At Moishe House, a central address for Jews in their 20s

It hasn’t achieved Starbucks-level growth, with a franchise on every corner. Not yet.

But Moishe House, which offers subsidized housing to young adults who agree to live and work together on promoting Jewish life to their peers, has expanded at a dizzying pace. Since its establishment in Oakland in 2006, it has grown to 75 houses in 17 countries on five continents, with more than 5,700 programs engaing 95,000 people last year.

 

Passover 2014 at Moishe House East Bay in Oakland photo/eli zaturanski-elizphotography.com

The Bay Area hosts a number of houses — three in San Francisco (North Beach, the Mission and a Russian-speaking house in the Sunset District) with a fourth slated to open later this year, along with one in Oakland and one in Palo Alto.

 

Built on the idea that young adults are more likely to show up to events if they’re invited by their friends or peers, the nonprofit boasts a $5.2 million annual budget, with support from such donors as the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Koret Foundation, the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation.

Moishe House CEO David Cygielman and his team built the organization by applying the old capitalist maxim “Find a need and fill it.” In this case, the need was the vastly underserved segment of post-college 20-somethings in the Jewish community.

“I see Moishe House as a conduit to directly supporting young Jewish adults and building Jewish community,” says Cygielman, a Bay Area native now running the nonprofit from Charlotte, N.C.

 

Passover 2014 at Moishe House East Bay (left) photo/eli zaturanski-elizphotography.com

The concept of Moishe House grew out of a dearth of programming for young adults. With their BBYO and Hillel days behind them, and married life still ahead, there were few opportunities for millennials to live Jewishly, especially those from secular or marginally religious backgrounds.

 

Residents apply to live in a Moishe House for one to three years. The selected group of up to five residents is responsible for locating a suitable rental and signing the lease. In return for heavily subsidized rent — courtesy of the Moishe House organization — they commit to hosting Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations and creating programs in the realms of Jewish learning and culture.

That makes the Moishe House a combination co-ed fraternity, classroom and community center. Throw in comfy chairs, a big-screen TV and a bowl of Doritos, and it becomes a magnet for young adults.

The housing subsidies are a big incentive to attracting residents. Instead of paying market value, they get up to a 75 percent discount. In San Francisco, residents pay between $300 and $650 a month — quite a deal when the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is well above $2,500.

“It’s pretty much a work exchange,” said Analucia Lopezrevoredo, a San Francisco resident. The 28-year-old, who works full time at the nonprofit JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), said she and her housemates spend around 20 hours a week planning, shopping, cooking and promoting the seven events their house must host every month. They use social media to promote their events — anything from a Kabbalat Shabbat to a co-ed soccer team — put out newsletters and write reports for the national office.

 

“Welcome Home Shabbat” event on Jan. 30 at the Mission District Moishe House in San Francisco photo/courtesy moishe house

“There’s a constant rhythm to planning,” Lopezrevoredo added. “Creating community by community is the key for millennial Jews. In the traditional model, you either go to shul or you’re not involved in Judaism. Moishe House is a great alternative.”

 

Cygielman noted that almost all programming ideas originate with residents. Two favorites he cites are a “pink” Shabbat for breast cancer awareness and a garment giveaway, in which houseguests throw their unwanted clothes on the floor. What isn’t snatched up by others is donated to local charities.

And then there was the Matzah Ball Stars, a Moishe House softball team that was started in 2010 by an S.F. resident who wanted to do outreach to prisoners.

“He contacted San Quentin,” Cygielman said. “He found out the only way to get in was to put together a softball team, go in on Sundays and play the inmates. They started the team and played the inmates once a month.”

These kinds of innovations attracted funders such as the Jim Joseph Foundation. Senior program officer Josh Miller has helped administer the foundation’s grants to Moishe House, so far totaling nearly $5 million.

“From the beginning, Moishe House has had a model that seemed compelling to the foundation,” Miller said. “They’ve been an entrepreneurial and savvy organization from day one, thanks to the nature of their founding, the leadership and the culture of the organization. It’s nonprofit management done well.”

Miller notes that Moishe House is not the only Jewish nonprofit serving millennials. But he is impressed with Moishe House’s adaptability, noting that the model works as well in Budapest as it does in Boston.

Cygielman and his staff have now turned their attention to life after Moishe House. For example, a new pilot project, Moishe House Without Walls, will help former residents build on the experience and leadership skills gained while living in a house.

Meanwhile, the ticker at the top of the nonprofit’s website, tracking the number of Moishe Houses around the world, continues to grow.

“We did a little internal study to see how many houses we think we can have,” Cygielman said. “We think we could be at 150 without oversaturating.”

Former J. writer Abra Cohen contributed to this report.

 

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.