January 29, 2010
The house that David built
David Cygielman found a need, his Moishe Houses fill it
David Cygielman was a sophomore at UC Santa Barbara, a business major and the energetic president of the school’s Hillel, when he found out his father didn’t have long to live.
The diagnosis of terminal cancer threw Cygielman’s world into disarray. With no money for the family to cover both medical bills and tuition, school was suddenly out of the question. In a last-ditch effort to finish the semester, Cygielman applied to the Santa Barbara Hebrew Free Loan Association. They called back to offer him a deal: If he worked to pay his rent and continued to take a leadership role in the local Jewish community, they would pay his tuition in full for his remaining two years of college.
“I saw the whole community come together for me,” Cygielman recalled recently. “That was a really powerful thing.”
Since then, Cygielman has returned the favor for thousands of young Jews around the world through Moishe House, the organization he founded in 2006 to give the post-college crowd a greater sense of belonging in their religion.
Run by 20-somethings, for 20-somethings, each Moishe House begins as a communal living space, usually in a major city, for three to five young Jews. Cygielman’s organization gives house residents a rent subsidy and a monthly programming budget of $250 to $500, and turns them loose to host whatever events or activities they feel will appeal to their Jewish peers – from Shabbat potlucks and barbecues to softball teams (the San Francisco Matzoh Ball Stars, for one), movie nights and book clubs.
Guests don’t have to agree on keeping kosher, or have a day school education. Many simply don’t live in the cities in which they grew up and are looking for a social connection.
“Visitors to Moishe Houses get to be part of a Jewish community that’s really built for them – they’re just invited over to peoples’ homes to be a part of a young adult Jewish community, which a lot of
In four years, Moishe House has expanded from its original location in Oakland to 30 houses in 10 countries, including one recently opened in Los Angeles. There are now about 110 residents in Moishe Houses around the world, running programs for more than 4,000 participants every month. Cygielman believes the organization is now the largest in the world promoting “Jewish life after college” to Jews in their 20s who aren’t yet ready to start families and buckle down with a synagogue membership.
The project started in 2006 as an idea tossed out to a couple of friends over dinner. Cygielman was visiting friends and family in Oakland, and one night he and some high school buddies got to talking about how none of them had been actively involved in anything Jewish since college. “That’s when I asked them if they would basically turn their house into a community center for their friends and other young Jews living out in the East Bay,” he recalled.
They agreed, and the group had their first communal Shabbat dinner that Friday night. Seventy-three people showed up. The next week, he got an e-mail from a few Jewish 20-somethings in San Francisco asking if they could do the same thing out there. “It was pretty eye-opening,” Cygielman said.
The weekly emails haven’t stopped since. Moishe House continues to get applications for new chapters from all over the world – Cygielman said he’s now reviewing applications from Vancouver, Toronto, Stockholm and Berlin. With a budget of $1.3 million, the organization can’t fund every request it gets, but Cygielman said he hates saying no.
That’s because saying no runs contrary to his longtime entrepreneurial M.O. – step one: identify a need; step two: fill it.
It started back in Hebrew school, around age 9. A young Cygielman felt the candy for sale at the synagogue office was overpriced, so after school he would buy his own candy, bring it to Hebrew school and sell bags of Skittles and M&Ms for half as much.
“I had a nice little business going until my parents got called in to the principal and he had to explain that there was a larger purpose than just making profits there,” Cygielman recalled with a laugh.
In high school, he took that principal’s words to heart when he founded Feed the Need, a student-run homeless aid organization that garnered national attention.
Cygielman had participated on a student drive through the Catholic high school he attended to distribute food to the homeless at a park in Berkeley and was struck with a desire to learn more about each person’s individual needs.
“There was something illogical about going and dropping off food and leaving, and only on Christmas,” he said. “It seemed like there was a much larger need that one visit a year wouldn’t take care of. I had an interesting conversation with one guy where I asked, ‘What else do you need?’ And he said, ‘Shoes.’”
The gears in his head already turning, Cygielman went around talking to a dozen other homeless people at that park, took down their shoe sizes, and then asked his high school friends to give him their old shoes. The next week, he went back to the park and presented the people he had spoken to with new pairs of shoes – all the right sizes.
It became a routine. He and a group of other students – no adults needed – started visiting the park every week, gathering enough food donations for 120 lunches each trip. They also brought donated clothes to homeless residents and coordinated referrals to rehab programs and jobs. On top of that, the group also visited a local homeless shelter once a month and mounted a dinner party. They collected school supplies for homeless children there and raised money to send them to summer camp. The press took notice of Feed the Need’s work – Cygielman was interviewed on local radio stations and was a guest on the talk show “Roseanne.”
Meanwhile, Cygielman had grown close with the man he’d originally spoken to about the need for shoes. Eventually, using a pen and a pad of paper he owned, he wrote Cygielman a letter of recommendation for college.
It just shows what can happen when you give people a sense of community – they pass the favor on.