Ahhh it feels great to be back in New York! After 2 full months on the road, it's a great feeling to know that the next Moishe House is just a subway ride away, and not a 24-hour bus ride!
To finish up the Lipdub video, I need to visit two of the six greater New York houses. Four Moishe Houses opened up in New York City this past January, so we're all relatively new. There's 2 in Brooklyn - DUMBO and Williamsburg; and two in Manhattan - Murray Hill and Peter Cooper Village, which is the Russian Speaking house. They join the house in Great Neck, Long Island, as well as Hoboken, New Jersey, which is one of the first Moishe Houses.
My first stop was to the Hoboken house, which is just across the river from midtown Manhattan. We had to squeeze in our filming and photography session into just an hour, as they had an event starting shortly after I arrived - attending a free outdoor movie screening in a park with one of the best views of the New York skyline that I'd ever seen. Hoboken - who knew?
Josh Einstein and Shira Huberman are two of the residents there, and both are dinosaurs in Moishe House terms. I think Josh has been a resident for 5 years! But both seem to still have such passion for the project, and the lifestyle it entails. I was really impressed with the extra steps that they'd taken to ensure their Moishe House's success - from getting their own banners made which they take out with them during public events ("Don't Jew It Yourself"), to stocking up their house so they're always prepared for visitors. There was a particular abundance of pickles - an Ashkenazi favorite. Sadly, Josh and Shira are transitioning out of Moishe House Hoboken soon, and there'll be replaced by new residents who will learn the ropes and bring their unique ideas to fruition in the coming months and years. And so the cycle of the Moishe House life continues...
But for the 3 Murray Hill girls, Moishe House life has just begun! It's hard to imagine an apartment more brimming with energy than the Murray Hill Moishe House, located in Murray Hill, just a few blocks south of Midtown. The Murray Hill house opened their doors at the beginning of 2012, and already have a large following and many popular events each month. Three friends from Rutgers, they've managed to create an environment which feels like home away from home - which is what New York is for many Jews in their 20s that live there. At a typical Moishe House event in New York, if one asks the crowd to put up their hand if they're from New York, normally 10% or less do. New York has got to be one of the most transient places in the world, which is why it is so important to have stable yet dynamic communities to provide a home away from home for people that have moved to the city. In such a transient place, I can't think of a better model to provide meaningful Jewish community to young adults than the Moishe House model. And the continued popularity and growing membership base of each of the 4 NYC houses is a testament to that.
After a blissful drive up the Pacific Northwest coast listening to Pearl Jam and watching solar eclipses (yes, that actually happened!), Baruch (Moishe House Vancouver) and I arrived at the Portland Moishe House, and, considering it was 3 in the morning, were pointed in the direction of the couches with a grunt (and a hug) and left alone until the morning. The next day we explored the city, famous for it's book store and food trucks, and did our best to stay out of the rain. The Portland house has a great energy to it, mainly due to the personalities of the residents who make the place come alive. The pictures tell the story. I you ever come to Portland, make sure a visit to the Moishe House is on your list!
Next stop after Portland was beautiful Vancouver. With under 10,000 Jews, Vancouver has a reasonably small Jewish community. As a result, the Moishe House there, which is very centrally located, is responsible for a fair share of the alternative Jewish programming that goes on in that city. And, like a lot of the Moishe Houses I visited, particularly on the West Coast, they are abundantly proud of their vegetable patch in their yard. With 5 residents, Moishe House Vancouver has a lot of space, which is often filled with guests over for events, or guests from out of town who are staying over. The photo shoot in the shower will probably go down as my favorite!!
After spending a restful week or so back in New York, I flew out to the West Coast for the second leg of Moishe House Mobile. Landing in Oakland, I took the BART up to Berkeley and was generously picked up at midnight by Nat, Moishe House East Bay’s newest resident. Though I was deliriously tired, I spent a good hour or so drinking tea and chatting with the East Bay Moishe House residents, as well as with Baruch from the Vancouver house, who was in town to attend the Shavuot retreat that weekend. Baruch had driven down from Vancouver, and it soon came out that he was planning to drive back up to Vancouver, via Portland, immediately after the retreat. I was planning to take the greyhound up to Vancouver, also via Portland, which would’ve taken me 24 hours as opposed to half that in the car, so I immediately suggested that I join him. Though this was practically the first time I’d met Baruch, there’s an almost instant rapport and friendship amongst fellow Moishe House residents, and mutually beneficial arrangements like this happen all the time, whether in person, or through posts on the internal Moishe House residents facebook group. Just another advantage of being part of this network of dynamic Jewish leaders.
