Thursday, 17 August 2017

Moishe House Goes ‘Off The Derech’

Moishe House, one of the fastest-growing outreach initiatives for Jews in their 20s, announced its newest house last week in the hip Brooklyn neighborhood, but this time with a twist: the house is staffed by four young Jews who recently broke with their ultra-Orthodox pasts.

“Most of our members live in Brooklyn, as well as most of our potential members — we expect that this house will not only serve official Footsteps’ members, but others who have left the ultra-Orthodox community for whom this space might be more resonant.”
The pluralistic organization, previously geared primarily towards the unaffiliated, now aims to serve the growing “off the derech” community — a self-identified and growing group of Jews who have split with Orthodox pasts.

The new house — north of Eastern Parkway — joins a growing milieu of options for young, liberally-minded Jews who prefer not to label themselves as part of conventional denominations. Repair the World, a national Jewish service nonprofit focused on social justice, opened up around the block two years ago and pop-up prayer services, of all different shades, trade off weekends; a traditional egalitarian minyan is the most recent addition.

The new Crown Heights hotspot is the eighth Moishe House to open in New York City in recent years, cementing New York as the organization’s most popular location (Chicago and Los Angeles are close seconds.) Founded in 2006, the peer-led, home-based programming conglomerate for Jewish 20-somethings now has 104 houses in 26 countries. Residents — Jewish 20-somethings themselves — run monthly programming in exchange for reduced rent. For the new Crown Heights residents, who will run seven-plus events per month for young Jews in the area, 75 percent of their monthly rent with be subsidized.

Though the movement initially struggled to gain a foothold in New York, given the city’s plethora of hip cultural programming for young unaffiliated Jews, today the organization seems to have found its stride. In the past two years, four new Moishe Houses have opened in New York City, adding to the four built between 2012 and 2015. The closest existing Moishe House is a stone’s throw away from Crown Heights, in Park Slope.

The residents themselves chose the location for the new house based on what area would best serve their target audience and programming purposes, said Moishe House founder and CEO David Cygielman. “We really followed their lead,” he said. “The residents felt this neighborhood would be most conducive to engaging their peers and networks.”

Indeed, the community borders on densely populated Chabad-Lubavitch community, which has been centered in Crown Heights for decades. The influx of non-chasidic Jews to the area has led to some tension between the two groups. For example, when a new eruv was erected last summer to accommodate the growing Modern Orthodox community, many Chabad rabbis forbade Lubavitchers to use the ritual enclosure, which they believed didn’t comply with Jewish law, and the eruv was repeatedly vandalized.

The new Moishe House will be geared towards people who have left the Chabad-Lubavitch community — many of whom still live in the area — as well as those leaving chasidic sects in other Brooklyn neighborhoods, said Berger.

According to Cygielman and Berger, the residents themselves are not ready to speak to the media. They are focused on kicking-off programming, said Cygielman, and were not prepared for the onslaught of media attention the new partnership received. (The residents, two men and two women, posted brief descriptions of themselves on the Moishe House website. One resident describes herself as “proudly Jewish, Syrian, Hispanic and Ex-Chassidic.”)

For Moishe House, the Footsteps partnership is forging into new and exciting territory, Cygielman said.

“We have always appreciated and admired Footsteps. This felt like the perfect opportunity to specifically engage more folks from that community,” he said.

Upcoming events this month include a movie night screening Forrest Gump, a picnic potluck in Prospect Park, and a Shabbat cholent cook-off.

Though in the past, Moishe Houses have targeted a specific demographic — the Murray Hill location, for example, is geared towards Russian-speaking Jews — the closeness of this partnership is unique, said Cygielman.

“The is the closest relationship we have with an organization that serves a particular demographic,” he said.

Another anomaly of this house: The organization itself served as the guarantor on the lease instead of the families of the residents, which were unable or unwilling to do so, said Cygielman. “We’ve never served as the guarantor before.”

The key to Moishe House’s rapid success? A warm, peer-led atmosphere, said Cygielman.

“There is a special warmth and comfort that comes form being invited into someone else’s home,” he said. “Particularly for a community of young people who have faced significant challenges.”