SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 29 (JTA) — Say you’re a few years out of college, living with friends and working in a low-paying job for some do-good organization. You don’t go to synagogue but you miss the camaraderie of your college Hillel, and you like to invite people over for Shabbat meals. Imagine if someone was willing to pay you to keep doing it? That’s what’s offered by Moishe House, a fast-growing network of subsidized homes for 20-something Jews committed to building Jewish community for themselves and their peers. The project was launched less than a year ago by The Forest Foundation, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based philanthropy. The foundation’s executive director, David Cygielman, 25, says the goal was to give young activist Jews the financial freedom to focus on creative programming designed to reach other young, unaffiliated Jews. To the people living in these houses, it’s a terrific gift. “We were already having Shabbat dinners three or four times a month and then they came along and said, ‘We’re looking for people doing what you’re doing. Keep it up, and we’ll support you,’ ” says Jonathan Herzog, 29, who lives in the Seattle house with his sister Norah and two friends. The project is a validation of these young Jews’ efforts to create a Jewish home for an age group they feel gets lost in the communal shuffle. “After college there’s no more Hillel, and they don’t join the Jewish community until they have families,” Cygielman notes. The first Moishe House opened last December in San Francisco. Seattle was next in February, joined quickly by houses in Boston and Los Angeles. New ones are to open in October in Oakland, Washington, Uruguay and Nigeria, and the plan is to have 12 houses up and running by next year. Except for the Nigerian house, which is a one-man outreach operation, they all follow the same formula: Three or four Jews in their 20s receive a rent subsidy of up to $2,500 a month, along with $500 for programming, and are expected to become a communal hub for young Jews by hosting Shabbat meals, card games, Yiddish lessons, film nights, book discussions, neighborhood clean-ups and other social, intellectual and civic-minded activities. Residents say the formula works because it lets young people organize events they themselves would want to attend, rather than having something imposed from above by a synagogue or JCC. In many ways, it’s the bayit of the 21st century. But unlike those communal Jewish homes of the 1970s and ’80s, which usually were sponsored by Zionist youth groups, residents of Moishe Houses don’t subscribe to a particular ideology. The focus varies according to residents’ interests: The houses in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco host a lot of poker parties and film nights, while the Boston house is more involved in social action. Houses have great freedom, Cygielman says, so long as they meet the minimum requirements: hosting eight to 12 events a month, making weekly reports, maintaining a Web site and reaching out to young people. Funding can be withdrawn if a house doesn’t perform. “I won’t tell them what’s a wrong program or a right program,” Cygielman says. “I don’t care, so long as they’re building community and lots of people are coming.” Maia Ipp, 24, moved into the San Francisco house in June. She runs a women’s group and a cooking club that is working its way alphabetically through the world’s cuisines. Her parents once lived in a bayit sponsored by Habonim, a Labor Zionist youth group, but Ipp prefers the Moishe House model. “We’re not affiliated with a movement that has a belief system, which frees us to do new, fresh work and engage young adults in ways other movements and campus groups can’t,” she says. One recent evening, the four young residents of the San Francisco house got together for their weekly meeting. They sat around the large table in the dining room, which opens onto a large patio they use for Shabbat dinners and holiday parties. David Persyko, 25, started hanging out at the house soon after it opened. “I found myself really attached to being part of a Jewish community again,” he says. “Some of my fondest memories growing up were from Camp Swig, and coming here, I felt that rush of support I hadn’t felt in 10 years.” He moved in in June and now runs poker night, which draws a group of guys every three weeks to “vent about the women in our lives,” Persyko says. Aaron Gilbert, 24, runs a book club. The books aren’t Jewish but the participants are, and talking about the books leads to talking about other things. “It’s really intimate. We hang out, catch up on each others’ lives,” he says. The house holds a big Shabbat dinner once a month and sponsors a softball team called the Matzah Ballstars. But the events and programs are secondary to the real draw. “At our core, we’re four people who live in a house and we’re inviting people over. That’s appealing to people like us. It’s not institutional,” says Isaac Zones, 24, national director of the Moishe House network and a founding member of the San Francisco house. On a table in the corner is a silver-toned bust of Zones’ grandfather, a man who founded his business empire with money he won playing poker. Zones makes sure the statue is always there during games. The Moishe House concept is still in its early stages, and some things need to be tweaked. For example, the Los Angeles and Seattle houses are trying to beef up their social action component, while the Boston house is being encouraged to offer more “fun events,” Cygielman says. It’s all part of figuring out what constitutes a Jewish community, or even a Jewish event. Must it be something devoted purely to a Jewish ritual or Zionist goal? Or is it enough to bring together a bunch of Jewish people to shmooze and eat? Ipp says that even though most of what the San Francisco house sponsors is social, “there’s an intentionality, an effort to make meaningful moments.” At Friday night dinners, for example, people are asked to reflect on their week. “There are deeper conversations going on,” she says. Brady Gill, founder of the new Oakland house, says that for him, being Jewish means welcoming the stranger. “I really love being a host,” he says. “I didn’t go to synagogue much, I wasn’t raised religiously. I learned to be Jewish watching my Mom and Dad having people over. They were always so generous. That’s how I perceived what it is to be Jewish.” It works out well for the entire Jewish community, Cygielman says: For the same money it would take to hire one full-time Jewish professional, a Moishe House funds four people doing non-stop youth programming, and provides a space to hold the events. The Moishe Houses aren’t permanent living situations. Those who live in them know they have a sweet deal that will expire as they age. While Zones can’t conceive of forcing someone out after a milestone birthday, there probably will be a natural progression as people move on with their lives. “I can’t imagine people in their 30s wanting a bunch of people coming over their house all the time,” he says.
Communal homes foster Jewish identity