Monday, 31 October 2011

Chicago's Moishe House

By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood

In a glamorous 16th-floor apartment near Navy Pier, young adults are arriving for a Shabbat dinner. It’s not the spectacular views of the lake or the private patio or even the food, partially laid out invitingly on a table set for 18, that draws them, but rather the chance to mingle with others like themselves in a Jewish setting.

Some have been here many times before; for others it’s a first visit. Hugs are exchanged, greetings are traded in English and Russian, drinks are poured and news is shared in a convivial atmosphere.

This is what’s known as the Russian-speaking Jewish Moishe House in Chicago, a cultural phenomenon inside a larger cultural phenomenon inside a Jewish community that often feels empty to those living through the years between graduating college and settling down with a family.

That at least was the thinking of the founders of Moishe House, a rapidly expanding international organization that provides rent and other subsidies to Jews in their 20s and early 30s, who, in return, open their homes to Jewish programming for others in their age group. There are now some 40 Moishe Houses in 15 countries, including two in Chicago.

One of those is unique in the United States: It is for young Russian-speaking Jews, most of whom grew up in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Here’s how it works, using the Russian-speaking house as an example because, except for the backgrounds of the residents and guests, it’s typical of Moishe Houses all over the world.

Four young Jews live in the spacious Lake Shore Drive apartment. In this case they’re all young men, although there are mixed-gender Moishe Houses and the number of residents varies from three to five. In this case the four all knew each other from an earlier Israel trip; the national Moishe House organization usually forms new houses with individuals who are already acquainted.

“We don’t want to be in the business of connecting people because they might not get along,” Jeremy Moscowitz, the California-based regional director who oversees 11 U.S. Moishe Houses, including Chicago’s, explains.

All residents have full-time jobs. Most stay for a few years then move on, often to marriage and family life – an expected transition that is built into the program, although residents may stay as long as they like.

The national organization provides a rent subsidy of between 30 and 75 percent of the total, depending on how many programs the residents host a month, Moscowitz says. The residents have complete autonomy in creating the programs but the organization gives them some loose guidelines, including how many should have direct Jewish content.

The Chicago Russian Moishe House (referred to as RSJ, for Russian-speaking Jewish) hosts from five to six programs a month, with one or two of specific Jewish content – a Shabbat dinner, discussion with a rabbi, Torah study, holiday celebrations. Other programs can encompass everything from concerts to social action to book clubs to sporting events.

The Moishe House organization was founded six years ago by David Cygielman, then executive director of the Forest Foundation, based on his observation that there was a gap in Jewish affiliation in the years between college graduation and starting a family, when many Jews affiliate with a synagogue or other Jewish organization. The original funder of the first program was philanthropist Morris Squire of the Forest Foundation – Moishe House took its name from the Yiddish version of his first name.

“The Jewish community has constructed infrastructure for engagement at almost every age, but after (college and) Hillel, then the Jewish community just kind of throws you out into the world and hopes you come back when you get married,” Moscowitz says.

Squire was forced to discontinue funding the organization after the economic downturn, and today the national Moishe House is supported by an array of funders large and small including the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and dozens more.

Genesis Philanthropy Group, which supports many aspects of Russian Jewish life in the United States, not only provides much of the funding for the Russian Moishe Houses (including one set to open soon in New York City) but supplied the original vision for a separate house for Russian-speaking Jews, according to Moscowitz. There are now a number of Moishe Houses in Russia, Ukraine and several other former Soviet countries.

The Chicago house is funded primarily by Genesis with additional funding from Crown Family Philanthropies, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and an anonymous donor.

Moscowitz says that the young Jews in the Russian house (who often refer to themselves as “housniks”) “have a relationship to Judaism that is different than my own experience. It is seen as almost a nationalistic identity to be Jewish rather than a culture or peoplehood as in the U.S., and that creates some challenges that require a specific kind of engagement.”

He hopes that eventually Russian Moishe Houses “will be at the center of the revival of the Russian-speaking Jewish community in Chicago and around the United States and within the former Soviet Union.”

Ask Franklin Drob how he’s doing on any given day and he’ll tell you he’s “divine.” This intensely positive and elaborately courteous 27-year-old entrepreneur is one of the founders of the Chicago RSJ, where he has been a resident for three years.

He’s also the only one of the four who was born in the United States – he grew up in Highland Park in a family that originally came from Latvia, and learned to speak Russian fluently from his mother and grandmother. He had a bar mitzvah but learned little about Judaism otherwise.

In college at DePaul University, Drob had few Jewish friends. He began teaching yoga and meditation and eventually lived at a monastery for a time. There he met a young Jewish man who “had been on a Jewish journey” and who inspired him to learn more about his religion.

Back in Chicago he reconnected with his rabbi and began praying and putting on tefillin every day. A Birthright Israel trip to the Jewish state further deepened his involvement. On the trip, he met several young Jews from the former Soviet Union, and when he returned, he became more active in the city’s Russian Jewish community. When the RSJ Moishe House was in formation, he was tapped to be a founding member.

“I went from no involvement (in the Jewish community) to throwing over 300 parties and events a year,” Drob, today the CEO of a healthcare and wellness company, says.

“I love my Jewish world. I’m having a great time,” he says. “I can sense that (when I leave Moishe House) I’m going to look back and miss it a lot. We are making the community happen, and it’s kind of cool.” He thinks he’ll stay at Moishe House for another year, then move on.

Drob says that even when there’s no event going on, young Jews often drop by the house for one reason or another. He often works from home, and others will sometimes come by to do the same. “This place is alive and active. It’s often filled with Russian Jews who don’t live here but feel they can be here, that it’s a space for them.”

