Four men and their jpad new Moishe House in Palo Alto

Many guys in their 20s like to socialize, but four Stanford University housemates have taken it to a whole new level — and created their own definition of Jewish community.

It’s a good thing Harry Flaster, Josh Weinstein, Bryan Smith and Daniel Navi enjoy having people over to their Palo Alto home. On four different days last week, they had 75 guests at a busy barbecue in their backyard, 150 partygoers grooving in their living room and in their hot tub, 15 people around the dining table doing Torah study and 35 friends over for Shabbat dinner.

The four medical and graduate students do it for more than just a fun time. They have established Palo Alto’s new Moishe House, reaching out to other young Jews in the area to create and strengthen community.

“Stanford has a tradition of houses for the various graduate school communities, but there wasn’t anything comparable for Jewishly involved students,” said Flaster, a third-year medical student originally from the Phoenix area.

So the four friends, who met on campus through social and academic channels, took it upon themselves to lease a house, which they affectionately call “the jpad,” a hub for Jewish 20-somethings studying and working in Silicon Valley.

Since hosting their first event on July 4, they’ve had a steady stream of attendees. “The kinds of crowds we’ve gotten so far show that there was a void that needed to be filled,” said Smith, a postdoc in biomedical engineering who grew up in Cincinnati.

Josh Weinstein, Bryan Smith, Harry Flaster and Daniel Navi (from left) formed the Palo Alto Moishe House at their rented “jpad.” photo/renee ghert-zand

The four applied as a group to Moishe House, an Oakland-based nonprofit, after Flaster’s mother sent him an article about the organization from the New York Times. They were awarded a grant to cover half of their rent and a regular stipend for expenses to cover the minimum of five social, educational and charitable events they are required to hold per month. Moishe House also provides Judaica for the house, training and ongoing Jewish educational and programming support.

The Palo Alto venture is one of the newest of the 31 houses that have cropped up worldwide since the first Moishe House was set up in Oakland in 2006, and it is benefiting from the highest level of local funding, with 90 percent of costs covered by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund.

The three Bay Area houses — in San Francisco, Oakland and now Palo Alto — “are models for the others in this regard,” explained David Cygielman, the Oakland-based co-founder and executive director of Moishe House. “We are fortunate to have national support from the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Righteous Persons Foundation, as well as from other donors. But we are aiming for a more sustainable model, like we have in the Bay Area, where at least 75 percent of the cost of running each Moishe House is provided by local funders.”

Cygielman credits the quick, grassroots proliferation of Moishe Houses to cities all around the United States and the world (Beijing; Warsaw, Poland; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Cape Town, South Africa) to “the huge demand for Jewish community postcollege among young people who are not motivated to join conventional Jewish institutions like JCCs, federations and synagogues.”

Aviva Nan-Tabachnik, Western regional director for Moishe House, attributes the strong start in Palo Alto to the four residents, who know how to meet peers where they are in their busy, transitory lives. The men also had prior involvement in the Palo Alto Jewish community, as well as a familiarity with local groups and organizations and a willingness to partner with them.

For instance, the packed backyard barbecue was co-sponsored by the Bay Area Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, and a weekly Torah study class is taught by Rabbi Joey Felsen of the Palo Alto–based Jewish Study Network. “Their success is probably also due to the fact that they are just a really cool bunch of guys to hang out with,” posited Felsen.

For an Aug. 22 barbecue, the Moishe House in Palo Alto partnered with Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.

Unlike those who live in most other Moishe Houses, the Palo Alto residents are committed to keeping kosher and observing Shabbat. They also prefer a single-sex set-up, while many other Moishe Houses are co-ed.

“We were also insistent that we rent a house in [the neighborhood of] Barron Park, which is within walking distance to the synagogue we attend, has a lot of Jewish neighbors and is also not far from campus. We weren’t sure we were going to be able to find the right place in time, but luckily it all worked out,” said Navi, a dermatology resident who came to California from Iran when he was 13.

The four worked hard to smartly furnish the house and set it up in an inviting way. As he gave a tour, Navi was quick to point out how they arranged a comfortable seating area next to the kitchen to encourage guests to gather and converse.

Unfortunately, however, the lease on the house is up next summer, and it is unlikely the owner will renew it. “Having Moishe House going on a year-to-year basis is not really optimal. So, I’ll go right ahead and put a plug in, asking anyone out there in Palo Alto who has a house available long term, or who would even like to donate a place for a permanent Moishe House, to definitely get in touch with us,” Flaster said.

The four residents are amazed at how quickly their place has become what Felsen called “the center of gravity for young adults in the local Jewish community.” The men have found they don’t need to do much more than keep a Google calendar updated with planned events. People seem to be checking and then passing the information on to their friends by word of mouth. There hasn’t even been much of a need to post invitations on Facebook or Twitter.

The recent barbecue attracted newcomers Eyal Grundstein of Palo Alto and Roy Ben-Ami of San Jose, both of whom work in high-tech. They are childhood friends from Jerusalem who both happened to end up in the Bay Area after living in New York and Boston, respectively.

“It’s definitely harder to meet other Jewish and Israeli singles here in the Bay Area,” said Ben-Ami. They were impressed by the number of people in attendance and commented on the good food. “I would definitely come back again,” said Grundstein.

Also in the crowd was Maya Ben Barak, who has been friends with the Moishe House residents for several years. “It’s nice to be somewhere outside the formal Jewish community,” she shared.

Ben Barak has offered to help plan programming to reach a varied audience, in particular women. “The guys have really been open to my helping out. The message from them has clearly been, ‘This is your house, too.’ ”

For information, visit www.moishehouse.org or e-mail the Palo Alto group at moishehousepa@gmail.com.

 

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.