Moishe House bringing community to Budapest Jews

From left, Eszter Susan, Anna Balint and Zsofia Simon Skype with Kevin Sherman, the director of international programming at Moishe House. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

From left, Eszter Susan, Anna Balint and Zsofia Simon Skype with Kevin Sherman, the director of international programming at Moishe House. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

BUDAPEST (JTA) — When 29-year-old Eszter Susan announced on Facebook last September that she had moved into a Moishe House, few of her friends knew what she was talking about.

Six months later the rambling, high-ceilinged apartment she shares with two other young women has become a focal point of Jewish involvement for dozens of Budapest Jews in their 20s.

There are parties at Jewish holidays, movie nights, lectures on Jewish topics, social action meetings and a Kabbalat Shabbat service followed by a potluck dinner that attracts dozens of people each Friday night.

"It’s about being informal, and being young, and being Jewish," Susan says while sipping tea at a cluttered kitchen table with housemates Anna Balint, 26, and Zsofia Simon, 22.

"It’s a new model, very horizontal, very grass-roots," she adds. "It’s about exploring new kinds of Jewish identities — and this is the way things are going to go."

Since 2006, Moishe House has grown from a California experiment in Jewish-style communal living to an award-winning movement that encompasses 29 houses on five continents.

The idea is to engage Jews in their 20s — that is, the post-student, pre-marriage and family generation — in Jewish life and foster their sense of Jewish communal belonging.

"All people are looking to be part of a community," Moishe House co-founder and Executive Director David Cygielman, 28, says by phone from Oakland, Calif. "For me the Jewish community has always been that. With Moishe House, we can provide that for people at a time of life when they are looking."

Each Moishe House is shared by three to five young people in their 20s. They are obliged to host an agreed number of Jewish-themed programs each month, and then to share their experiences online with blog posts and photographs — as well as regular Skype sessions with Moishe House directors.

All told, each month sees more than 200 programs attracting about 4,000 people.

The Moishe House Foundation, which receives funding from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and other sources, covers part of the rent for each Moishe House and allocates funds for activities. Other than that, each house is on its own.

"Each Moishe House takes on the identity of the people who live there," Cygielman says. "And the people in each House are really completely responsible for the success of what goes on."

Budapest is one of 10 Moishe Houses outside the United States — the others are in London, Vienna, Warsaw, Mexico City, Beijing, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires and Chisinau.

Located in a stately, century-old building in the heart of the city’s downtown old Jewish quarter, it is a few minutes walk from several active synagogues, kosher restaurants, the Jewish community center and a handful of clubs and cafes that in recent years have become the hubs of a burgeoning alternative Jewish youth scene.

It was this scene, in fact, that brought Susan into contact with Moishe House and sparked her interest in setting up a local branch.

At Tu B’Shevat two years ago, she recalls, the Masorti youth group Marom brought the British Jewish-Muslim hip-hop band Emunah to Budapest for a concert.

"It was an inspiring concert and it turned out that one of the emcees, Daniel Silverstein, was living in a Moishe House at that time," Susan says. "He told me about it, and I said wow — we should have one here. But it took a year and a half before we actually could set up the apartment."

Susan already was active in Jewish outreach and development.

She volunteers with Marom, which runs culture and performance programs at the popular Siraly cafe, and has a day job in the Budapest office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Susan and her Moishe Housemates also were members of Dor Hadash, an egalitarian alternative minyan that meets for Shabbat at private homes each week.

"One of our goals was to have a place for the minyan, and Moishe House now provides this," Balint says. "It’s an ‘apartment synagogue’ in our living room — about 30 or 40 of us meet each Friday night for Kabbalat Shabbat; we even have a Torah. Everyone who wants to come is welcome."

Sometimes, she says, visiting rabbis lead the service, which is followed by a communal dinner and sometimes a lecture or other presentation. On the Friday night before Purim, Israel-based Masorti Rabbi David Lazar led the service and gave a talk about the sexual aspects in the Megillah of Esther.

"The most important thing is that after the prayers, the food, the discussions, we all feel good," Balint says.

Balint, who works at Budapest’s Jewish Museum, and Simon, a medical student, learned about Moishe House from Susan.

"I love to work with people, I love community, I have a lot of friends — and I wanted to move out of my parents’ house," Simon says. "I thought this would be a good opportunity."

The apartment is big enough for each woman to have her own room, with a spacious, simply furnished living room where most events, from prayers to parties, take place.

Colorful posters and other pictures decorate the walls, and a tall set of shelves, crammed with books in English, Hungarian and Hebrew, dominates the entry hall.

This also serves as what Susan calls the House Museum.

"Look," she says, taking several small, dark blue booklets from a shelf.

They are World War II "schutz-passes" — Swedish protection documents issued by Raoul Wallenberg to save members of a Budapest Jewish family named Lederer.

"We found them in a closet when we were organizing the apartment after we moved in," Susan says. "It makes this place even more special."

Bori Takacs, a graduate student at Central European University, has attended many of the events at the Moishe House and calls it "a good thing." She is studying the Jewish community in Budapest and its youth scene for her master’s degree.

The housemates, Takacs says, "somehow try to reinterpret tradition" and are "so open."

"On Shabbat, for example, some people are standing on the balcony smoking, while others are there in long skirts and with their prayer books," says Takacs, whose father is Jewish. "Moishe House has become a kind of home for some people."

 

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