Moishe House aims to create social scene downtown for young Jews

Just a half-mile from Skid Row stands a six-story apartment building in Little Tokyo.
August 18, 2016

Just a half-mile from Skid Row stands a six-story apartment building in Little Tokyo. Modern in style with parking that’s off-the-charts expensive, it is home to something you might expect given the neighborhood — a Seoul Sausage eatery occupies the first floor — and something you might not.

On the second floor, past a social space filled with a flat-screen TV, sofas and game tables, is a green apartment door with a welcome mat on the floor that says simply: “Moishe House.”

Here, in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, is the latest foray by the international nonprofit Moishe House to increase engagement among young Jews. The project works by subsidizing housing for young adults, who, in exchange for receiving a share of their monthly rent, organize Jewish communal events. 

The courtyard of Moishe House Downtown Los Angeles (left), located in an apartment community, features many amenities, including a pool and spa, a lounge area and more.

“We’re trying to introduce Jews to the downtown Los Angeles community,” Ariel Brotman, 24, said during an Aug. 9 kickoff barbecue for Moishe House Downtown Los Angeles. A law student at USC, she is co-founder of the house with three other second-year law school students from USC and Loyola Law School: Eric Czubiak, 23; Ben Livni, 25; and Danielle Dankner, 23.

The group moved into the apartment on Aug. 7 but already had a comfortable rapport with one another because the four became friends as undergraduates at UC Santa Barbara. 

They have previous experience with organized Jewish life, too. Czubiak and Livni were involved with the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi in college, and Brotman and Dankner were active with the Santa Barbara Hillel. They said they’re ready for the challenges that come with being Moishe House residents, including balancing their academic lives with the demands of living in a Moishe House, drawing strong turnout to their events, and creating a community in a part of town with fewer Jewish residents than, say, West Los Angeles or the San Fernando Valley.

“It’s up-and-coming, and it’s just nice to be a part of the change. Beverly Hills and other cities are already established. Here it’s more cultural. You get to see Wells Fargo bank and the top financial institutions as well as homeless people. It’s a great dynamic, and it’s real life. I feel like when you walk the street you see all the world,” Livni said, barbecuing hamburgers in the building’s courtyard. “And it’s a great feeling.”

The three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment that is Moishe House Downtown Los Angeles comes with a monthly rent of almost $4,000, half of which is subsidized in exchange for residents holding five to six events per month. The group is receiving financial support from Spencer Kallick, a local attorney and member of the Moishe House board of directors, the Kallick family and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. 

The apartment includes a small kitchen, medium-size living room, laundry room and a large balcony with a dining table. The four can use other amenities at the apartment complex, AVA Little Tokyo, including a pool and spa; a barbecue area; a social room; and a roof area with sofas and a projector to play movies — all open every night until 10 o’clock. 

Brotman and Dankner, who were roommates as undergrads, are sharing a bedroom, while the guys each have their own. Dankner, a former intern at the Journal who attends Loyola, enjoys playing the piano — a keyboard was on the floor of her room during the kickoff party — and is the daughter of Limor Dankner, the middle school principal at Milken Community Schools. 

Across the living room, an Israeli flag hangs on the bedroom wall of Livni, who also attends Loyola. Rounding out the group is Czubiak, an Eagle Scout who is a student at USC. 

The group is obligated to organize Jewish events, general social events and/or tikkun olam events. Already, less than a week after moving in, the downtown residents had held three events, including a karaoke night in Koreatown and a Shabbat dinner. Future planned activities include an Aug. 26 challah-baking and candle-making gathering and an event on Aug. 31 with the Jewish Graduate Student Initiative, during which attendees will participate in mock job interviews.

The four residents decided to open a Moishe House when they were undergraduates in Santa Barbara and they heard David Cygielman, founder and CEO of Moishe House, speak about the organization. It took several years, however, for them to be in the right place in their lives to follow through with it. The summer between the first and second year of law school was the time, Brotman said.

Moishe House is not the only organization in the Jewish community that targets young adults, but its peer-driven model is unique in that participants, who are not professional Jewish leaders, become full-time representatives of Jewish life and are charged with spreading the word about Moishe House at school, work or in social settings. Residents also produce an online newsletter.

Founded in 2006 in Oakland, Moishe House is headquartered in Encinitas and oversees 89 houses in 21 countries. To celebrate the nonprofit’s decade of work, every Moishe House location will hold a Friday night dinner on Sept. 23 as part of an initiative called “10th Anniversary Global Shabbat.” 

The downtown house is the sixth location in the Los Angeles area. Other local Moishe Houses are in North Hollywood, Silver Lake, Thousand Oaks, West Hollywood and West L.A. An additional house in Woodland Hills for young adult Israelis — a partnership between Moishe House and the Israeli American Council (IAC) — closed in June due to a lack of funding. 

“We knew [the IAC] house wasn’t a long-term thing,” Jessie Bustamante, the West Coast director of institutional advancement at Moishe House, said in a phone interview. “It’s possible the downtown house will be probably be the last house in L.A. we do for a while. Earlier this year, the downtown house wasn’t even on our radar.”

“The house ends up representing the neighborhood, and people embody that feeling, as well,” said Josh Hillinger, Moishe House’s southwest regional director, who was in attendance at the downtown location’s kickoff. A former resident at Moishe House Sherman Oaks, which in March became Moishe House North Hollywood, he said the expectation is for residents to “develop their own meaningful programs.” 

He described the houses as “micro-communities” and said Moishe House sees the rent subsidy as an “investment in the future leaders in the Jewish community.” 

To keep a house open costs about $40,000 to $50,000 per year, he said. That figure includes funds for the rent subsidies, the house’s program budgets — the downtown house will receive $375 per month to offset event costs — and Moishe House staff. 

Moishe House chief program officer Jordan Fruchtman said the organization’s annual budget in 2017 will near $10 million, with “a pretty significant amount” coming from Los Angeles-based supporters.

Approximately 30 young people attended the downtown kickoff, including Aaron Varsha, 24, who runs an auction business and lives in Santa Monica.

“I think tonight was spectacular,” he said. “It’s a good place to start a new future and a wonderful place to hang out, meet friends and find someone special looking to have Jewish babies.”

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