Moishe House Rocks Demystifies Jewish Ritual in Cartoon Videos

[This is the first in a series of follow-up posts describing the projects of the 2011-2012 Jewish New Media Innovation Fund Award Recipients.]

by Abigail Pickus

When David Cygielman co-founded Moishe House, he was responding to a very real and pressing need: the glaring absence of community young Jews feel once they graduate from college.

So in 2006, he launched the first Moishe House – a communal place for young post-college Jews to live and create community. There are now 38 Moishe Houses in 14 countries, including in Beijing, Warsaw and Capetown – with new houses set to open in the former Soviet Union, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“I see Moishe House more as a vehicle than an organization,” said Cygielman from its Oakland, California, headquarters. “It’s a way to reach young Jewish adults because they do want to be reached. We just need to provide the framework and the content to enable that.”

So when the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund put out a public call for proposals for projects that use “new media tools – including video, digital communications, social networks, and more – to empower Jews to interact with, share, build, and explore Jewish life” Cygielman put his thinking cap on.

What was the next big need facing Moishe House residents – and beyond?

The answer is Moishe House Rocks, one of the 2011-2012 Jewish New Media Innovation Fund Award Recipients. A joint project with G-dcast, Moishe House Rocks is a series of three cartoon videos offering fun, karaoke-style how to’s for building a sukkah, leading Kiddush and other Shabbat blessings, and learning the Havdalah ceremony.

“We believe in the value of new media, yet we haven’t been able to utilize it for the larger community,” said Cygielman. “So when we were trying to think of what our needs are one of the biggest is to help the hundreds of Jewish young adults running thousands of programs every year who are kind of thrown into the deep end. While some feel comfortable leading kiddush or havdalah because they went to day school or summer camp, for the majority of the Moishe House residents this is the first time they are doing this.”

He immediately thought of Sarah Lefton, a fellow ROI Community member and Executive Director and Producer of G-dcast, a website that bills itself as “animating Torah for today!” featuring quirky, four-minute cartoons that tell the stories of the entire Torah in prose, poetry, music and hip hop.

“We have a lunch-n-learn for our staff once a week and we always play G-dcast and suddenly we thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could utilize that talent to not just show residents but to show anyone interested in how to lead some of these holidays and rituals?” said Cygielman.

For her part, Lefton was immediately sold on the idea.

“I think that Moishe House is possibly the best program going period in the Jewish world right now,” she said. “It’s all about letting a group of people determine for themselves what they want to do to express themselves Jewishly and that is what this generation is all about.”

The objective of Moishe House Rocks is to take something that is potentially intimidating, like Hebrew prayers and ritual, and make it accessible.

“What G-odcast is all about is making things difficult to understand easy to understand and while G-dcast applies itself to text, to tanach, ritual is something we normally wouldn’t do, so this was an opportunity for us at G-dcast to stretch,” said Lefton.

The three minute cartoons, while targeting the YouTube generation, are – like the Muppets of old – not limited to the young. The “how to build a sukkah” video breaks down the process with a series of New Yorker-like stick figure drawings, specific written instructions that flash onto the screen, all set to a catchy beat box soundtrack. The prayers themselves are presented karaoke-style so that viewers can sing along. In the Shabbat video, for example, the kiddush is presented in English transliteration with a bouncing bunch of grapes pointing to the appropriate word.

“These videos are really set up like karaoke videos,” said Lefton, who is based in San Francisco, California. “The singing is done maybe a little slower than you would do it in real life because the whole idea is someone at a Moishe House or in any house could sit on their own time privately or with a group and practice using these videos. It takes away that feeling of embarrassment like, ‘Oh my God, I’m 25 and I never learned how to make kiddish so I can never host a Shabbat dinner because then I will get busted.’”

2011-2012 is the pilot year for the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund, which offered a total of $500,000 in grant money to individuals, non-profits, social enterprises, and for-profit groups, as well as for both start-ups and established projects for the launch of an existing concept or to take an established project to the next level.

The Jewish New Media Innovation Fund is a collaboration of the Jim Joseph Foundation, Righteous Persons Foundation, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Moishe House Rocks is one of nine award-winning recipients that was chosen out of 306 applicants from eight countries. Other awardees include, which invites Jews of all backgrounds to find their place in the Passover conversation through the seder’s central text, the haggadah, and the Jewniversity Mobile App, which offers a new model of Jewish community engagement that places access to Jewish life directly in the palm of your hands.