Innovation at Moishe House: Evolving with a Changing Landscape
By David Cygielman
When you work with young adults, the pace of change is high. It makes the work particularly interesting, but also doesn’t provide much time to think that tomorrow will look anything like today.
For the first 13 years of Moishe House’s history, we’ve been committed to our “house” model. Our focus has been to support the existing network of Moishe Houses while continually working to grow in order to serve more young adults. The model is simple and clean: in a rented home, 3-5 Jewish young adults (we call them “residents”) live together and plan programming for their peers. And while our core house program model is working and growing each year, we keep encountering questions that inspire us to think outside of what we’ve always done and what has gotten us to where we are today
How can we get into communities where the Jewish young adult population or funding base isn’t big enough for a house? What can we do in neighborhoods where housing for more than two people is becoming prohibitively expensive? How can we serve the diverse, specific areas of interest in the larger Jewish community like wellness, LGBTQ+ advocacy, Jews of color, etc.? What can we do when we have couples who want to lead a Moishe House?
In 2011, when we received the data from our first external evaluation it was quite positive in terms of the impact we are having on both behaviors and attitudes of Jewish young adults related to Jewish communal life. Our board, team and funders were quite pleased. Thousands of young adults were having fun and meaningful experiences through Moishe House’s peer-led Jewish programming. But, this was not the whole story. One statistic really stood out: less than 25% of the most active participants were interested in becoming residents themselves.
The success of Moishe House’s impact is based on the willingness and excitement of young Jewish adults to step into a leadership role as a resident. How much were we missing out on by not having a model where the majority of participants also have the desire to step into a leadership role? One of our wisest donors asked, “What do the conditions need to be for Moishe House to grow from 100 houses to 500 houses?” It was a powerful question – one that gave us renewed energy around innovation and experimentation.
This year, we took our first step forward in this conversation by officially launching a pilot of two-resident Moishe Houses, which we’re calling Moishe Pods. Moishe Pods host three programs a month in exchange for a rent subsidy and programming budget. They are certainly similar to the existing Moishe House model, but previously, we never had allowed a two-person house or couples.
As we began to test the waters, we quickly learned that for many people, Moishe Pods make a lot of sense. It turns out that while the 75% who do not want to be residents feel very positive about Moishe House and its model, many don’t want to live with more than one roommate, don’t have the time in their school or work schedule to accommodate weekly programming, or even live in a city where finding a group of 3-5 people is quite challenging due to the size of the community and existing infrastructure
Because a Pod only needs two trained and vetted leaders, not 3-5, we can also open them faster. In cities where rent prices make it difficult to obtain a home or apartment big enough for 3-5 people, it is much easier to find a home for just two people. And in places where the Jewish young adult population isn’t large enough to sustain a full 5+ program Moishe House, just three programs a month fits the bill. And we’re encouraged by what we’re seeing so far.
Since January, 11 Moishe Pods have launched programming with 11 pairs of Jewish leaders in cities across six different countries who are hosting three programs a month and creating exciting Jewish programs for their friends. Of our 11 Pod resident pairs right now, five are friends, four are couples (not married or engaged) and two are married. The majority are in cities where the traditional Moishe House model would not have worked due to size but the need for young adult Jewish life is still quite high.
Pods have opened in Amsterdam, Boston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles – Santa Monica, Los Angeles – Downtown, Madrid, Manchester, Miami, New Haven, Raleigh, Sacramento and Toronto. In the first six months of the year, Moishe Pods engaged more than 750 unique participants.
Will Pods continue to work or are they just a flash in the pan? Can we build strong, cohesive, diverse community with only three programs a month on the backs of just two leaders? Is the burden of programming too much on just two people? How can our staff actively support pairs of Pod residents and what sort of ongoing training do they need?
As is often the case when we try out new and exciting projects – be it Pods or Jewish summer camp for adults (Camp Nai Nai Nai) or immersive Jewish learning retreats or anything else we’ve tried over the years – we can’t know the results with certainty. We’re going to keep supporting Pods through 2021, when we will have gathered enough data to know its future.
But every day at Moishe House, our staff works hard to learn and adapt, with the support of an encouraging board and the mandate from a strategic plan to innovate. And right now, we’re in that stage with Moishe Pods where everything is new, which is incredibly energizing. We’re experimenting with this new model and listening to feedback from the new residents and their community members. This is how we do what we do best. We listen, we learn, we grow. Pods are the latest step in our evolution, and we’re excited to see where they take us.
David Cygielman is Moishe House’s Founder & CEO.