Be Big. Act Small.

Moishe House Community Learning Retreat, August 2011 - Sonoma County, California; photo by Jonathan Goldstone
Moishe House Community Learning Retreat, August 2011 – Sonoma County, California; photo by Jonathan Goldstone

Young adults are ready, willing and able to lead our Jewish communities

By David Cygielman

I remember sitting in a little Mexican restaurant in Santa Barbara back in 2008, having my first meeting with Mike Nissenson, who would later become Moishe House’s first board chair. This was during a precarious time as Moishe House’s sole benefactor had just shut down his foundation in the wake of the economic collapse. The conversation mostly revolved around Moishe House and its potential. When Mike asked how many houses we could eventually open, I felt optimistically confident that there could be 75 Moishe Houses around the world. With the right team, board members, funding and, most importantly, residents, I believed we could achieve this ambitious goal.

Last month, Moishe House Austin signed a lease and will soon open its doors to hundreds of young adults, marking the 76th Moishe House in 17 countries. This news is exciting, but also slightly scary: I never imagined us becoming this big. From the time of my conversation with Mike in 2008, Moishe House has not only grown to 76 houses but has also built out new avenues of engagement and training that strengthen the entire model: Moishe House Without Walls continues to expand its reach and depth, while this year alone, we will host more than 20 immersive Learning and Leadership Development Retreats. Plus we have strategic plans to open even more houses this year and beyond. Despite our rapid growth, I still think of us as a small team of less than 20 staff members; however, the reality is that we now have 32 people working for Moishe House.

During a Skype call this week with a close friend and mentor in Israel, I told him about our growth. On one hand, I am excited that we are reaching and impacting more and more young adults around the world, but on the other hand, I have not fully come to grips with Moishe House being quite this large. My friend listened and then asked a simple question: “How can you be big but act small?” I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. While I fervently want to double the number of those engaged in Moishe House over the next three years, I also want to maintain our culture and the family atmosphere that has enabled us to not only be successful, but have fun along the way. I recognize that this goal is neither easy nor automatic.

We are big and we are getting bigger. Demand continues to outweigh supply and young adults are ready, willing and able to lead our Jewish communities. While we continue to expand, we can still act small. We can work in a way that reflects the grassroots nature that truly defines Moishe House. For example, the time spent together as a staff, whether at retreat centers, staying up at night around a campfire, or virtually through trivia about zombie apocalypses and birthday emails sharing Internet cat pictures might all feel outgrown given our size. But it is just the opposite. These moments and experiences are the bedrock for what has made Moishe House strong, and I now feel confident that we can embrace our expansion and dynamically flourish in our size while still feeling small.

David Cygielman is Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Moishe House.