How Moishe House is helping turn social lives into Jewish life

“Are you all from Moishe House?” Ben Zauzmer asked as he approached a circle of about 15 young adults, all in their early to mid-20s, who were eating sandwiches on the lawn of the Silver Lake Recreation Center on a recent Saturday morning.
August 26, 2015

“Are you all from Moishe House?” Ben Zauzmer asked as he approached a circle of about 15 young adults, all in their early to mid-20s, who were eating sandwiches on the lawn of the Silver Lake Recreation Center on a recent Saturday morning. They were, so he joined the group, appearing a bit nervous doing so. 

Andrew Cohen, 23, immediately and warmly introduced himself, and asked how Zauzmer had heard about the “Shabbat Picnic in the Park” event. 

“My sister was a resident of the Moishe House in Washington, D.C., and since I just moved to L.A., she suggested I check it out,” Zauzmer said, adding he had recently graduated from college and has a job doing data analytics for the Dodgers. 

“Cool!” nearly everyone responded in unison, noticeably easing Zauzmer’s demeanor. People introduced themselves, and Carmel Diamant, 22, offered food to Zauzmer and some other new arrivals. 

From across the circle, Ben Feldman, 23, explained that he, Cohen and Diamant are the three residents of the newly opened Moishe House Silver Lake, and this was their second event. 

Moishe House is a well-subsidized experiment whose goal is to ensure the future of Jewish engagement among young adults through interpersonal — not virtual — social networking. The organization offers housing subsidies and grants to groups of young adults, who agree to turn their homes into centers of Jewish life.

Founded in 2006, the nonprofit Moishe House organization currently subsidizes 77 such residences in 18 countries, including seven in Los Angeles. By the end of 2015, Moishe House plans to have 85 houses operating globally, with the goal of doubling its reach in the next three years. The Silver Lake house, a three-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath house tucked away in the hills above one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods, is the most recent to launch.

A simple idea

For recent college graduates, life’s lack of structure can feel overwhelming and alienating. To keep them engaged on campuses, Jewish students are offered an array of options spanning the religious and cultural spectrum — Hillel, Chabad, AEPi, AEPhi, Challah for Hunger bake-ins and much more. After they graduate, however, that’s all gone, yet the traditional next step of joining a synagogue can seem too grown-up or culturally removed, and marriage and family life are usually years away. At the same time, they face new stresses: employment, housing, independence. 

Even within this period, there is an incredible diversity of experience and maturing, and each life decision can feel deeply consequential and formative. The social and spiritual needs of a 25-year-old, too, can differ greatly from those of a 22-year-old. 

David Cygielman, the founder and CEO of Moishe House, served as Hillel student president at UC Santa Barbara, graduating in 2003, and later as executive director of the Santa Barbara-based Forest Foundation, which helps high school and college students to grow as leaders while pursing their individual passions. He originally conceived Moishe House as a project of the Forest Foundation but turned it into an independent nonprofit in 2008. 

“Moishe House started when four Jewish 20-somethings began hosting Shabbat dinners in Oakland, Calif., for their friends and networks,” Cygielman said. 

At the time, Cygielman saw very few organizations built to serve this population on a national or international level. 

“I think the reason for this is that most of what exists is staff-driven … an expensive model that is difficult to grow or scale,” he said. “Moishe House focuses on a peer-to-peer model that uses an existing home, so it is able to both create a warm atmosphere and bring down costs.”

From left: The three residents of the new Moishe House Silver Lake are Carmel Diamant, Ben Feldman and Andrew Cohen. Photo by Andrew Cohen

Organizationally, Moishe House is designed to fill the void of post-college life while enabling participants to have as much flexibility as possible to design their lifestyle and programs. The nonprofit subsidizes housing and events but allows participants to actively recruit and shape their communities, and to learn from other like-minded communities. 

The idea caught on quickly: In 2006 alone, houses opened in San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles, Oakland, Washington, D.C., Uruguay and Nigeria. By the end of 2007, 20 houses were operating globally. Today, Moishe Houses across the globe host more than 5,000 programs annually, reaching an estimated 90,000 participants, at a cost of $6.1 million to the organization.