Moishe House East Bay, situated in the Berkeley Hills, was a joyful place. Like a number of other Moishe Houses, they had a vegetable patch in their garden which they were very proud of, and they often use this produce for Shabbat dinner and other meals. After spending a relaxing day in Berkeley going to organic vegetarian Berkeley cafes with names like ‘Café Gratitude’, it was time to head over to a different part of the Bay Area—Silicon Valley.
Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, the Russian speaking Moishe House invited me to their monthly games night, which is actually a poker night (although they always offer other games, no one normally wants to play anything but poker!). The Russian Moishe House in SF has an amazing rooftop terrace with a stunning view of the San Francisco bay. If you don’t believe me, check out their ‘Moishe House Tour’ video!
I’m not sure if there are any statistics on the amount of relationships and marriages that are a direct result of Moishe House programs, but that night I certainly saw something in the works! Maybe I’ll get invited to a Russian Jewish wedding soon!
The next day I found myself at the non-Russian San Francisco Moishe House, who provided me with one of the most ridiculous photoshoots of the whole project. Although I have to admit that asking the four of them to get into bed together was my idea. Enjoy!
On route to the Palo Alto Moishe House, I stopped by Google HQ, which is just a 20-minute walk away. This is nerd-ville, but delightfully so. After sneaking in to a café on the Google campus and getting a free lunch (just one of the many perks Google employees enjoy), it was time to shlep down the wide Palo Alto roads to the Moishe House. I arrived shortly before a Torah text study class began, which is a regular Palo Alto Moishe House event. Though I was too distracted taking photos to delve into the class, it sounded very interesting! A lot of brain power in that room.
The Palo Alto Moishe House has great variable open spaces for events. A true party house that should have been one of the sets for The Social Network!
After the magical Shabbat experienced at the Montgomery House, I woke up at 8am to make my way over to the DC house, just 8 stations south on DC Metro's Red Line. I arrived just as people were waking up, as the DC house put on their own Shabbat dinner the previous night. Miraculously, the house was spotless. We soon got to work, with a photo shoot (below) and some filming for the forthcoming Moishe House Lipdub video.
What stood out about the DC house, for me, was the joy of the residents. Those smiles cannot be photoshopped! These guys just seem to have a laugh whatever they're doing. The place just oozed with fun. And when I spoke to some of the residents about their take on the Moishe House mission, what came out was a desire to provide a fun space for Jewish young professionals to just let loose and be themselves. It might not immediately strike one as being the highest of aims, but upon reflection, I really believe that pure and simple fun, especially for our demographic, has become a rare and valuable commodity. Simply put, an environment which consistently provides participants with a good time will keep people coming back time and again for more.
To provide some personal reflection on what I'm saying, I was once involved with an organization called 'Clowns Without Borders' whose humanitarian mission was to perform slapstick clown shows in post-conflict and economically depressed areas. They genuinely saw themselves as relief workers, and the more I thought about it, the more I viewed psychological relief as one of the most important forms of relief. Their work was nothing to take lightly.
Now, I'm certainly not relating the DC residents to a bunch of clowns, but the point I am trying to make is that providing a consistently joyful space is, I believe, under-appreciated in the Jewish world and can really go a long way in keeping Jews engaged with their Jewish identity. Not to say that there is a lack of content at the DC Moishe House - not in the slightest - and also not to say that the other Moishe Houses are not joyful place. However, what made the DC house special, for me, was an addictive energy that genuinely made it hard for me to leave.
Too often Jewish community organizations targeting Jewish young professionals leverage guilt or offer financial incentives to keep Jews engaged. I spoke to the DC residents about the partnerships that their Moishe House had established with other Jewish community organizations, and what value the DC house brings to those partnerships. The reply was that Jewish programs run at the DC Moishe House, with the warmness of being in a home environment, coupled with the enthusiastic and positive attitude of the residents there, make any event much more engaging than it would have been at a bar, synagogue, or other Jewish building. I couldn't agree more.
Thanks Lily, Dan, Noah and Sarah, residents at the Washington DC Moishe House!
After a detour in Toronto and Montreal to see friends and family (hey, it was honestly on the way from Detroit to Boston!), I arrived at the Boston Moishe Kavod House in time for the final session of a 6-part sex education series for adults. As the facilitators were committed to providing a confidential and safe space for all attendees, the cameras made no appearances and I had the pleasure of simply being a participant. This sex ed series was created over the course of 2011 by a dedicated team of Moishe Kavod community members. They piloted the series this year, and intend to make the program available to other Moishe Houses and community-based organizations once they have received feedback and evaluated the pilot.
