Moishe Houses Here Struggling For Foothold
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Moishe Houses Here Struggling For Foothold

Innovative program to engage post-college set ‘making progress’ in city laden with hip Jewish events.

Since opening its doors in January, the Williamsburg Moishe House has been drawing 20-30 people to its monthly Shabbat dinners.

But the rest of the week its three residents can feel a little like chopped liver.

“We have events where we struggle to get three people — I think that should never happen in a city with millions of Jews,” said DeJohn Rose. (The five boroughs actually have slightly less than a million Jews.)

Rose’s house was one of four Moishe Houses to open this winter in New York City, part of an international network aimed at building community and Jewish engagement among urban 20-somethings, a sort of campus Hillel for the post-college set. Residents get rent subsidies in exchange for hosting several events per month. But all four local Moishe Houses (actually apartments) — the others are in Murray Hill, Dumbo and Peter Cooper Village — are finding non-Shabbat recruitment harder than they had anticipated.

“It’s been tough,” said Anna Umanskaya, 24, a resident of the house in Peter Cooper Village, which is focused on engaging young Russian Jews. “There hasn’t been as much interest as [Moishe House organizers] expected.”

While her house has “had to turn people away” from Shabbat dinners, due to space constraints, other events have yet to generate a crowd.

“It’s been hard,” said Benji Holzman, 28, a resident of the Dumbo Moishe House. “It takes times, but we’re making progress.”

With a Moishe House in virtually every major American metropolis — and in 16 overseas locations, including London, Buenos Aires and Beijing — the project, in which young people live together and get subsidized rent in exchange for hosting Shabbat dinners and other Jewish events, has been extremely popular with its 20-something constituency as well as the major Jewish philanthropists who help fund it.

It’s not yet clear whether the Moishe House model will take off in New York, however, given that the city already has a plethora of activities for unaffiliated Jews in their 20s — including hip cultural programming offered by the 92YTribeca, Brooklyn Jews, and countless other groups like Heeb Magazine and the Soho Synagogue.

Indeed, the array of existing programs in New York was the reason Moishe House leaders initially were reluctant to set up a Big Apple outpost.

“We were under the impression that the needs of the community were being met,” said David Cygielman, Moishe House’s founder, referring to why New York was not an early priority.

But applications from prospective residents eager to open New York houses had been coming in since the organization first began, in 2006. So once Cygielman found funding to start New York houses — UJA-Federation of New York is putting up $180,000 — he decided to open four, all at once.

Despite residents’ concerns, the four New York houses’ attendance numbers have, so far, kept pace with new houses in other cities. According to the group, which keeps extensive data on events and attendance, the New York programs, including Shabbat dinners, have averaged 16 people per event this year; by comparison, the three Los Angeles Moishe Houses have averaged 23 people per event this year, and Chicago’s two Moishe Houses have, like New York, also averaged 16 people per event this year.

One factor making recruitment a challenge is that many of the New York Moishe House residents are themselves new to the city, say the organization’s leaders. And because Moishe House relies on the personal networks of the residents to publicize events — there is no publicity or advertising budget — few people know about the city’s four houses.

“I think it’s a common problem for young houses,” said Rebecca Karp, the regional director for 12 houses on the East Coast, including the New York homes. “But I think they’re right on track with all the other [new houses] in the world,” she added.

While most houses said weekday events tended to be the least attended, sometimes attracting only one person, several residents suggested another possible reason for poor attendance: the difficulty of finding the proper programmatic balance between purely social activities and ones offering specifically Jewish content. Residents of the New York houses say they try to include more educational and spiritual content into their events, but it often scares newcomers away.

For instance, even though the Murray Hill house residents are all graduate students — two in law school, another in a master’s program for Jewish education and nonprofit management — and tend to attract other graduate students, Rachel Hodes said their guests mostly want to avoid being too intellectual in their few moments of social time.

“People kind of need a break from their intensive, intellectual lives,” Hodes said. “But it’s a conversation we have constantly,” she said, referring to the discussion she and her roommates have about how much educational substance they should include in their programs.

Moishe House headquarters does not try to force educational programming upon the houses.

“We don’t want to infuse Jewish content where it doesn’t want to be,” said Karp, noting that they let residents decide for themselves what is the best way to attract Jews, without placing too many demands. “We say a Jewish softball team is as important as a Shabbat dinner.”

The organization’s philosophy is that, even if social programs with little Jewish content are most popular, Moishe House provides an entrée into a larger network of Jewish life where they can get more substance later.

However, it did recently hire a permanent education director; it also requires its houses to offer a certain number of educational events and Jewish holiday activities, and it hosts four annual “Shabbatons” a year, where residents from all over the world convene to learn about ways to embed substantive Jewish content into their programming.

An independently commissioned study of the organization published this year found that the number of people who said they felt more connected to their city’s Jewish community increased by 80 percent after participating in a Moishe House event.

In addition, after participating in a Moishe House event — roughly 50,000, in all the 46 houses last year — the number of people who agreed with the statement, “I have a clear understanding of what it means to live an active Jewish life,” increased by 40 percent.

Nonetheless, some Jewish leaders catering to a similar demographic say Moishe House’s do-it-yourself approach may be missing an opportunity to provide more meaningful, substantive Jewish experiences.

“I think this demographic is looking for depth, and you really can achieve that with them,” said Dan Ain, the rabbi-in-residence at the 92YTribeca, which serves a similar demographic as Moishe Houses. While he emphasized his support for Moishe House, he highlighted the risks in its approach.

“A D.I.Y. mentality is good, but it can be overvalued,” he said. “I think that there’s a real role for the expert, and having a [religious or trained Jewish educator] can really help facilitate the discussion.”

Ariel Bucher, one of three residents in the Murray Hill Moishe House, believes the houses can fill a niche that New York’s other programs do not offer: a sense of community.

When she moved to New York a few years ago, Bucher, a Rutgers graduate and native of New Jersey, had no trouble finding Jewish events in New York. But rather than simply attend sporadic events, “I wanted it to be partially my own,” said Bucher, referring to her desire to build her own Jewish community.

A recent Cinco De Mayo-themed Shabbat dinner Bucher and her housemates hosted, attracted about 20 people — some of them were friends and classmates of the residents, but a few were newcomers who had heard about the house through its Facebook page, past news coverage, or word of mouth.

When one newcomer came in, Shoshana Smolen, one of the housemates, shrieked: “Ah! You’re from western Massachusetts? I’m from there, too!” They caught up on local connections, and the newcomer seemed to feel at home. By the time all the guests arrived, someone had volunteered to say Kiddush; during the meal —featuring burritos, sliders and Mexican beer served in sand buckets — the conversation did not stop, even if little of it had to do with anything Jewish.

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