By David Cygielman
Ten years ago, Justin Timberlake’s “Sexy Back” topped the Billboard charts, the second installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was the highest-grossing movie of the year, Google purchased a quickly growing video-sharing site called YouTube, and I had a full head of hair.
At the same time, a group of Jewish friends living in the San Francisco Bay Area in their early 20s were trying to figure out how to be young professionals and/or graduate students in the “real world” while staying connected to their Judaism. They had positive Jewish experiences growing up and some stayed engaged during college, but as 23-year-olds, they found themselves more than a decade younger and in a completely different phase of life from the local young adult programming being offered and no longer had access Jewish life on their former college campuses. Rather than simply disengaging Jewishly, they hosted a potluck Shabbat dinner with the encouragement of a generous future donor. Seventy-three people showed up, all gathering for their first Shabbat as young, post-college adults. They may have known or not known they were on to something special: the beginning of Moishe House.
Fast forward 10 years and those casual Shabbat gatherings among friends have evolved into a global network of hubs of peer-led Jewish life for young adults, called Moishe Houses. Our work now also includes a packed calendar of Jewish Learning and Leadership Retreats and a rapidly-growing initiative that empowers Jewish young adults to host peer-led programming from their own homes, wherever they live (titled Moishe House Without Walls – MHWOW). In 2015 alone, Moishe House engaged more than 43,000 unique young adults around the world through 7,400+ programs that were created by Jewish young adults for Jewish young adults.
But at Moishe House, it isn’t the numbers that make us proud of the work we’ve done across the globe for the last 10 years; it is the people that have served as Moishe House residents, MHWOW hosts, Jewish Learning Retreat participants and community members at our programs since 2006.
It is the story of Tiffany Harris, a resident of Moishe House Washington D.C. – Columbia Heights, who arrived in Washington, D.C. in January 2014 with a job at the Peace Corps headquarters and her favorite Crossfit Tel Aviv t-shirt. A few weeks later, someone approached her at the gym while she was wearing that same shirt and told her about this place called Moishe House. Less than three years later, Tiffany is not only a resident of Moishe House Washington, D.C. – Columbia Heights, but is also the resident representative on Moishe House’s national board of directors.
It is the two-month backpacking trip to South America that lasted for more than two years for NY native, Evan Rosenstock. In college, Evan was not highly engaged in Jewish life, but while spending time away from home in Buenos Aires, he ended up building one of the first international Moishe Houses. Today, he has developed his skills and now leads programming professionally at JDC Entwine.
From Moishe House’s earliest days 10 years ago, it has been people like Tiffany, Evan and thousands more who have driven Moishe House’s programming, growth and impact. As a result, hundreds of thousands of young adults have discovered and connected to a Judaism that feels real and accessible to them. They are creating Jewish communities that will sustain them throughout their lives.
What has been accomplished over the first 10 years brings us a sense of pride but it is not what drives us. For us to really be successful, we must deepen the experiences, increase the reach and create more ways for young Jewish adults to meaningfully connect to their Judaism. This will happen with more Moishe House houses, stronger leaders, increased learning and most of all, a continued commitment to peer-to-peer engagement. We are continuing to learn and put this learning into action. For example, we have found that immersive learning experiences are more attractive than weekly classes so we are doubling down on our multi-day education offerings.
Yet, we estimate that we are only serving 10 percent of what is possible and look forward to many more monumental footsteps in making the long-term impact we seek. There are cities we are not serving, there are leaders we are not reaching and there are programs we have not yet launched. These Jewish young adults continue the trend of settling down later, being more mobile and diving deeper into a shared economy. As this new phase of emerging adulthood now becomes a longer period than high school and college combined, it is more important than ever to provide the most meaningful and rich Jewish experiences that will form the relationships and rituals to last a lifetime.
This is a time to celebrate but also to reflect on what we have yet to do. While we engaged 33,485 unique participants last year, we still do not have Moishe Houses in Madrid, Nashville, Montreal, Mexico City, or many other key cities. Despite having six different locations in Los Angeles, a young adult might still have to drive 45 minutes in traffic to attend a program. MHWOW has so much to expand its footprint well beyond a few specific cities and a couple of organizations where MHWOW is available to cohorts of alumni. We need to continue to deliver and grow high value programming by engaging Jewish adults through our houses, MHWOW and learning retreat platforms.
Ten years since that first potluck Shabbat dinner in Oakland, Drake’s “One Dance” is topping the Billboard Charts, Finding Dory is the highest-grossing movie of the year, Google is testing self-driving cars and I am officially old enough to have a bad back and life insurance. From Australia to Austria and Beijing to Boston, we now have 94 houses in 22 countries around the globe with many more on the way.
As we quickly learned 10 years ago at Moishe House, leaders in their 20s are one of the best and most valuable sources for ideas, programming and creating their own community – and we must be there to support them.
David Cygielman is Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Moishe House.