Immediately upon entering the space I felt a different vibe to many of the other houses. The room, which also serves as the prayer space for Shabbat and other services, was decked out with cushions and couches. We started by saying our names, followed by which pronouns we prefer. For example, I said "I am Benji and I prefer he, him and his". This is a technique used to break down societal assumptions around gender and create maximum inclusivity. After some warm-up exercises, we delved into the issue of sexual consent in relationships -- why consent is important, how to best ask for consent, and how to give or not give consent in a sensitive manner. Though these are questions every adult in a sexual relationship faces, it is exceedingly rare for these issues to be discussed amongst peers, especially in a structured way. This really felt like ground-breaking work. After the program ended, participants stayed for the 'post-program shmooze', common to all Moishe Houses, regardless of their particular flavor.
After chatting quite extensively with the residents at the Boston Moishe Kavod House, a number of things stood out as to why this was a special house. Firstly, it was one of the first Moishe Houses. In fact, it even predates Moishe House as an organization, which explains the name 'Boston Moishe Kavod House', as it first started as the Boston Kavod House and partly retains that original identity. Yet besides being relatively old (funny that something that has been around for 7 years is described as 'old', yet I suppose this speaks to how young Moishe House is as an organization!), there are other unique features of the Boston house. Perhaps most striking is the level of community engagement that takes place, not only as participants in programs, but as leaders of programs. The Boston House actually has a board, as well as a number of program teams that meet regularly to plan programs around specific themes, from sexual education and housing justice to Shabbat and interfaith work. In fact, the Boston House sees it as part of their mission to create leaders out of their community members, and this has been an astounding success. Another thing that makes the Boston House special is the degree of structure they have created. Whereas many houses are run somewhat informally, the Boston House was run like a full-fledged organization: notice boards, business cards, Moishe Kavod House buttons, and professional printed signs testify to the amount of thought and planning that has gone in to this project. Finally, one last thing which makes the Boston House stand out is the sheer volume of programs that host each month -- normally around 15, which is double the minimum requirement. Kol ha kavod! (I couldn't resist).
After a good night's sleep in the guest room, I bid farewell to the residents and made my way to the bus station back to New York for a break before heading off again. Yet there was time for one last adventure. That morning happened to be the Boston Marathon, coincidentally taking place on my one morning in Boston. A Bostonian friend later told me that I was in Boston on the best day of the year. It also, coincidentally, took place down the street from the Boston House. If I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine that all the cheering was for me for having travelled almost 5,000 miles by bus thus far!
Thanks Aaron, Annie, Tslil and Helen, residents of the Boston Moishe Kavod House
Though getting to Detroit was wholly unpleasant, my time there was wonderful. I made a last minute decision to take an overnight bus from Chicago to Detroit to give me a full day there, rather than just an afternoon and night. The first problem with the overnight bus was that it was only 5 hours long. The second thing wrong with the overnight bus was that I luckily got the last seat on the bus, yet it was, by far, the worst seat on the bus, immediately adjacent to the bathroom, who's door had a habit of randomly swinging open and smacking my toes through the night. I was also positioned next to a rather large couple, and my seat wouldn't recline. Nonetheless, I made it to Detroit and was happy to be back on solid ground, despite arriving before dawn.
After exploring Detroit for a lot of the day, I took a short bus ride from the center of town to the Moishe House, positioned just 5 minutes walk from Wayne State University. The first thing I noticed about the house was that it was an actual house (i.e. not an apartment), and a big one at that. And then they showed me their 'side lawn', which was big enough to fit another house on! Danniell, one of the residents, told me that they had over 300 people in that yard for their first ever event, a BBQ, when they opened last May. Since that huge opening they've had a run of successful events and very quickly gained prominence both in the downtown Detroit Jewish community, as well as in the broader community, such as hosting the mayor for a Shabbat dinner. And they're just getting started.
There are 6 residents in the Detroit Moishe House, but the house could easily sleep 10, comfortably. Due to their location in Detroit's relatively undervalued downtown, they are able to have a lot of space for not much money. This is definitely the largest Moishe House I've come across, and I've heard that the only other house that gives them a run for their money is the San Francisco house.
