Moishe House’s Inability to Say No

Moishe HouseBy Joshua Sotomayor-Einstein

Approximately 6 years ago an intern from the Jewish Federations of Middlesex came to my Moishe House (MH) in Hoboken as part of an exploratory endeavor to see if it was something they would support in their catchment area. Currently, they are recruiting residents for a MH in New Brunswick, NJ. Over 9 years ago, in January 2007 two friends and I opened the Hoboken branch. MH was a relatively new organization with only 7 other branches in the world and a twofold commitment to both empowering young Jewish adults to create their own communities and engaging young Jewish adults where they were not already.

In one of the first conversations I had with MH CEO, David Cygielman, there was a palpable desire to stay out of the major American Jewish cities (such as NYC) because of the plethora of Jewish options and life already ongoing for young adults. From urban kibbutzim to religious organizations, young Jewish professionals to alumni groups, social organizations to JCC’s and Y’s – the big American Jewish cities were in his words “low hanging fruit.”

Today there are 18 houses in NYC, LA and Chicago – making up almost a third of all MH’s in the US. Soon, there will be a MH in New Brunswick, a college town of 56,000 people centered on the main campus of Rutgers University. Rutgers has approximately 7,000 Jewish students, a Hillel which has finished a multimillion dollar capital campaign to build a 33,000 square foot program center, a half block long Chabad House which hosts a kosher meal plan and dozens of activities, the Rutgers Jewish Experience, a thriving Jewish studies department, as well as Mesorah NJ which focuses on post collegiate young Jewish adults and is based in neighboring Highland Park.

From programs for grad students, scholarly and religious classes, kosher food options, Israel programs, regular services from Reform through Orthodox and events for young professionals, the New Brunswick area Jewish world seems to have it all. If the local Jewish federation believes the young adult Jewish community in New Brunswick is underserved, who am I to disagree? If the local Jewish federation believes the post-college Jewish population is comparable in size to the known NJ magnets cities for young adults – Jersey City, Hoboken, Morristown and Montclair (all places with a small Jewish footprint), and that this is the best investment of Jewish communal funds, who am I to say they are wrong? I trust the community stakeholders to identify needs and invest the community’s donations wisely.

What many do not understand is why MH would open branches in cities and college towns known for having well established Jewish infrastructures (both institutional and independent) and an alphabet soup of Jewish organizations, movements, events and programs. In the early years of MH, funding was done on a national level and branches opened based on a mix of resident applications and the merits of their case. As the organization shifted to local funding for each branch it theoretically became a case of where local funders wanted and whether an area merited one. The reality I once learned from the CEO was to paraphrase – they go where they are offered money.

I take no umbrage with fiscal prudence, but the monetary motivation should be limited in our nonprofits. Organizations should stay on point and avoid mission creep. Is there anyone willing to argue that the Upper West Side, let alone Manhattan, didn’t have a smorgasbord of options, institutional and DIY (do-it-yourself), for young Jewish adults before there was a MH in that neighborhood? Does anyone actually believe that the MH residents and community members in the big cities and college towns would be uninvolved were it not for MH being (yet another organization) in the local Jewish landscape?

MH may respond by pointing to their independent community polling to show an increased involvement for residents and community members. This, like all commissioned surveys of membership, is self-selected and biased. Anyone who has enjoyed the programing of an organization and wants to see it continue and grow has a reason to inflate its importance. In MH in particular, an online survey is created by an evaluation firm and sent to residents for distribution to the community. This system is rife for abuse in two ways I know firsthand. First, when I was a MH resident there were community members who informed me that they had downplayed their previous Jewish experience in order to inflate our MH’s impact for the survey. Second, both recently and when I was a resident it was openly discussed among residents, but never with nor sanctioned by MH employees, that many would specifically select those community members who would guarantee a positive review to participant in the survey. Those who were dissatisfied and might dissent were often times not sent the survey and culled from the email list and Facebook group.

Regardless, MH headquarters must examine their inability to say no to institutional funders. In the short term, bringing MH off-mission might not be harmful, but in the long term turning it into just another acronym (MH) in the aleph-bet soup of groups in the big American Jewish cities and campuses will take away its uniqueness and has already diluted its vision.

Joshua Sotomayor-Einstein is a rabid (but non-totalitarian) secularist Jewish young adult from Hoboken, NJ. He is a conservative Republican with Hispanic roots. He writes regularly online and every so often gets published on dead tree (print newspaper); he has been published in over a dozen venues.