He calculates that “65 percent of the (young) Russian Jewish community from Chicago and the suburbs have come to our events at one time or another, and the retention rate is at least 45 percent. Some people come back again and again, and at every event, we get at least one new face.”

Drob says that even after he moves out of the house, he’ll still be a major supporter of the program. For himself, “I look at this as a very exclusive, fancy master’s degree or the startup of a company,” he says.

In the world of young Jews, “what’s going on now is pretty amazing,” he says. “Our parents weren’t able to do as much as we are because of the technology that’s available now. And if you think we’re cool, wait until you see the next generation. We’re just the catalysts.”

Roman Kobrin had the kind of background that made him a natural for a Moishe House resident: In college, he was president of his fraternity and helped to put on a number of events.

When he heard about Moishe House at an event at Ravinia, “it piqued my interest – an organization with a lot of like-minded people, Jewish professionals,” he says. “At one point, I kind of felt like I was seeing the same people every day, every weekend. I decided to check it out at a Shabbat dinner and kind of fell in love with the organization.” He has been a resident for a little over a year.

Like most other Russian Jews, Kobrin, who moved to America with his family from Kiev when he was 3, knew little about Judaism growing up.

“A lot of Jews who grew up in America have more ties to Judaism. They know about the songs, the holidays. Russian Jews don’t have that. Their families came from Russia at a time when religion was not allowed to be practiced. My parents didn’t know anything about these traditions and never taught them to their kids,” he says. “If it weren’t for (Moishe House’s) Shabbat dinners, some of these people would never have experienced a Shabbat dinner.”

One function of the house, then, is “keeping the (Russian-speaking) Jewish community close together,” Kobrin says. “Assimilation is always a problem. And I love the networking aspect. The majority of our participants are professionals from all different fields.”

In fact, he says, it was through a Moishe House colleague that he was able to move into a new career, going from being a financial analyst to financial advising and planning.

Kobrin says he and his Moishe House fellows are also proud that their house has served as a test case for other Russian-speaking houses.

“In a lot of ways, we’re more successful than the standard Moishe House,” he says. “We have great numbers.” At other Moishe Houses, he explains, events are expected to draw at least 75 percent Jewish participants. At the Russian house, 75 percent must be Russian Jews.

“We have about 95 percent,” Kobrin says. “But when we have non-Russian Jews come, they find themselves very much at home, very comfortable. What people get out of it is different for everybody, but what we can provide is unique for Russian Jews to experience.”

The bottom line for Kobrin: “It’s been a fantastic experience, and I’ve just signed up for another year. “

Ross Rabotnik’s experience is typical of many Russian Jews. His family emigrated to America from Ukraine when he was 14.

“I knew that I was Jewish all my life, but we didn’t celebrate holidays, didn’t know much about what being Jewish was all about,” says Rabotnik, now 28 and one of Moishe House’s original residents, along with Drob.

Throughout high school and college, he joined no Jewish organizations. “Immigration wasn’t easy, and it was hard enough balancing my life. I didn’t think about getting involved with any Jewish organizations,” he says.

After college, he gradually became involved with Jewish organizations through the city’s Russian Hillel, where, he says, “I was more interested in the leadership part of it than the Jewish part.”

When he, along with hundreds of others, received an email seeking residents for the first Chicago Russian Moishe House, “I thought it was a cool opportunity.” He began working with the national Moishe House organization to find more residents and set up the house.

“When I immigrated here it was tough for me to meet new people, especially Russian-speaking Jews,” says Rabotnik, who works as an IT consultant. “I wanted to create an opportunity for other people to do that, to create a space where people would come, get involved in the Jewish community, make friends and learn a little about Judaism. That’s how I got started.”

Now, after almost three years of participation, he believes he and the “housniks” have been successful.

“We’ve created quite a community here,” he says. “We started with nothing. We didn’t know anybody, or just a very small number of people, and nobody knew what a Moishe House was. In the first year, we had 500 members on our Facebook group. We’ve spread the word. Now the Russian Jewish community in Chicago knows who we are and what we do. A lot of the people in the community have been to our house, made friends and met other people. A large part of my vision for the project has come true.”

Herman Tkach is the newest housnik: he moved in at the end of August. Born in Ukraine, he emigrated with his family at age 8 and attended several years of Jewish day school, then went to public school for the rest of his academic career. He had little involvement with Jewish organizations, even though he went to Israel with Birthright as a junior in college.

His interest in Moishe House was piqued by proximity. He moved three blocks away, met one of the members and began coming to events. A spot in the house opened up around the time his apartment lease was up and he moved in.

“Now I have a role in deciding what events we do and can become a bigger part of Moishe House, helping to build the community,” he says. He combines his busy life – he works as an investment counselor and is earning an MBA, and is involved with many sports and outdoor activities in his spare time – while helping to grow the house.

“My goal is combining religious events with social events, which is really what is going to drive more people to come out and learn about Moishe House, that it’s a fun place and not just a religious place,” he says. “It’s a fun place where people get together and meet new people. Once we get the word out, they will be more likely to come out to more religious events as well.”

He hopes to turn his love of rock climbing, skiing, snowboarding and other sports into Moishe House events as well, and already is making plans to rent a house at the Wisconsin Dells for a skiing trip, where the Birthright Next organization will sponsor a Shabbat dinner.

“It’s a little bit harder to get people in the Russian Jewish community to come for religious practices,” he says. “But when you get them to realize it’s fun, there’s a lot of great people there, then you can get them to the other events.”

More guests arrive for the Shabbat dinner as the sky behind the spacious private patio (great for parties in the summer) darkens and the Chicago skyline begins to light up.

Inside Elizabeth Shapiro, who is part of the Moishe House group but is also here tonight as a caterer work