by David Cygielman
When I first approached four friends from high school about turning their home into a center for Jewish life, I certainly did not think it would spread to 28 cities across five continents so quickly.
It was 2006, and I was having dinner with friends. All were in their 20s, all very happily identified as Jews. All had large groups of Jewish friends, despite being uninvolved in organized Jewish life. And the idea came up: if I could subsidize their rent and give them a small program budget, they would turn their house into a community center for Jewish adults who have finished college but have yet to move on to having families. As the Executive Director of the Forest Foundation at the time, my foundation was able to cover 85 percent of the budget – making the idea a proven reality, and leaving us with the question: How do we expand on a good idea?
We knew we needed to harness technology. We never thought about expanding to 28 cities within three years. But we realized that even with three cities, we would have too much information to manage everything by hand. We had to track receipts, programs, pictures, reporting, etc. We needed a system that was essentially paperless.
The second component of scaling up was building the team. Expanding alone would lead to burnout before anything was brought to scale. There had to be a team in place that could grow with the initiative. Because the team needed to work together every day, we assembled productive and fun people who excited one another about the project. The initial Moishe House team consisted of me (to raise the money), a software programmer (to make it paperless and online) and a program manager (to make sure Moishe Houses were doing a good job).
Once the team was in place, we hoped that people would want the product and would continue to create vibrant young Jewish communities. We have been very surprised by the amount of organic growth we’ve experienced. For the past three years, I have received an e-mail a week from a new group wanting to create a Moishe House in their city. Our initial goal hadn’t been to create an international network. Rather, it was to implement an innovative idea in a cost-effective way.
There have been many challenges along the way. As an innovator, I find the hardest thing is to say “no.” I love new ideas and I want to say “yes” to everything. But with budget and time constraints, I find myself constantly having to make sure we stay focused, accomplishing one goal at a time. Since August 1, 2008, Moishe House has been an independent nonprofit and I left my position at Forest to be its executive director, where I hope to continue to expand the venture. But to do it, we need our team in place and new partners to support our work. Every city with a young Jewish population deserves at least one Moishe House. This is an excellent example of what can be accomplished with a good idea and a lot of desire.
David Cygielman is the co-founder and executive director of Moishe House, an international network of Jewish communities for adults in their 20s.
image: Moishe Fest London