by Jeremy Borovitz
My first interaction with Moishe House happened about three years ago, when a brash young Peace Corps volunteer from a Ukrainian village was invited to see what Moishe House Kiev had to offer.
On a Sunday night, 25 other young Jews had gathered in an apartment to talk about an upcoming Jewish holiday – I want to say it was Shavuot, but I could be mistaken – mainly to spend time with other Jews their age. As soon as I walked in the doors, I was bombarded with friendships, greetings and smiles galore. Within five minutes of arriving at Moishe House Kiev, I found a friendly Jewish community.
What impacted me most about Moishe House’s recent Shabbat retreat in Latvia (‘Shabbat 2.0: Re-imagining Rest for the 21st Century’) was the palpable sense of community. Somewhere within the in-gathering of these young Jews, the homes they create or are a part of in their respective countries were immediately transported to a small resort an hour outside of Riga. As Elizabeth Smirnova, a conference attendee and frequent guest at Moishe House Moscow elegantly said, “It exceeded my best expectations of community.”
For European and American Jewry alike, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the synagogue was deemed the focal point of the Jewish experience and communal life. But as Europe’s borders began to open and technological changes shrunk the world, the synagogue model – constricted to a particular place in a particular location – no longer serves the needs of a fast paced, on-the-go generation.
The individuals who gathered at this retreat – 33 Jewish young adults from 12 different cities around Europe, a mixture of Moishe House residents, alumni who used to live in a Moishe House, and community members who attend Moishe House programs or hope to start one soon in their region – may not belong to synagogues, but they are firm in their commitment to moulding a new Jewish future. And in a twist that my socialist ancestors almost certainly would not have predicted, they were there to learn how to create Shabbat experiences that could strengthen their communities.
The atmosphere in every one of the sessions – geared towards the how and why of Shabbat rituals and practices, exploring participants’ personal relationships to Shabbat, and dreaming up new ways to create the best possible Shabbat programming for their communities back home – was electric. These were people yearning to learn, to share, to grow – all eager to contribute to the group dynamic.
Never mind that the participants spanned the liberal religious spectrum, from Modern Orthodox to pure secularism. A Jew who may never have been to synagogue listened raptly to talk of the laws of Shabbat. A girl who only recently discovered her Judaism talked about how she manages to observe Shabbat in a meaningful, unique way. An individual from the former Soviet Union grappled with Torah texts, fighting with and for its meaning, all the while learning to deliver a Dvar Torah. A prospective Aliyah to Israel brought others to tears with her call for Jewish unity.
And unified it was, even when we split up for prayers Friday night between traditional services, meditation, and time for self-reflection. In the end, we all broke bread together, understanding that our collective memory and shared heritage were bonds that no barriers – lingual, religious, or otherwise – could hope to withstand.
The currents of ideas flowed fluidly from one house to another, as talk of a project first attempted in Kiev sparked a response from Budapest and led to a bursting of ingenuity for Helena Czernek, a former resident of Moishe House Warsaw. Of all that she learned, she said “I hope that I can bring even a small piece of it to my community and share it. It will make it richer.” And halfway across Europe, Georgina Bye, a resident of Moishe House London, can’t wait to take different elements of what she learned back to Moishe House London. More than anything else, this retreat was an international marketplace of Shabbat ideas.
Among the participants a deep awareness transpired, often unseen in young people, of the generous nature of their benefactors. On more than one occasion, residents remarked how lucky they felt to be part of a Jewish community so committed to allowing its youth to express itself in new and brave ways. Ohad Sternberg, a former resident of Moishe House Chisinau in Moldova, gave an impassioned speech of gratitude, expressing “thanks to the donors [such as UJA NY and an anonymous donor] who made this all possible.” It received, by far, the loudest applause.
This was the second Moishe House learning retreat in Europe, following a gathering near Warsaw, Poland, in April 2013. Since August 2011, Moishe House has held 26 learning and leadership retreats in the United States and internationally, reaching over 700 young adults. The demand to participate in these retreats has been tremendous, and Moishe House will be expanding their international learning retreat program to hold more gatherings, on different themes, later this year and into 2015.
As Americans lament the Pew report and Europeans worry about anti-Semitism, sprinkled across North America and Europe (and even South America, Asia, and Australia), there are groups of young Jews trying to redefine their identities and build new communities according to their desires and needs. Next time you find yourself on a Friday night in Riga, or Odessa, or St. Petersburg, look up the local Moishe House. What you will find is an experiment in action, a Shabbat experience moulded from Jewish youth across the globe. What you will find is the spark of a new Jewish future, one whose energy will infuse you with a new sense of Yiddishkeit. What you will find is a community, wherever you are, and whoever you want to be.
Jeremy Borovitz is a Jewish educator studying at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. He served for 27 months as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Boyarka, Ukraine, and for a year as the Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Kyiv, Ukraine.
For more on Moishe House and their learning retreat program, visit www.moishehouse.org/learning.asp