Unlike most Jewish institutions that function on a hierarchical leadership model, Moishe House empowers individuals to build community but does not employ them. One house might dedicate itself to social-justice issues, while another might have a weekly Torah study group. And because Moishe House works outside the traditions of Jewish life, even when participants celebrate Shabbat and traditional holidays, they are free to do so from a consciously “nondenominational, pluralistic Jewish” point of view.

“Being Jewish means something different for everyone. To some it is a religious focus, for others a cultural one and, for most, it is some combination,” Cygielman said. “We are providing a space, people and programs to explore and experience both. Our focus is on creating Jewish community; the residents are defining that for themselves and providing a space for others to join them in participating in it.”

Finding new meaning in old connections

All the residents of the Silver Lake house were raised in Jewish families in the western San Fernando Valley: Diamant in Tarzana by Israeli émigré parents; Cohen in Agoura Hills in a Conservative household; and Feldman in Woodland Hills by parents active in the Union for Reform Judaism. They grew up learning about their heritage, but, like many young Jews, they didn’t always feel personal connections to it.

“We grew up in families where it is expected of you to be engaged and participate in community, and have leadership roles,” Feldman said during the first of a series of interviews throughout July and August. Feldman embraced those opportunities at the time, and they imbued him with a strong Jewish identity. But as he got older, Feldman said, he wanted to explore other interests outside of the Jewish world.

The three are very different from one another. Feldman is the most introspective, quiet but rarely shy, and when he speaks, his thoughts seem fully formed. Cohen — who, at 6 feet 4 inches, towers above the others — is casual and jovial. His bedroom, a loft-like space down a spiral-staircase from the kitchen, allows him little privacy — something of which, his roommates pointed out, few people would be so accepting. 

Diamant is the most direct and assertive of the three. Although outwardly warm, her go-getter attitude at times borders on impatience. “Abrasive, some might say,” she said of herself, before adding, “but I’ve been working on my abrasiveness.”

The three friends also know when to laugh at one another’s eccentricities. During a recent trip to Target, Diamant sarcastically poked fun at Feldman as he made an ironic but impassioned speech on the merits of one spatula over another, before turning his attention to a countertop composter, which he criticized for not being airtight. 

A few weeks later, asked how the house was coming along, Feldman responded, “Good, except for Andrew [Cohen].” Cohen chuckled.

In high school, Feldman was co-founder of a campus chapter of the BBYO youth movement, named Kavod, which Cohen joined soon after. Both served terms as president of the organization. 

“Until I went to college, everything I did except for soccer was in the Jewish community: the camp I went to; the extracurriculars that I did; the school that I went to; and most of my friends were Jewish,” Feldman said. “That’s just how it worked.” 

Diamant said the opposite was true for her; she never sought out the Jewish community because it was already intrinsic to her life. “When I was in high school, the only Jewish thing that I did was go to Jewish school. I never went to temple; I never was part of any BBYO thing. It was soccer and school, and that was it,” she said. 

But because she went to a Jewish school, most of Diamant’s friends were Jewish, and she often traveled to Israel to visit family. She also participated in and then coached soccer in the JCC Maccabi Games.

Organizationally, Moishe House is designed to fill the void of post-college life while enabling participants to have as much flexibility as possible to design their lifestyle and programs.

In college at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Cohen joined and later served as president of AEPi and majored in film studies. (Full disclosure: This writer was in the same class as Cohen at Wesleyan, although not a close friend.) Diamant attended UC Santa Barbara and was part of a loosely formed Jewish community. She studied cell and developmental biology, and for two of her four years, she lived in an off-campus home with 15 women, many of them Jews from Los Angeles. They celebrated Shabbat together and attended events at the campus Hillel. 

Feldman, however, consciously sought to distance himself from being a leader in Jewish life while studying philosophy and public affairs at Claremont McKenna College. “I really wanted to step out of that role,” he said.

Feldman founded his school’s garden, spent a semester studying in Washington, D.C., and did summer research in India and Bangladesh. The only Jewish program he participated in was Urban Adamah in Berkeley, spending a summer working on an organic farm.

All three graduated in 2014 and moved back into their parents’ homes. While Diamant found an interim job assisting in clinical research in the oncology department at UCLA, she immediately began applying to medical school. Cohen sought and struggled to find work that merged film with Jewish leadership, but has since found employment as a publicist, which he said he is enjoying. Feldman turned from the global to the local, volunteering, and later working for pay, on a Los Angeles City Council campaign. He is currently looking for employment.