The residents come from a variety of backgrounds, some more observant than others. I was treated to vegetarian Matzah ball soup and salad upon arrival -- seder leftovers -- and then got to chatting about Detroit's Jewish community and this house's expressed mission to rejuvenate Jewish life in downtown Detroit. Their conviction is that, for young people, Jewish life needs to be centered in a city, and therefore for Detroit's Jewish community to survive it must gradually move downtown. They see Moishe House Detroit as being on the vanguard of this community-wide initiative, and are therefore held in high regard by the Jewish Federation and other major Jewish community organizations. From what I saw they've been phenomenally successful so far, and the Moishe House model seems to be the perfect vehicle for their efforts to entice the suburban Jewish community to engage in Jewish life downtown.
Among the houses I've visited so far, this house seems to be the most dedicated to a focused mission beyond creating community for Jewish young adults, and is testimony to the ability of Moishe House to act as a chameleon of sorts -- able to adapt to local conditions, and also able to be harnessed for grander causes that will invigorate Jewish communities the world over.
Thanks Allison, Ariella, Danniell, Josh, Justin and Jordan, residents of Moishe House Detroit!
Though Chicago was my longest pit-stop so far, 3 days was way too short. What a city! I arrived in Chicago a few hours before Pesach, and had a chametzalicious felafel on my way to the Moishe House for first night seder. I was very pleasantly surprised by the location, on the 16th floor of a building with stunning lake views nestled just a few blocks from Chicago's famous Navy Pier and Magnificent Mile. Inside, the apartment was even more impressive. It was warmly colored, inviting, and had no shortage of flair. They have a huge outdoor patio with a hammock, and art was still up on easels in the living room which have yet to be taken down from a recent exhibition by local Russian Jewish artists. I met the residents as they were preparing for seder, the first they've hosted. They were unusually calm about the whole affair (I know in our house we're frantic before a normal Shabbat dinner). Guests started arriving at 7:30pm, and the seder got underway at 8pm. The seder was shorter than I'm used to, yet for many of the 20 odd guests it was their first seder in a decade, and for some their first ever, so the intention was to make it a 'low barrier' event, so to speak. After dinner guests, stayed till late, talking about recent trips to Israel, growing up in the FSU, and Chicago life. As I was on the sofa that night I normally would have secretly hoped the party had died down early so I could catch up on some much-needed sleep after my 40-hour bus ride from New Orleans, but they say that seder is different from all other nights, and on that night I was happy to socialize until well after midnight despite my exhaustion.
There are 4 residents in the Chicago Moishe House, one of which moved in just 4 days before I arrived. All agreed that Moishe House served an incredible need for young Russian Jews, who can easily feel out of place in American Jewish life due to both their different cultural heritage, and much more secular upbringing under the influence of Communism. Russian Jews are coming back to the fold, but not without the help of organizations like Moishe House who are able to provide a comfortable and pressure-free environment for young Russian Jews to explore their Jewish identity, gain Jewish knowledge, and engage in Jewish practice. Even the residents were relatively bereft of Jewish knowledge before moving in, but with programs such as a monthly Torah learning session run by a local rabbi, they are now running pesach seders and leading other Jewish cultural events on a regular basis, establishing themselves as leaders of the Chicago Russian Jewish community in the process.
Thanks Roman, Rostik and Herman, residents of the Russian speaking Chicago Moishe House!
After a night off, I arrived to the other Chicago Moishe House on Sunday evening, shortly after they had mostly returned home from work. The contrast with the Russian Moishe House was stark -- while the Russian house was very modern and elegant, the Chicago house was more open plan, eclectic, and brimming with a sense of fun. The contrast between the residents was stark as well -- whereas the Russian residents were mostly involved in for-profit work, be it IT or business, the residents of the other Chicago house were passionately involved in non-profit work. This difference, for me, is part of the brilliance of this organization: it successfully engages all sectors of the Jewish community, and the diversity of the houses and it's members gives the organization a lot of strength and value.
Of the 5 residents of the Chicago house, 4 were present, and I was able to interview most of them in-depth about their involvement in Moishe House. They've all gained a tremendous amount, on a personal level, from living in Moishe House, and have been able to really energize their community, to the point where many regular programs are jointly run by non-resident members, including their twice-monthly 'Oppression, Privilege and Judaism' series were participants explore Jewish values and how they relate to modern social movements and justice issues. Their house has also been used as a hub of activism, challenging both the Jewish community and the wider community to address inequalities in our society. Though their calendar of events looks reasonably different from the Russian-speaking Chicago house, both had one thing in common: appreciation for the opportunity to determine what programming works best in their communities, and appreciation to develop their skills as passionate Jewish leaders.
Thanks Elli, Hannah, Daniel, Sarah and Benjamin, residents of Moishe Hous Chicago!
