Learning from Jewish Education

by David Cygielman

I often think of the original Moishe House staff team as being “uniquely under qualified.” We were all committed, excited and saw the potential of Moishe House to change the face of young adult Jewish life but none of us had any actual job experience or the network to rely on our past experience; we truly had to learn as we went. Looking back, this was a huge advantage because we could only look to the future, none of our conversations were about things that did or did not work in the past and much of Moishe House was built in partnership with the residents who run the actual houses. As our numbers and geographic reach grew it was clear that going beyond a start-up would require us to not just be generalists but also bring in specialists.

Making this transition is easier said than done. In 2011 when we completed our two-year external evaluation, we had an internal meeting to brainstorm the best ways to utilize this information to continually become a stronger organization. One particularly interesting finding was that the majority of people who live in Moishe House did not grow up doing the majority of the Jewish programming they are now leading. This was a striking realization because for most of the staff, this was also true. How could we, an organization working with young adults but not focused on Jewish learning, transcend ourselves to meet this clear demand?

With the generous support of the Jim Joseph Foundation, Maimonides Fund, Alan B. Slifka Foundation, several local communities and our partners at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel and Repair the World, we wanted to try and model an immersive learning approach. What would it look like to gather 25-30 residents, key participants and birthright Israel alumni together for a three day training on specific topics such as: Shabbat, Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot and others. With the goal always being that what is taught can then be replicated in Moishe Houses and homes throughout North America, creating a huge ripple effect. Like most things here at Moishe House, we hit the road running. In 2012, through the passion and endless hours of our new specialists, Dr. Zvi Bellin and Rabbi Dan Horwitz, we hosted 8 learning retreats, including a full-week in December. These learning retreats were hosted in cities across America and reached capacity of 225 participants. As a direct result, we have seen a drastic surge in educational and holiday programming at the houses and a network of young peer educators born.

Through the vision of Dan, Zvi and dozens of amazing educators that we partner with for our trainings, we have now become a platform for Jewish Education. However, as much as we are teaching, we are learning even more ourselves. We have learned how to transition from generalists to specialists without losing our entrepreneurial spirit; we have learned how to build a department in partnership with those that we serve and we have learned that if we take the unique desires and lifestyle wants of 20-something’s and throw infuse that with rich Jewish content – they will show up and keep coming back!

We are only in the beginning, with 12 Learning Retreats planned for 2013 including our first ever in Europe, I know the best is yet to come.

David Cygielman is CEO of Moishe House.