During their difficult first post-college year, all three missed the communities they’d known in high school and college, and in particular, the Jewish community. 

“The thing that I really missed the most about Wesleyan was those regular communities that you have, whether it’s seeing those same people in your class, or a club, or a lunch group, whatever it is — that is something that is difficult to experience in the post-college world,” Cohen said. 

“All my friends were Jewish in high school because I went to a Jewish private school, and then all my friends were Jewish in college,” Diamant said. “So it was weird coming back to L.A. When I was working during my year off, I was one of the only Jewish people in my whole office. I really enjoyed that, and I want to keep those connections.”

After college, Feldman asked himself, “What do I really miss?” He had two clear answers: “One was soccer, which I had stopped in college, and the other was my Jewish life.” 

Cohen and Feldman, in particular, wrestled with how to balance professional ambitions with the desire to move out of their parents’ homes — and with the cost of independence.

It is an increasingly common narrative. The percentage of young adults living with their parents in the United States has increased rapidly in recent years, with more than 19 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds living at home in 2012, as compared to slightly above 11 percent in 2001, according to a recent study by the National Association of Home Builders. 

Additionally, 2014 study by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs found that Los Angeles is the least affordable housing market in the country. 

After learning about Moishe House from Cohen’s mom (who had heard about it at a Federation conference), Cohen and Feldman attended a few Moishe House events in West L.A. and the Valley. They enjoyed themselves, and so about six months ago, they put in an application, with a different friend, to live in Moishe House Venice Beach, which at the time was just opening and was seeking three residents.

“We were talking about moving out together, and we each had what we considered a well-touted Jewish resume,” Feldman said. “That, coupled with the fact that we also wanted, professionally, the leeway to explore what we want to do, and we knew that that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to an early large sum of money. So we thought, this is a way where we can do what we want to do socially and Jewishly, as well as being able to pursue our professional interest without having to live at home forever, which I think made our parents very happy.”

That first application was denied, however. In retrospect, Feldman thinks that was fortunate, because they probably weren’t ready yet to take on the responsibilities of the program. “I think we had a lot in theory down, but we didn’t really know what we wanted to be and what that would look like,” he said. 

“But we still had the idea that we really wanted to do Moishe House,” Feldman said. “When we started looking at the areas where we could do it, it was about the time I was working for the campaign. I was hanging out in Silver Lake a lot, and it fit us a little bit more.”

The pair’s initial third roommate went on to find a different living situation, but Diamant, who had committed to attending medical school at USC, signed on to the idea. They applied to open a new house in Silver Lake.

“At that point, Andrew [Cohen] was pretty much leading the charge,” Feldman said, before adding in a joking tone typical of the trio’s rapport: “I’ll give him that credit, but don’t expect me to give him more credit than that.”

This time they were accepted. Moishe House had not planned financially on opening another house in Los Angeles, but the organizers were won over by the trio’s application and decided they would make it work. The organization has set the goal of funding between 70 percent and 80 percent of the costs of each house from each local Jewish community, although it often uses nonlocal funding to expedite getting a house up and running before looking for additional local backers. Moishe House Silver Lake is in this situation, so Cohen, Feldman and Diamant were asked to help fundraise, using their networks in order to try to draw in more money from the L.A. area.

In all, Moishe House spends between $50,000 and $65,000 annually on each house. To do so, it receives significant funding from the Schusterman Foundation, Crown Family Philanthropies, the Jewish Federations of New York and Greater Los Angeles, and the Leichtag Foundation, as well as many other organizations and individuals. 

If residents of a house commit to throwing five to six events each month, Moishe House pays 50 percent of their rent and provides $375 per month for event expenses. If residents commit to six to seven events per month, they receive a 75 percent rent subsidy and $500 monthly. The Silver Lake house is on the lesser plan.

In addition, the Silver Lake residents receive $300 per year for cleaning supplies and are eligible to apply for numerous holiday-specific grants, including $180 per Shabbat up to twice a month, and $100 for different celebrations throughout the High Holy Days — all from the larger Moishe House organization.