After the high of the National Conference in Austin, I went with the group back to the airport and then took a bus into Austin. I had a few hours to kill before my overnight bus to New Orleans, so I headed down to Austin's famous "Dirty 6th" street. On the bus I randomly bumped into two of the New Orleans residents, but the coincidences didn't end there. While walking down 6th street I heard someone yell out "Moishe House!". I turned, and low and behold there were a group of 'Moishmellows' on a rooftop terrace summoning me to join them. I went up and joined them until I had to leave for my bus. We're all one big family by now. The same species.
The bus ride from Austin to New Orleans would have been a pleasant one, if we didn't have an unexpected 5 1/2-hour layover at the Houston greyhound terminal between 11pm and 4:30am. Nothing too out of the ordinary, though. Nonetheless, the scenery heading along the Gulf Coast toward New Orleans that morning was some of the best I'd seen so far.
After arriving and the requisite tooth-brushing session in the Greyhound washrooms I walked to the Moishe House along New Orleans' famous St Charles Street (or, 'The Avenue' as some locals call it). The Moishe House is in a wonderful location nestled in the sweet spot between a well-to-do area and a grungier part of town, so it is still relatively affordable yet also safe and well located. It's not easy to miss Moishe Houses when you know what to look for -- the iconic Moishe House doormat and mezuzah. It always gives me a warm feeling stepping on to one of those mats for the first time, instantly providing a sense of home no matter where in the world you are. You know that the people inside are people you can relate to and count on. This is global Jewish networking at it's finest.
I was greeted by Barrie Schwartz, one of three non-local residents (of 4 residents, only one is a New Orleans native). Barrie relocated from Detroit to spend a year doing community service work and living communally as part of the Avodah program. Having found a new home in New Orleans and not wanting to move right away, the Moishe House was a natural next step for her, as well as for fellow residents Laura and Mallory who were also involved with Avodah. I caught Barrie on a particularly good day. She had just received a great job offer, and one of her side-projects was gaining considerable media attention. In fact, by the evening there were news crews at her house to cover her involvement with establishing a food-truck network in the city. Besides the hecticness of her day she still made time to take me out to lunch and get me settled.
Though we were scheduled for the film shoot that evening, I delayed it until the following night as the residents needed to meet to debrief about the National Conference and to plan for their seder that Friday. Besides, one should never reject the opportunity to spend additional time in the Big Easy (especially if it is to be succeeded by a 24-hour bus ride across the country).
Upon interviewing the residents, I learned how they are playing a pivotal role in New Orleans' Jewish community. There are two distinct parts of the New Orleans Jewish community, the established, local, family-based population, and the transient young adult population. A number of Jews come to New Orleans, either on work assignments or for graduate school, and many of them will choose not to invest the time in forging links with the extant local, tight-nit Jewish community. The Moishe House, however, is uniquely positioned to attract this transient population. As a direct example, I have a good friend who I met in London who was posted to New Orleans for 6 months for his work in the coffee trading industry. While I was there I introduced him to the Moishe House, and he is slated to run a coffee-tasting event for the Moishe House, hopefully next month! He otherwise would not have made links with the local synagogue, and understandably so. This element of Moishe House reminds me of one of the goals of Zionism -- the ingathering of the exiles. Though Moishe House doesn't seek Jews to all move back to Israel, it operates in a similar way by creating vibrant and inclusive Jewish centers pulsating with Jewish life and creativity. In short, it has an incredibly powerful magnetic force that many larger Jewish communal institutions envy.
Some Moishe Houses, like those in New York, exist in incredibly serviced and large Jewish communities, while others, such as the New Orleans house, exist in much smaller communities. The work of Mallory, Laura, Zeke and Barrie with the New Orleans Moishe House is testament to the very significant role a Moishe House can play in a small Jewish community, creating Jewish life where it otherwise might not exist. Whereas the challenge of the former Moishe Houses is to create compelling Jewish experiences in an otherwise saturated Jewish marketplace, the challenge of the latter houses, such as the New Orleans house, is to consistently engage the local Jewish population in a way that keeps them coming back. In short, the necessity of 'repeat visits' from houses in smaller Jewish communities is that much greater, and therefore there is a different pressure for events to be successful. Yet, from what I saw, the New Orleans house was doing a tremendous job at consistently inspiring and engaging the Jewish young adult population and truly have created a Jewish hub in an otherwise non-Jewish place. And beyond that, extending this passion, creativity and good will outward with community service work. Or L'Goyim in action.
Thanks Zeke, Mallory, Barrie and Laura, residents of the New Orleans Moishe House!