by Emma Silvers, j. staff
The young residents of San Francisco’s brand new Russian Moishe House, a sprawling abode on Potrero Hill, know how to throw a good party — all in the name of Russian-Jewish community, of course.
On Halloween, their roof deck overlooking San Francisco and the bay was packed with grim reapers, nurses, cops and pirates. A few weeks later, at a house dinner, almost two dozen people gathered for sushi, sake and beer.
“It’s about bringing people together, and so far it’s working,” says Vitaly Winter, 29, one of the house’s three residents.
Winter has only the faintest hint of an accent. Born in Kiev, Ukraine, he was 6 when his family moved to Chicago, where they joined a rich Russian immigrant community. In 2009, he moved to San Francisco to work as a hardware engineer.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in December, he and housemate Aleks Shulman are lounging over cups of coffee in the dining room while a friend — also born in the former Soviet Union — tinkers with a computer project in the corner. Light pours in from sliding glass doors facing the street. “Welcome to Moishe House” reads a large paper banner on the opposite wall.
The first Moishe House was founded in Oakland in 2006 by Bay Area resident David Cygielman, with the intention of creating “meaningful Jewish experiences for young adults” through “vibrant home-based Jewish communities.” Some houses have as many as six or seven residents, but the S.F. Russian house has only three, and isn’t looking for any more.
The organization’s mission is spurred by the idea that opportunities for organized Jewish identity-building drop off after young adults graduate from college. There are 28 Moishe Houses in the U.S. — including two in San Francisco, one in Berkeley and one in Palo Alto — and houses in London, Vienna, Beijing, Mexico City, Warsaw, Budapest, Buenos Aires and beyond. Residents stay an average of two years.
“People hear about us through word-of-mouth,” says Shulman, 25, a native of Irkutsk in eastern Russia. “If one Russian person finds out about an event we’re doing, like a Shabbat or a movie night, and they tell three of their Russian friends, then we’re doing something right.”
San Francisco’s Russian Moishe House officially opened in October, making it the second U.S. house specifically designed for the Russian-Jewish community; a third is slated to open in New York in the spring. The organization has opened eight other Russian Moishe houses internationally, including houses in Moscow and Kiev.
“The Russian Moishe Houses have really deepened our dynamic,” says Cygielman, who is now CEO of the organization “and you see the demand just continuing to grow.”
The first RSJ (Russian-speaking Jewish) Moishe House opened in Chicago in August 2009, with a big push from the Genesis Philanthropy Group, a funder of Russian-Jewish identity-building causes worldwide. Genesis helps fund the San Francisco house, which also is funded in large part by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Impact Grant Initiative.
Though their house is only a few months old, Winter, Shulman and their housemate Anya Mnuskina, 23, have clearly made themselves at home as the newest members of the Moishe House family.
The intimate feel of the house, with its three residents, means that each member has been taking an active role in planning programs.
“I’m a social person, and I always liked organizing events and social things,” says Winter. Both he and Shulman had attended events at the Russian Moishe House in Chicago, become friends with its residents and familiar with the program. “I figured, why not make it official?”
The Moishe House budget pays roughly half the residents’ rent, and allots a monthly budget for social activities and Jewish learning.
Aside from the Halloween party and sushi night, social events so far have included Russian movie nights, cooking lessons and games nights (where residents and guests played the Eastern European card game Durak, which means “fool” in Russian, alongside poker and board games).
But it’s not all parties, all the time. In early December, the residents co-presented two guest lecturers from Israel, talking about the hopes and realities of the current situation in the Middle East. The other presenter was Mishmash, the Russian Jewish Community of the S.F.-based federation.
A few days later, the house hosted Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan (former senior educator at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El) to discuss the meaning of prayer. The residents have an ongoing partnership with Birthright Israel Next Bay Area for Shabbat dinners.
“I wanted to step a little bit out of my comfort zone, and this has been an amazing way to meet people, to learn more about your community,” says Shulman, who works in the tech industry.
Cygielman says it matters little that none of the house residents use Russian as their primary language, although Shulman and Winter do converse in Russian with their parents.
“We’re trying to create micro-communities,” Cygielman explains. ”One Moishe House is not going to be able to serve the needs of an entire city — and it shouldn’t be expected to. Once you start saying you’re going to serve everyone, you wind up serving no one. Residents are creating an atmosphere that feels like a Jewish community they want to be a part of.”
For Shulman and Winter, that sounds about right.
“I think all of us have been great so far about really owning the experience, taking it into our own hands,” Shulman says. “We all know we’re basically running a community center, and we have a lot of freedom, so let’s make it awesome.”