Establishment organizations should take note of a little-known but international phenomenon in communal living among Jewish twentysomethings called Moishe House.
Professional executives and big-time philanthropists would be wise to explore, especially now, how a tiny operation could have such a wide reach, touching Jewish lives in important ways while spending relatively little money.
And the key may simply be to trust and empower the right young people to determine how they want to express their Jewishness, and pay close attention to the results.
Moishe House has operated under the radar since it was founded in Santa Barbara, Calif., three years ago, with a staff of four and no public relations budget. But word-of-mouth reports and Facebook postings among young adults have made it
a growing success story.
Named for its original funder, an elderly and somewhat eccentric man named Morris B. Squire, Moishe House creates Jewish communities for young men and women in their 20s by offering them rent subsidies and programming expenses to live in a house and plan Jewish activities there for peers.
A cross between MTV’s “The Real World” and a chavurah, the project has grown from the original Moishe House in Oakland, Calif., with four male housemates, to now operating 25 houses in seven countries and five continents, from California to New England and from Warsaw to Beijing, the newest addition. Nearly 100 young Jewish adults are “living in the houses and really building amazing communities,” according to co-founder and executive director David Cygielman, 27.
Last year, he said, the group collectively hosted more than 2,000 programs for 39,000 total participants and more than 12,500 first-time attendees. And Moishe House took a big step in recent days, forming its own nonprofit organization, no longer funded or bound by Squire and his Forest Foundation. (The parting was amicable, with the group having outgrown its original mandate.)
About half of Moishe House’s $900,000 budget comes from CLI (The Center for Leadership Initiative), funded by philanthropist Lynn Schusterman; the rest must be raised by Cygielman and his staff and an eight-member board of directors.
Talking with and listening to several Moishe House residents, one comes to realize how simple and appealing its core message is: that if you allow thoughtful, caring young Jews with a social consciousness to take responsibility, they will create the kind of environment that appeals to themselves, their friends and their friends’ friends.
“It’s inherently organic and grassroots,” explains Maia Ipp of the Moishe House in San Francisco, noting that “it starts with people who want to live together and make community, and extends from there.”
Cygielman said the formula works because “it’s innovative and cost-effective.” Rather than hiring staff to recruit, Moishe House provides rent subsidies to between two and five people per house and “lets them be leaders right now. We don’t have to try and guess what they need. We allow them to do what they want to build community.”
The central office keeps close tabs on its orbit of houses, requiring them to take part in monthly conference calls, submit a calendar in advance for planned events, post photos of events held, and describe how many people came to each event and how many were first-time attendees.
“Until it’s all approved there’s no reimbursement,” explains Cygielman. “If the monthly calendar is not posted on time, we fine them. We track everything. It’s pretty intense.”
It seems to be working, and only one house has closed, due to lack of sufficient programming.
Word Of Mouth
Rachel Vassar, 25, a part-time graduate student at Temple University, spent several months after college living on a traditional kibbutz in Israel, and was looking for a similarly strong community environment on returning to the U.S. While still in Israel she heard from a friend about the Moishe House in San Francisco; she did some research and applied with two female friends. Their Moishe House in Philadelphia opened in July 2007.
The residents sponsor 12 events a month — each house receives programming payments based on the number of events held — and most fall into the four general categories of programs that Moishe House requires: spiritual/Jewish community; social consciousness/tikkun olam; Jewish education; and purely social.
Vassar said her house hosts poker nights and sponsors sports events, but most popular are “Shabbat and holiday meals with a relevant theme, like a Sukkot dinner made from local food,” adding that “we see this craving for Jewish content among young adults.”
Dinners are held in the four-story, four-bedroom house. “I couldn’t have afforded it on my own,” Vassar said, “but I was interested before I knew we would receive a budget.”
Some events are small, like a monthly book club that attracts five to eight people. But an apples and honey Rosh HaShanah event drew more than 200 and was held at a larger venue.
Like most of the Moishe Houses, the one in Philadelphia is pluralistic, trying to meet the religious needs of as many young Jews as possible. Some houses are kosher, some vegetarian, and the common goal is to make everyone feel at home.
Asked what she has learned from the experience, Vassar offered: “Be flexible, and open to your community in need. Don’t think you’re going to teach them.” Instead, learn from them, and “cultivate leadership.”
Good advice for Jewish organizations striving mightily to reach young people, but too often with top-down programming.
‘We Don’t Preach’
Nathan Yadgar, a 23-year-old sales rep at a dress company who describes himself as Modern Orthodox, lived in the Hoboken, N.J., Moishe House for a time and now lives in the Great Neck Moishe House with his brother and three male friends. Friday night dinners attract between 10 and 40 people to the house, he said, and most of the participants are Sephardic.
”We don’t preach,” he said, “and we try to stay away from religious events. Nothing here is cooked on Shabbat so we can be open to everyone.”
Yadgar said the Hoboken house attracted a younger crowd and had more parties; in Great Neck the events have more Jewish content.
That’s the point, according to co-founder Cygielman. There is no overall formula, but rather an attempt to find the right fit for each community.
He noted, for example, that the organized Jewish community “has been so unsuccessful in programming for this age group” because they still make the mistake of combining 20s and 30s in their offerings. “They think a 25-year-old and a 35-year-old are the same, but they’re not. We’re targeting a specific group” who are between the college years and their late 20s.
These young people are looking for meaning and community, and feel “so much more comfortable being invited to someone’s house than to a third-party venue,” Cygielman said, whether it’s a synagogue or a bar.
A nonprofit veteran, while still in high school he launched a program to feed the homeless and he was Hillel president at the University of California at Santa Barbara. It was during his college years that he met Morris Squire in synagogue, and over a number of talks together, first came up with the notion of paying Jewish college students $10 an hour for projects that would be meaningful to their direction in life and benefit the community.
Cygielman hit on the winning formula when he went to visit four college friends living in Oakland, and asked them what they were doing Jewishly. Nothing, they said. What if your rent was subsidized if you sponsored Jewish events?
“They agreed,” he recalled, “and the first week they held an event that drew 70 people.” Moishe House was born.
Today, Cygielman says he has a large stack of applications from young men and women who want to live in or start a Moishe House in various parts of the world. He feels the programming aspect is working well, though he worries about raising funds in this economic environment.
Yonatan Gordis, the executive director of CLI, Moishe House’s largest funder now, believes Moishe House “is a gift staring the community in the face.”
He noted that it is “incredibly cost-effective and light on its feet,” since members can move on, be replaced, and houses can close and new ones open.
Moishe House is “a fascinating model,” he said, because it involves “a leap of faith” that “if you trust the younger generation to run their Jewish communal lives in a way that works for their peers, they will do it and people will come.”
So far it is working beyond anyone’s expectations. Let’s hope the message is heard.