Israelis, Canadians, people from Detroit, and even South Africans contacting me,” she enthuses. “I think they are moving here for the climate and for affordable housing, and because Austin has a reputation as a great place to live.”
Most members of the community moved here in the last 20 years or so.
Although there are two synagogues that are over 100 years old, this is largely a new Jewish community without strong historical roots, and there are few multi-generational families. This presents challenges somewhat different from those facing other Jewish communities.
“Other communities have populations with roots dating back many generations, so they have significant endowment funds and plenty of money. Their challenge is that their community is aging and shrinking,” explains Rubin. “Our situation is exactly the opposite.”
The JCAA has a budget of $10 million, of which 25% comes from philanthropy and the rest from community center memberships, tuition, rentals, advertising, program fees, fitness fees and the federation’s annual campaign. But with a young and growing population comes increasing demand for services. The JCAA’s preschool, for example, has a huge waiting list. It already has 224 spaces on campus, and recently opened a satellite community with a further 112 spaces. But it doesn’t want to be turning away any children.
“In 2008 we secured the zoning for expanding the campus, but we had to delay plans due to the economic situation. We hope to expand within the next year,” Rubin says. “But we need to raise the money to do so.”
All of the JCAA’s divisions, plus four synagogues covering all levels of religious observance, a Jewish day school, swimming pool, health club and numerous other facilities, are located at the Dell Jewish Community Campus, in a leafy part of northwest Austin. Having many activities in one location provides a warm and friendly focal point for newcomers and established residents alike – and perhaps for this reason, most community members live within 15 minutes of the site.
Of course, there are synagogues that have chosen to stay in different locations, such as the Beth Israel congregation in Central Austin, and a student Hillel and Chabad center near the university campus. In addition, many events – such as Young Adults Division socials – are held all around the city.
The Young Adults Division works to help newcomers between the ages of 21 and 40 integrate into local life and find new Jewish friends. Dana Epstein, director of special projects for the Jewish Federation of Austin, comments that young people come to Austin even without jobs, looking for a change. YAD offers three or four events a month, and also hosts a Seder and breakthe- fast for those who don’t have family nearby.
“New members have either been here for years and just now want to connect, or they have literally just arrived and are keen to meet other young Jews. YAD offers an easy way to do this,” says Epstein, who also runs J-LEAD, a program developed by the JCAA that prepares Jewish professionals up to age 40 for roles in the local Jewish leadership.
ANTI-SEMITISM is rare in Austin, and relations with the wider non-Jewish community, including the mayor and political officials, are excellent. There isn’t a high level of inter-communal activity, but there are no tensions with the local community around the campus.
“Austin is laid-back kind of city,” says Abe Selig, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, and a native Austinite. “I can’t recall one anti-Semitic incident which reached police level.”
The key political issues for the JCRC are social action, genocide awareness and Israel advocacy. When it comes to the latter, its aim is to lean away from “the more politically charged issues,” which can sometimes be divisive.
“Instead we try to create an empathy and understanding with Israelis, through education and events which celebrate Israel,” Selig explains.
The council has a very good relationship with the Israeli consul-general for the southwest US, celebrates Israel’s Independence Day, and hosts guest lectures on topics such as counter-terrorism in Israel. And the community shares a partnership with Western Galilee, whereby it endeavors to connect local Jews to the residents of that region. Recently it hosted Israeli academics and matched them with their counterparts in the University of Texas Holocaust and Jewish Studies departments.
“It’s a great way to advocate for Israel in a positive way,” enthuses Selig. “We are bringing Israel to Austin.
Their knowledge and expertise gives people an insight into the real people and situation, rather than the negative picture which is often presented by the mainstream media.”
Unlike the situation in Los Angeles, New York or other more mature communities, people in Austin are generally not as deeply connected to Israel and have more limited experience and knowledge of it. A high proportion of those in their 20s and early 30s have been to Israel through the JCAA’s Birthright program, and most of those over 50 have been at least once, often earlier in their lives. But some in their late 30s and 40s have never been.
“Many community members have been at least once, maybe many years ago. That was the beginning of their education. Now they want to learn more.”
And the interest is not limited to the Jewish community.
Austin’s location in the heart of the Bible Belt means that there is widespread support for Israel. There is a “pro-Israel group called Christians United for Israel, who are amongst Israel’s strongest supporters.”
As might be expected in a community without deep generational roots and with low rates of synagogue affiliation, intermarriage does occur, probably at a higher rate than the 50% figure in the US as a whole.
Rubin takes a pragmatic view: “Austin is a very free, liberal and accepting society, and while we hugely value that, it creates challenges as well as opportunities.
Intermarriage is a reality, and we deal with it by aiming to create Jewish families. We run programs for interfaith couples, as well as for gay and lesbian couples.
By being open and tolerant, we hope to keep everyone connected to the community.”
There is no doubt that Austin’s Jews seem extremely happy to be here. Rubin sums up the general sentiment: “We are a 21st-century Jewish community. Our best days are definitely ahead of us.”
A 240-km drive east – down Highway 290 – takes one through Texas’s beautiful prairies to Houston, with its humid sub-tropical climate.
The Houston Jewish community is larger than Austin’s at around 50,000, but it is not expanding at anywhere near the same rate. Houston is also a much larger city – the fourth-largest in the US – so the proportion of Jews is much smaller. However, a small community in a large city still requires a strong support system for those who want to remain close to their Jewish roots.
“The [Houston] Jewish community center is one of the largest community centers in the US,” notes Jonathan Fass, the JCC’s assistant executive director.
“And it is actively used. We are a small, cohesive community within a large city, which results in a different dynamic than, say, Los Angeles or New York City, where they have a large community within a large city.”
Most Jews live in southwest Houston, either the Marilyn Estates area, where the JCC and a number of synagogues are, or in Meyerland.
Fass, himself a native New Yorker, moved to Houston four years ago to take up his current position, having just returned from Israel.
Houston’s Jews, like Austin’s, have excellent relations with the wider community and partner with many agencies.
“For example, we receive a large amount of financial support from United Way, a US-wide organization promoting the caring power of communities,” explains Fass.
Tens of thousands attended the community’s 60th anniversary party for Israel – a laudable number for a city with a Jewish population of only 50,000. The larger non-Jewish population is also extremely supportive, and politicians and non-Jewish members of the public frequently attend Israel events.
The Jewish communities in both cities are largely Democratic, although Fass observes that the Jews in Houston are perhaps “more socially conservative than the Jews of the East or West Coast.”
And he is keen to stress that being more liberal does not necessarily mean they are supportive of President Barack Obama: “Many members of the community have a number of concerns about Obama. I won’t speak to the domestic agenda, but by and large the Jewish community sees Obama as less pro-Israel than his predecessor.
The president seems more willing to push Israel to make concessions that Israel believes will hurt its security.”
Historically, Texas is not a major center of Jewish life, and the Jewish population is approximately 0.6% of its total population. But back in 1909, as New York’s Lower East side grew more and more crowded, non-Jewish Texans saw their state as a refuge for Jewish immigrants.
The Houston Post announced that “Texas has room within her borders for all the Israelites in the world.”
And it seems that both anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment are still rare to this day. The Jews of Texas live comfortable and happy lives among their Texan neighbors.
One final, little-known fact: Texas even has a Jewish speaker in its House of Representatives. Joe Straus was reelected on January 11 by an overwhelming majority of House members. He, incidentally, is a San Antonio native.