Everything in Texas is bigger, and Texans won’t let you forget it. Talk with a Houstonian about his city and the superlatives just keep coming: it’s the fourth-largest city in the nation, home of the world’s biggest medical center, site of the largest Conservative congregation in the U.S.
Yes, Houston has actual mega-synagogues. Here in the Bible Belt, where churches are mega-churches, synagogues come supersized as well.
These insights were revealed to me by Lee Wunsch, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston and an ardent promoter of his adopted city. I say adopted because Wunsch himself, though a native Texan, has only spent 35 years in Houston. His wife’s family, meanwhile, was among the original Jewish settlers of the area, re-routed from Ellis Island to Galveston when they emigrated from Europe.
That original Jewish community has grown considerably — from about 25,000 in the 1970s to roughly twice that today, according to Wunsch. And the rest of the city has grown too, spurred by a red-hot job market, no local taxes, no zoning and a low cost of living. All of which means that if you haven’t been to Houston in a while, you’ll find it — naturally — bigger than ever.
There’s more art at its world-class Museum of Fine Arts, more ethnic dining variety than in years past, and a whole lot more sprawl. Houston is one of those Sun Belt cities that can be downright disorienting if you try to take it all in at once.
Locals, of course, don’t even try. At Kenny and Ziggy’s New York Deli, patrons constantly stop to say hello to friends and schmooze over pastrami. There’s a similar scene nearby at Suzie’s Grill in Meyerland, epicenter of Houston Jewry, where a rotating menu of kosher ethnic specialties and kebabs draws reliable crowds.
Over the decades, Houston’s Jewish families gradually migrated to the southwestern quadrant, where neighborhoods like Meyerland can feel downright heimishe. Here you’ll find kosher restaurants, a Jewish Community Center, the federation, and many of the city’s 20 or so synagogues. Several Jewish eateries — including the Three Brothers Bakery, a fifth-generation kosher outfit — have been featured on the Food Network and are pilgrimage sites for Jewish gourmands.
And what about those mega-synagogues? There’s the aforementioned largest Conservative temple in the country, Beth Yeshurun, with 2,300 members, and Beth Israel, the largest Reform synagogue in Texas. The third mega-shul, Congregation Emanu El, was initially founded as a breakaway shul from Beth Israel, but now it’s a giant in its own right.
With high rates of affiliation, most Houston Jews belong to one of these three, though small congregations of 100 or so families dot the planned communities that have sprouted along the city’s periphery — another way that locals circumvent the traffic and sprawl. Many of the newest synagogues are Orthodox, reflecting a movement by observant New York-area Jews to resettle in cheaper, more spacious Houston.
Many of them work at Texas Medical Center, the world’s largest medical facility and a frequent site for Houston visitors — though usually for all the wrong reasons. The Chabad-sponsored Aishel House is a refuge for many of these weary medical travelers, offering lodging, kosher meals, transport and more, all free of charge to patients and families.
Just across the Hermann Park from the Medical Center is one of Houston’s most compelling attractions: the Holocaust Museum Houston, situated in the park-side Museum District near downtown. Like the famous Berlin Holocaust memorial, this museum is thoughtfully designed to give visitors a physical sense of confinement, making for an immersive atmosphere in which to view videos, exhibitions and a focus on Houston-area survivors.
Nearby, no visit to Houston would be complete without another destination of superlative repute — the finest art collection in Texas. It’s at the Museum of Fine Arts, a Met-style institution with enough quality and variety to claim a whole sightseeing day (and it’s getting bigger as well: an ambitious expansion to house recent artworks is underway).
If Houstonians love their museums, they also keep busy with a packed Jewish calendar. Every year, the federation organizes a Yom Limmud (Day of Jewish Learning), which attracts as many as 1,500 participants.
This week, the Evelyn Rubinstein Jewish Community Center is gearing up for one of the year’s biggest events, the 40th Jewish Book Fair. Held annually in mid-fall, the fair attracts literati from all persuasions to its big-name author talks. Cabaret legend Michael Feinstein is this year’s opening act.
And plans are already underway for Houston’s celebration of the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel. Details for the big birthday party aren’t yet known, but you can be sure of one thing.
It will be big.