Monday, 31 October 2011

Moishe House Hitting Big Apple

First foray into New York City for community-building project.

Julie Wiener, Associate Editor

Moses (or Moishe, if you prefer) is poised to step foot in the Promised Land — of diaspora Judaism, that is.

Moishe House, the fast-growing outreach/community-building initiative for Jews in their 20s, is coming to New York.

This fall, four Moishe Houses — homes where post-college, pre-marriage Jews get rent subsidies in exchange for hosting Shabbat dinners and other Jewish programs for their peers — will open here, in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

While the new outposts, one of them Russian-speaking, will be the project’s first foray into the Big Apple, the Oakland, Calif.-based organization has 40 houses around the world, everywhere from Denver to Beijing. Closer to home are Moishe Houses in Great Neck, L.I.; Hoboken, N.J.; and Philadelphia.

Because New York is so large and with such a wide array of Jewish programming, Moishe House officials had initially expected to steer clear.

“Being non-New Yorkers, our sense was always that New York is covered,” said David Cygielman, of Hayward, Calif., who co-founded Moishe House five years ago with artist and philanthropist Morris Bear Squire (Yiddish name Moishe).

However, Cygielman said, “Since we started Moishe House we’ve consistently gotten e-mails from folks in New York saying, ‘I live in New York, and I know a lot is happening here, but I can’t find a community that’s right for me.’”

The organization is partnering with UJA-Federation of New York and Genesis Philanthropy Group of North America to establish the New York houses, and anticipates that the houses will collectively sponsor 28 events a month.

Fueled by word-of-mouth, the Internet and the support of some of America’s largest Jewish foundations, including the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the pluralistic Moishe House has grown rapidly since its Oakland launch.

Initially a program fully funded by Squire’s Forest Foundation, Moishe House became an independent nonprofit in 2009. Cygielman, 30, is the CEO.

Currently 140 people live in a Moishe House, although 160 are expected by the end of the year, and an estimated 25,000 have attended events in them.

While the Moishe House mission — “to provide meaningful Jewish experiences for young adults around the world” — is fairly typical in the Jewish communal world, its modus operandi has been revolutionary: focusing on “home-based community” rather than on institution-based events, on grass-roots rather than centralized top-down programs.

Ariella Goldfein, a planning associate at UJA-Federation’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, which worked closely with Moishe House to strategize the New York launch, described the approach as “for us, by us,” with residents planning programs for their peers.

The basic Moishe structure: three to five friends or acquaintances apply together as a team to open a house, and agree to host seven Jewish-themed events per month, including Shabbat dinners, text-study discussions and community service activities.

When a resident leaves (they are expected to stay for one to three years), remaining residents choose replacements, usually from the pool of regulars at house programs and events.

Each house, Cygielman said, “take on the personalities of whoever is living in them,” and the hope is that each of the four New York houses will have a distinct personality that appeals to different niches of people.

“If they’re grad students, it’s got a theme of that. If it’s artists, it’s got that theme. But all are doing the types of programs we mandate,” Cygielman said.

Residents, not Moishe House, are the leaseholders, but Moishe House pays 75 percent of the rent (up to $2,750 per month for each house) and a $500 monthly programming budget.

The rationale behind the generous subsidies, Cygielman explained, is that the residents “have to live in larger places” than they would otherwise, places “that are conducive to having a lot of people over.”

With no official recruitment or publicity, the four New York houses have generated a flurry of applications from prospective residents. While selections will not be finalized until next week, and precise locations have not yet been determined, Moishe House officials referred The Jewish Week to several “strong potential” residents of the New York houses.

They are a worldly crew with diverse interests and job experiences, many of them relocating to New York after having lived in Israel and other countries.

Interviewed by Skype from Spain, where she has been teaching English and researching the Sephardic side of her family tree, Paige Gottheim, 26, told The Jewish Week that the five members of her applicant team collectively speak at least six languages, and all have spent time living abroad.

Gottheim, a Long Island native and Jewish day school grad who is pursuing a career in horticulture therapy (using gardening and related projects as a way of helping people with psychiatric and social challenges), said she is drawn to the idea of helping to form a community and is eager to collaborate with local environmental Jewish groups like Hazon.

Tanya Gutsol, who is hoping to live in the Russian-speaking house, grew up in Kiev and knew little about Judaism until the age of 17, when her mother urged her to go to a Hillel event.

Gutsol, now 28, ended up going on a Birthright Israel trip, working at the Joint Distribution Committee’s camp and becoming a Hillel staffer in Kiev. In 2007, she won a fellowship to work for Hillel in the United States, sending her to Baltimore, the University of Maryland, College Park. She is now program director of Long Island University’s Hillel.

Moishe House, she said, fills an important niche for Russian Jews (in addition to Moishe Houses in the former Soviet Union, there is a Russian-speaking house in Chicago and another one starting up in San Francisco.) “Among Russian Jews I find so many people who either became very religious or who have nothing to do with Judaism,” Gutsol said. “Being Jewish doesn’t mean you have to go to synagogue all the time. But to have knowledge about Jewish culture is very important.”

Micah Saiger, 24, said that “planning and setting up for events is work, but after the events you really get to build a community, so it pays off.”

A Jewish communal professional familiar with Moishe House said, “When you’re in a situation in [an institutional] Jewish space, young adults can often be suspicious about who’s running it, what’s the agenda, what are they trying to get me to do,” adding that the “peer-to-peer safe space” of Moishe Houses “allows for open, honest conversation.”