Upon moving in, the Silver Lake house also received a $3,000 “beautification” grant through The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to assist in furnishing the residence for daily life and events. 

In addition to grants and subsidies, the international organization stages an annual conference and monthly retreats for residents, paying room and board and providing as-needed travel assistance. This September’s retreat, titled “Living Lifecycles,” will take place in Boston; in December, Moishe House community members can travel to Los Angeles for a weeklong retreat on “Jewish Mindfulness.”

Although the organization requires residents to plan one program every three months in each of five categories — one social; one in partnership with another local organization; one Jewish learning program; one community-service program; and one Jewish culture and holiday program — the guidelines are minimal. House members can organize whatever kinds of programming appeals to them.

Moishe House’s funders say they appreciate that the program’s adaptability has proven well-suited to the needs of young adults. 

“I was very impressed by the fact that the young adults themselves were coming up with the programs,” said Simone Friedman, executive director of Emanuel J. Friedman Philanthropies and a member of Moishe House’s board of directors. “It wasn’t a top-down approach. It wasn’t people telling the residents what they should be doing. It was really a perfect match for the millennial generation.”

Friedman’s foundation first funded houses in the Washington, D.C., area, where its offices are based, but has since become one of Moishe House’s core groups of funders, assisting in paying costs for opening new houses around the world. Freidman Philanthropies is one of the out-of-town funders supporting the new Silver Lake house. 

Guests relax on a deck overlooking the nearby hills at a welcome barbecue at the new Silver Lake Moishe House.  Photo by Andrew Cohen

Among Moishe House residents, Friedman said, “There is a willingness to sort of explore and make connections between different types of programs, different types of activities, that older people might not think are Jewish. There is more of a willingness to experiment, and less desire to deal with organizations that have more bureaucracy. Also, there is a desire to take leadership roles. And a lot of the older Jewish world doesn’t create those opportunities for millennials.”

Lisa Fields of the Fields Family Foundation, a local funder of the Silver Lake house, echoed that idea, and said she thinks that the autonomy Moishe House gives its residents and participants — those who attend Moishe House events but are not residents — enables the houses to be tolerant and inclusive environments — both things, she said, that older Jewish institutions should strive for.

And it appears to be working. Two separate independent evaluations, in 2011 and 2015, concluded that Moishe House was largely achieving key goals: The 2015 evaluation found, in part, that “almost two-thirds (65 percent) of residents have adopted new Jewish practices since getting involved with Moishe House.” Almost one-third of participants reported the same. More than 75 percent of residents and participants said they viewed Moishe House as a hub for young adult Jewish life, and 45 percent of all respondents reported an increased connection to the global Jewish community. 

The 2015 report concluded, “Moishe House is helping young adults become stronger leaders in the Jewish community, particularly for house residents.”

Planting the seeds of interest

On a recent Tuesday evening, a board game night co-hosted with East Side Jews at the Silverlake Independent JCC was winding down, and about 15 people were milling around, chatting, snacking on chips and drinking beer. The various conversation groups had divided by age. Three women in their early 30s were filling in one another on their lives; Cohen and Feldman were explaining Moishe House to a pair of women in their early 20s. Diamant sat off to one side, taking a break from conversation, visibly tired after a long day. 

“What are your phone numbers?” Cohen asked the women. “We have a Facebook page and an email listserv where we announce events. We are having something before Echo Park Rising this weekend, actually, and a lot more after that.” The women, who are roommates, happily handed over the information. 

Although genuinely enthusiastic, Cohen’s open invitation sounded a bit like he was reading off a script. All three roommates had repeated the invitation, or something like it, countless times over the past few weeks. Recruiting new participants into their community is part of their charge; they aren’t supposed to just entertain friends.

Of the game night’s 15 attendees, only five — two if you don’t include the residents themselves — had come via Moishe House. But given that this was only the trio’s third event (and one was on a Tuesday evening), Diamant and Feldman thought the turnout was pretty good.

The main problem they are working through is, “How do we get people to come? How do we get people to come regularly? And how do we get people to come that aren’t already our friends?” Cohen said the next day, sitting with his roommates in his large, light-filled bedroom.

