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Moishe House’s Creative, Communal Living

by Orit Arfa

September 9, 2009 | 10:06 pm

Residents, from left: Leo Beckerman, Elana Rosenbaum, Maital Guttman, Benjie Reynolds and Anthony Rogers-Wright.

Residents, from left: Leo Beckerman, Elana Rosenbaum, Maital Guttman, Benjie Reynolds and Anthony Rogers-Wright.

When Donna Lavian attended a housewarming barbecue at the new Moishe House of Los Angeles last month, it was her first Jewish event since moving to Los Angeles two years ago.

“I just never heard of any [events] my close friends were going to. I wouldn’t go on my own, and I never felt I needed it,” the 23-year-old preschool teacher said.

In fact, the barbecue didn’t feel like a typical Jewish event so much as just a fun, casual, homegrown party. Hot dogs, hamburgers and chicken sizzled on the grill. A resident DJ (an actual resident of the house) spun electronic music from the balcony overlooking the backyard, while Jews in their 20s and 30s smoked a hookah and gulped down cold ones.

With this opening in Los Angeles, the Moishe House organization has added a new landmark to its network of communal homes designed to serve young Jews ages 21 to 30. Already 27 centers have been established in eight countries, and each of these offers informal Jewish community centers with community events, as well as subsidized housing for a small group of residents. Through the Moishe Houses, it is hoped, post-college-aged young adult Jews can find an entry into Jewish life and a place to make friends.

Moishe House is just one part of a growing effort among Jewish organizations to target programming specifically to young Jews; other local efforts include Jewlicious, with its annual retreat in Long Beach of music, prayer and learning, and JconnectLA, which offers social and spiritual programming for singles and young couples.

“After graduating from college or finishing that age, there really is not a lot of vibrant Jewish life happening,” said David Cygielman, Moishe House’s executive director, from the organization’s headquarters in Oakland, home of the first Moishe House, which opened in 2006. “There’s a void basically until people are ready to start joining a synagogue, or get involved or have a family.”

There is a demand, however. Moishe House currently fields more applications than it can fund. Residents receive rent subsidies and a budget to create the house’s programming, with the requirement that a third of it must have distinct Jewish content. Over the summer, the Moishe House organization received a four-year, $1.25 million grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, and that, coupled with a grant from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation last year, is allowing the organization to expand operations. New Houses are currently slated to open in Moldova, Budapest and Mexico City in the coming months.

The program, Cygielman said, is both efficient and cost-effective.

“This year, with all the 28 houses around the world and everything that goes into them, our annual budget is slightly over $1 million, which is still smaller than most congregations in one city,” Cygielman said.

The Los Angeles Moishe House was first conceived by Maital Guttman, 26, who moved to Los Angeles two years ago from North Carolina and works as a documentary filmmaker. She knew what it’s like to come to a big city and look for a meaningful, creative, communal framework.

“It’s empowering us to envision the kind of community we want to create, so it’s not someone sitting down and asking, ‘How do you engage Jews in their 20s’; it’s creating our own space and opening it up to people,” she said.

She found four Jewish roommates who share her love for the arts and social justice issues. Together they scouted for a place, and eventually they came upon their dream house in Mar Vista, equipped with a living room, foyer, large kitchen, dining room and backyard. Bedrooms on the second floor offer a private oasis, and events are hosted downstairs.

If a camera were to be installed near every mezuzah, the footage might make up a Jewish version of MTV’s hit reality show, “The Real World,” capturing not only the residents’ interpersonal dramas (a few marriages have come out of Moishe Houses), but also each resident’s unique relationship to Jewish ideals and practice.

Among the first events hosted recently at the L.A. house was a discussion facilitated by Jewish Queer International (JC) on how to create a safe, inclusive space for Jews of all genders and sexual orientations. It’s a topic personally relevant to Guttman, whose Jewishly self-identified girlfriend, Tera Green, 25, also lives at the house, though not as one of the official residents.

“I almost feel like my own reservations and fears are not just about me,” Guttman said. “It’s for me to create a space, and part of that means to be ‘out’ there for other people who can’t.”

Musician and civil rights activist Anthony Rogers-Wright, 33, an African American Jew, is one of the residents. He hails from New York and sees Moishe House as a microcosm of the Jewish world.

“We’re trying to get more of the Jewish values portrayed than you might get portrayed in a typical organization,” he said. Sometimes that means simply figuring out those values.

“It’s hard for me to find a temple I’m comfortable going to,” said Benjie Reynods, 26, a Web designer and U.C. Santa Barbara alum who is one of the L.A. house residents. “This gives me the opportunity to explore different parts of Judaism in a way that’s less organized and more creative.”

Rabbi Scott Perlo of Los Angeles recently came to the organization as the rabbinic adviser for all the Moishe Houses.

“A lot of the residents have dreams they don’t yet know how to fulfill in terms of their own Jewish practice, ideas of study and learning, ideas about joyful community,” he said. “My job is to help them figure out how to do it.”

The various Moishe Houses range from fully observant homes that offer Torah study classes to culturally Jewish ones. Perlo fondly describes the Los Angeles residents as fiery, artistic and socially committed.

“I’m still getting to know them as a house, but they bring to the table this kind of interesting creative flair that I’ve never really seen before.”

Two of the residents bring with them previous Moishe House experiences. Leo Beckerman, 25, who works for a blood bank, started the Moishe House in Washington, D.C.; Elana Rosenbaum, 26, is an MBA student at UCLA and started the house in Buenos Aires.

“It’s a pretty fulfilling and worthwhile experience,” Beckerman said. “It was amazing to see how many people would come through in D.C., and it made me understand there’s really a need for something like this.”

The roommates have not finished furnishing the house, and they’re just getting to know one another’s routines and idiosyncrasies. Wright describes one of their first “dilemmas” as a discussion on what kind of tzedakah-themed event to plan for the High Holy Days. It’s exactly the kind of discussion they’ve come here to have.

“To me it feels like a dream I’ve been talking about has come true and manifested in an even better way than I could have imagined,”  Guttman said.

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