July 20, 2019

Moishe House Explores ‘Little Shtetls’ of Jewish Learning

Participants in Moishe House’s Jewish Education Summit. Photo courtesy of Moishe House

Moishe House, a program for Jewish young adults that has been growing steadily throughout the United States and internationally since its inception nearly 13 years ago, is now grappling with a key question: How far should it go in providing concrete definitions and setting requirements for the content of its peer-led Jewish learning programs while still empowering its young leaders, in their 20s and early 30s, to be bold and creative in how they engage with that content? 

At a “Jewish Education Summit” held Nov. 6-8 at its headquarters in The Hive at Leichtag Commons in Encinitas in northern San Diego County, Moishe House invited Jewish academics and educators to explore the extent to which its learning activities should incorporate Judaism’s core texts or ideas in order to be considered a proper Jewish education.

“We’re all asking the same question: For young adults in 2018, what does it mean to live a Jewish life? What does it mean to craft Jewish learning and own your own Jewish experience?” said Rabbi Brad Greenstein, senior director of Jewish learning at Moishe House.

Since January 2006, when it started opening Moishe Houses that support Jewish young adults who live together and host Jewish programming for their friends and community, the nonprofit organization has grown to more than 110 houses in 27 countries (including six in Los Angeles, one in Orange County and two in San Diego County), according to its website. It also provides support for leaders of peer-led retreats and a program called Moishe House Without Walls. Last  May, Moishe House said that during the previous year more than 50,000 young adult Jews were active participants in its programs, which drew a total annual attendance of more than 200,000.

“Moishe House is interesting because they are committed to democratizing Jewish education by bringing it to people’s living rooms,” said Miriam Heller Stern, national director of the School of Education and associate professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “Anyone can teach, sit with the text and make sense of it. It’s a reflection of the American zeitgeist but comes into tension with traditional beliefs about how much one needs to know to access those texts.” 

Summit participants included representatives of educational organizations such as The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, the Shalom Hartman Institute and Mechon Hadar; the community-service organization Repair the World; and Moishe House funders such as the Jim Joseph Foundation and the William Davidson Foundation. (In addition to reporting on the event for the Journal, I was invited to participate in the discussions.)

“We have to rethink that assumption of what education has to look like. … a formal structure to teach what used to be learned through living.” — Miriam Heller Stern

The sessions reflected diverse perspectives on Jewish education.

“Seeing spiritual homelessness and social isolation, you solve for ‘belonging,’ ” said speaker Casper ter Kuile, executive director and director of possibility for the Impact Lab at The On Being Project, and co-host of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast. Ter Kuile, who is not Jewish, brings together leaders in the emerging field of secular and sacred community innovation. He talked about unbundling and remixing traditional religious practice through several lenses. For instance, the Catholic Church used to be a full-service institution helping people to be “hatched, matched and dispatched,” he quipped, but is now experiencing a loss of popularity as people find other communities to serve their religious needs.

On the summit’s second day, Orly Michaeli, founder of the women’s spirituality retreat Wominyan, asked how Jewish educators should define “Jewish text.” Michaeli, who grew up in Guatemala, said that text is a measure of Jewish content for Judaism in the U.S., whereas in Latin America, Jewish content is derived from a sense of peoplehood centered on community and tradition. 

Stern, in her address, noted that for the last 150 years “school was synonymous with Jewish education.” Before that, she said, Jewish life was learned by living in the shtetl, where people had no choice but to live Jewishly. 

“We have to rethink that assumption of what education has to look like and be structured,” Stern said. “How do we teach the next generation to be Jewish if we don’t live in the enclave and learn by doing because everyone else was? [We need] a formal structure to teach what used to be learned through living.”

Moishe House, Stern said, was “creating little modern shtetls” that to an extent were duplicating this way of learning.

While much of the summit was involved in discussions of text and theory, Aaron Henne, founder of the Jewish theater company Theatre Dybbuk, led a session that encouraged participants’ physical movement. Groups read textual accounts of the Lilith story and then used their bodies to create “snapshots” representing the story’s narrative ideas. 

A conversation led by Yehudah Webster, director of B’nai Mitzvah Campaign, an innovative bar/bat mitzvah tutoring company in New York City, focused on where bias meets Jewish education. 

“We’re oriented in a particular norm which doesn’t allow for multiplicity of experiences,” Webster said. Educators should acknowledge that others’ Jewish experiences may be very different from their own, he added, and he challenged those present to raise the visibility of untold narratives — stories coming from Sephardic Jews, Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews, etc. — in a largely “Ashkenormative” Jewish conversation. 

Meanwhile, Greenstein said he was strategizing with Moishe House’s Resident Support team about “what it could look like for residents to create their own holistic Jewish learning plan from the very beginning of their Moishe House experience.” 

“The question I kept coming up with was ‘For what, to what end [are these learning experiences intended]?’ ” Greenstein said. “[At Moishe House] we put a lot of power and decision-making into the educators’ own hands. … The question remains, though: Is text necessary for Jewish education? Do you need a specific anchor that comes from a canonical part of the tradition to be counted as Jewish education? We learned that the realm of Torah is so expansive, but as it continues to expand we’re drawn back to that initial anchor, back to the traditional canonical texts. The question is, how do we make them come alive?”

After the summit concluded, Greenstein summed up the experience.

“We are all engaged in similar work,” he said. “We want Judaism to thrive. If Moishe House can be a catalyst for a Jewish life that’s dynamic and alive, then we’ve done our job.”