Upstairs is Feldman’s bedroom, as well as a joint living room/dining room/kitchen, where, adjacent to a dining room table, two oversized beanbag chairs and a few long couches face a newly mounted television. Diamant’s room is down a short hallway from the kitchen, where a steep spiral staircase descends into Cohen’s loft-like space. Outside a set of French doors, a large hillside deck faces west onto the Silver Lake hills.

“So far it has been our college friends, our high school friends and Carmel’s med school friends at the majority of our events,” Cohen added.

They see their biggest challenge as expanding their network. When they schedule events, “It’s really hard to hit someone up, and then hit someone up again, and then hit them up again that month. And it’s not like you are going to their things,” Feldman said. 

Diamant, who is currently finishing her first month of medical school, is a bit more selective than Cohen about who she gives the Moishe House pitch to. 

“I’ve been trying to limit myself in school, only because I don’t want to be known as the super-Jewish girl of med school,” Diamant said. “People who have come over, I’ve told. Like Jolie, who came to the Shabbat picnic, she expressed interest.”

These days, almost every time Cohen meets a 20-something Jew, he jumps into gear.  “Andrew [Cohen] is the best networker I have ever met,” Feldman said. “He is definitely the most easygoing of the three of us.” 

To that end, Cohen has started devising a small public-relations campaign. He is considering creating business cards with the house’s information on the front and a list of two months’ events on the back. 

Facebook, of course, also plays a role in spreading the word, and Cohen is looking into paying for Facebook advertising to publicize Moishe House Silver Lake to people outside of their social networks — specifically directing ads to young adults in and around Silver Lake who identify as Jewish. He is still trying to convince Feldman and Diamant that paying a little out of pocket for advertising would be worthwhile.

Of all of their events so far, the three roommates say the welcome barbecue was their favorite. More than 50 people attended. Although most were friends from high school, college and Diamant’s medical-school class, a good number of strangers also passed through their doors, many invited by Ashley Sullivan, an outreach coordinator at Wilshire Boulevard Temple who none of the residents had previously met. 

Sullivan, 29, had heard about the Silver Lake open house at an event for Federation’s Next Gen Engagement Initiative, which brings together young Jewish community leaders and organizations that cater to Jews in their 20s and 30s to network; she invited many Jews from the neighborhood — mostly in their late 20s — who she thought should be involved in the new Moishe House.

Sullivan began attending Moishe House events after moving to Los Angeles from Haifa about a year ago. After applying to attend a Moishe House retreat as a nonresident, Sullivan began hosting Shabbat dinners under the umbrella of another program, called Moishe House Without Walls, which enables active participants to host their own events outside of the residences. 

Most of the people she knows who are involved in Moishe House are on the older end of the program’s spectrum and tend to want different things from the events than do younger residents. 

“I’ve noticed that as people get into their later 20s, whereas a spiritual expression of their Jewish identity may not have been important earlier, they start to want that,” Sullivan said. 

But, she added, that’s precisely why the Moishe House model works: A Shabbat dinner or a Seder can be more, or less, religious, depending on the preferences of a house’s residents and active participants.

The Silver Lake residents echoed this sentiment. 

“I am not a really religious person, so for me Judaism is about community, completely,” Diamant said.

The ideal Moishe House community, Cohen said, would be one with a core group of regular participants who, though not residents, feel similarly invested in creating meaningful programs. That passionate, tight-knit group would be a base around which new and occasional participants could circulate. 

Additionally, all three friends stressed that they want their Jewish community to be embracing of their non-Jewish social circles as well. 

Upcoming events at Moishe House Silver Lake reflect its residents: a Shabbat dinner; a Dodger game; in October, during Sukkot, a sushi and sake in the sukkah (which they will build on their deck); taco trivia night at Angel City Brewery; and a charity poker game. 

“We have had all these Jewish communities set up in a way that don’t necessarily allow us to make decisions about how we want to do Jewish things. And now that we are having our own Moishe House, we are able to be in control of those things. We can say we aren’t going to do anything for Rosh Hashanah, because we don’t want to, or it doesn’t work with our schedule,” Cohen said. They will be spending the High Holy Days with their families before hosting the Sukkot event together.

“It is sort of a Jewish community, but it’s also sort of the A-B-C, Andrew-Ben-Carmel community,” Cohen said.

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