Onward and upward for Moishe House: Grants of $6 million a huge opportunity for Oakland agency

Big changes are afoot at Moishe House, a nonprofit that launched in 2006 with a handful of Jewish 20-somethings living together in an old house near Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre.

The organization — which has ballooned to 48 group houses in 14 countries — announced this month that it will receive $6 million in new investment over the next

41⁄2 years. The grants, said Moishe House officials, are a validation of their agency’s success in engaging young adults in meaningful Jewish experiences.

CEO David Cygielman said the new money — including a $3 million matching grant from the S.F.-based Jim Joseph Foundation — will allow the already burgeoning Moishe House to expand even more in terms of geography, structure and programming.

At Moishe House San Francisco, residents (from left) Jay Wolfberg, Meg Stewart, Dan Rader and Shlomo Goltz photo/moishe house-benji holzman

The plan is for Moishe House to increase its number of houses worldwide from 48 to 65 by 2017, and to increase the staff at its Oakland headquarters from 12 to 19.

“We’re trying to catch up to demand, and we have quite a bit of work ahead of us,” Cygielman said. “But it’s exciting. It’s a huge opportunity.”

The funding, part of a strategic growth plan, was the culmination of an 18-month Jim Joseph Foundation review of what was working (and what wasn’t) at Moishe House, according to Jordan Fruchtman, Moishe House’s chief financial officer.

Among the findings that impressed Jim Joseph officials, he said, was Moishe House residents’ level of responsibility, given the autonomy the organization gives each house.

“We really see residents as experts on their local communities, and on how to engage their peers,” Fruchtman said, “and they’re taking that as an opportunity to come up with really meaningful Jewish events.”

He continued: “One might think, ‘Oh, you’re just giving [half-price rent and money for events] to random people living in, say, Pittsburgh — they’re just going to throw parties every weekend.’ Not only is that not the case, but they’re coming up with incredible, deep Jewish educational programs that we never even thought of.”

Residents at a Moishe House in San Francisco, for example, came up with the idea of “workshop-style” Shabbat services that will teach their peers how to hold Shabbat in their own homes.

Moishe House’s ability to spark community-expanding ideas like that — especially among 20-somethings — was part of what prompted the new funding from some heavy hitters: the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Leichtag Foundation, the Genesis Philanthropy Group and the Maimonides Fund.

“[Participants] in their 20s are eager to partner with other organizations, without regard to some historical or organizational politics,” Fruchtman said. “As a result of being part of the Moishe House community, they’re much more likely to attend events put on by other organizations, to build new networks. They’re going out there and partnering like crazy.”

The Jim Joseph Foundation is giving $500,000 for 2012, and plans to do a dollar-to-dollar match (on donations from individuals and Jewish federations) of up to $3 million through 2017. The remainder of the $6 million is coming from the other foundations. If the Jim Joseph money is fully matched, that brings the total to $9 million by 2017.

Some of the money will help launch a program for young people who want to get involved with Moishe House without actually living in a residence.

Without Walls, a new Moishe House pilot project, is currently open to young adults in San Diego and to Moishe House alumni. The program will train and pay for young adults to host programs like Shabbat dinners, beach cleanups and cultural activities.

“We wanted to find a new way to engage alumni” after they move out, Cygielman said. “And we also realized that actually living in a Moishe House residence isn’t for everyone.”

For those who do want to live in a residence, Moishe House aims to have 65 houses by the end of the grant period, he said, including a house that’s already in the planning stages in San Francisco’s Marina district, funded in part by the Doug and Lisa Goldman Fund, set to open in 2013. (Applications from potential residents are corrently being accepted.)

Among all these changes is a big one for Cygielman, who has relocated to Charlotte, N.C., site of Moishe House’s East Coast office. The CEO said the move won’t affect the way Moishe House operates.

Back in Oakland, Fruchtman said new hiring choices will be in sync with the agency’s increased focus on alumni and nonresidents. In that vein, one of the first hires was a new director of alumni engagement, who also will work on Without Walls. Another part of the job will be expanding the relationship between Moishe House and the Jewish volunteer service organization Repair the World.

A separate programming expansion is aimed at nurturing young leaders within the houses, often by staging retreats. Many residents want to learn, for example, Cygielman said, how to run and teach a Passover seder.

“We’re realizing that a lot of people who live in Moishe Houses may not have grown up doing a lot of the rituals that they’re now leading,” Cygielman said, “and they really appreciate having a peer-to-peer, hands-on educational experience” that Moishe House can offer.

Fruchtman said that while the upcoming period of growth seems “daunting,” he and other staff members are ultimately “incredibly excited” for what’s ahead.

“This is a homegrown organization,” he said. “I was born and raised in Oakland. I still live in Oakland. It means a lot.”

Emma Silvers