Moishe House Expanding to ‘Mecca for Young Adults,’ Bolstering its International Framework

by Michele Alperin
JointMedia News Service

Moishe House participants interacting during a Friday night meal in San Diego; photo courtesy

A phenomenon rapidly expanding from its California roots, Moishe House – which provides rent and programming subsidies to Jewish 20-and 30-somethings whose homes and apartments become community hubs for their peers – will soon open its first houses in New York City and a London-based support and training office for international residences.

Four New York locations will bring the program, now in its sixth year, to a total of 40 houses in 14 countries.

“In many ways New York is, certainly in the U.S., a center of Jewish life and also a mecca for young adults to move there after college,” says Moishe House Founder David Cygielman, who was in New York this week meeting with applicants. “They are hoping to have a Jewish life and Moishe House is a proven model for providing that.”

Indeed, Moishe Houses appeal to a lost demographic in the American Jewish community: the post-college generation that is too old for Hillel and two young for permanent affiliations. Jonathan Goldstone, a graduate student in immunology and molecular biology at the University of California-San Diego and a Moishe House resident, explains.

“The only programming in San Diego for Jewish young adults were top-down-run organizations or synagogues, and if you’re not Orthodox, they’re hard to be part of and feel comfortable,” Goldstone says.

What initially brings the young Jews into Moishe Houses around the world are lively programs that reflect the residents’ personal passions. “The house is very much the product of the residents,” says Evan Rosenstock, who founded a Moishe House in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2007 that served 500 people a month. “They create the vibe of the house.”

Many houses host unique Shabbat programs, be it a “House Concert,” where participants share music, poetry, and stories; Shabbat singing augmented by a drum circle; or Surfdalah in San Diego, with surfing, beach games, and, come sunset, Havdalah on the beach. Social action is also popular.

Although religion per se is not the first concern of Moishe Houses, they often sponsor Jewish exploration and study, for example, a monthly San Diego program that brings in rabbis of varying denominations for an open discussion.

“A lot of young adults don’t even feel comfortable walking into a synagogue,” explains Goldstone. “By bringing a rabbi here, the comfort level is different. It is a gateway to further interest; if you realize the rabbi may have views similar to yours, it is a bridging point.”

From New York to London

The four New York houses are all being supported in partnership with UJA Federation of New York. New York is different than other large cities where Moishe House has residences, Cygielman says, because “It is so geographically small with such a high concentration of people that we wanted to make sure the houses have distinct personalities.” Cygielman doesn’t want the same people going to all the Moishe Houses in New York; rather, he suggests unique houses – one might focus on arts and culture, another on Israel. One of the four is set to be a Russian house, jointly supported by UJA and the Genesis Philanthropy Group, which supports Russian Jewish life.

Serving Russian Jewry was also motivation for opening an international support support in London, Cygielman says. It has been relatively easy to send staff members from the United States to popular cities like London and Budapest, he says, but it will likely be harder to send people to the eastern reaches of the Former Soviet Union.

Last week, Cygielman trained Joel Stanley, a former resident in Moishe House London, to head the new office. Cygielman says Stanley’s role is important because, “We have over 2,600 programs each year. We need someone paying attention to all the good things happening and the things that are not working and sharing them with the residents so they can learn from one another and get connected.”

Stanley will also help build relations with potential international funders.

“We have amazing supporters in Europe and the former Soviet Union that we want to be close to, show our houses to, and be involved with,” Cygielman says. “Only in the last year or year and half have we had strong financial support from donors outside of the U.S. who are committed to Jewish life in the Diaspora.”

How it all started

Cygielman first recognized the importance of having a Jewish community of peers during a teen trip at age 16. In college, he forged a symbiotic relationship with philanthropist Morris Squire of Forest Health Systems, where Cygielman developed ideas for community organizing that Squire funded.

When Cygielman returned to the Bay Area after college to work in sales and marketing, he discovered that Jewish community, which had been so available on campus, was now elusive. Yet he was not ready to join something with a long-term feel, like a synagogue or federation.

One day, while visiting a friend from his Israel trip, Cygielman spontaneously asked him and his three housemates, “Would you guys consider making your house into a place for Jewish life?” He figured they had the essentials: a couch, a kitchen, and a lot of Jewish friends. After securing a subsidy from Squire, the roommates’ first Shabbat dinner drew 70 people, and by the following week, Squire had accepted the idea of using a rent subsidy as an incentive to create more Moishe Houses.

Cygielman immediately started getting emails from young people interested in created a Moishe House the next week, and a second house soon opened in Oakland – dubbed Moishe House in honor of Squire’s Yiddish first name. By 2008, 20 Moishe Houses existed in 10 countries and emails were pouring in weekly.

Although the organization faced a crisis when Squire had to discontinue his funding after the big economic downturn, Cygielman and his colleagues managed to secure half of the next year’s budget from the Schusterman Foundation, with the proviso that they set up an organization. After knocking on more doors, they got general operating grants from the Jim Joseph Foundation in San Francisco and the Righteous Person Foundation in Los Angeles. Today, despite support from funders large and small and from local Jewish communities, Cygielman says, “The demand now far outweighs the supply.”

Community ownership

The Moishe House that Rosenstock created in Argentina grew out of his need to seek out like-minded peers in a foreign country, even though he had never been involved in the Jewish community at home community – despite tons of young adult programming in New York City. “I had a social scene and a personal life, and Judaism didn’t play a role,” he recalls. “In Argentina what really sparked the interest in me was being so far away from home and my family.”

When Rosenstock returned to New York, he was no longer an outsider, but an integral part of the Jewish community. During his master’s program in international relations at New York University, he worked part time for Hillel and founded a Jewish student association. When he graduated, he went to work for the Joint Distribution Committee, where he develops and leads short-term service trips abroad for North American Jewish college students.

After returning to the United States, Rosenstock maintained a strong connection with his Moishe House. When he was lucky enough to travel back to Buenos Aires as part of his new job, he visited the house. “They welcomed me: ‘My house is your house; make yourself at home,’” he says. “It was an incredible feeling; I walked into this house, no longer mine, but they made it feel like home – mi casa es tu casa.”

Psychology graduate student Katherine Bruce started proactively seeking out Jewish community involvement after her 2008 Birthright experience. Before that, she had always been more curious about other cultures than her own, but after she returned from Israel she was looking to explore her own Jewish identity. She says joining the Moishe House-East Bay in Berkeley, Calif., was the first step.

“Moishe House is an excellent, low-barrier, comfortable way to do that – by living it, not by studying it,” she says. “It is a fantastic model for young adults – to feel this ownership of their community and have this real intentionality of Judaism in their lives.”

For Goldstone, the appeal of living in a Moishe House in San Diego is not only that programming is egalitarian and peer led, but that the house is very open and pluralistic. “That goes a long way with this specific young adult community,” he says. “If you speak to people of this generation and say they have a choice to go to group A or B, where A is closed and B is open for everyone, they will choose B.”