people in costume sitting around a table eating
"Halloween Shabbat” at the S.F. North Beach Moishe House, Oct. 2016

Transitioning from an organization doing Jewish work to a Jewish organization

Since its inception, Moishe House has always been engaged in Jewish work, but it has only been within the past five years that we have transitioned into a Jewish organization. And, it wasn’t until recently that I have begun to understand the transition we are making. It has made all the difference.

Growing up, my context for Jewish learning and literacy revolved around only two purposes: Either it was a means to end for accomplishing a specific goal, such as the b’nai mitzvah, or it was a mechanism to become more religiously observant. This was my Jewish context and reality. Since I have never had a desire to increase my observance and looked at my bar mitzvah as a memorization program, I never felt a reason to Jewishly learn. Even in the creation of Moishe House, when it was time to ensure there was strong Jewish content, we outsourced it to a rabbi. We checked the box and brought a rabbi on the staff early on to provide Jewish learning and training when needed. If the goal is to do Jewish work and provide Jewish programming, this model works just fine. But if the goal is to be a Jewish organization, it falls very short.

My shift in thinking and action began in separate conversations with two prominent philanthropists and businessmen. In each conversation, we got to the topic of why we do this work. For me, it has always been my connection with my family and the Jewish people. Spending every Sunday with my grandparents, hearing their stories of surviving the Holocaust, knowing my dad was born in a displaced persons camp and having it instilled in me that my duty as a Jew is to keep our heritage alive, I have always felt a deep connection. My connection grew in the summer of 1997 during my 10 weeks in Israel and continued on through college. For these two leaders, their deep connection did not develop in childhood, but rather, later in life; it came through Jewish learning, thought and, eventually, literacy. The connection was not lost on me that these two leaders, for whom I have great admiration, started by learning one-on-one with a teacher. They shared with me how they have become better parents, husbands, businessmen and philanthropists through Jewish text. No tests. No final exams. No end goal. Just the simple notion that because Judaism has so much to teach us through its thousands of years of history and evolution that by continuing to learn, we will become better informed on how to be better human beings. For me, this began to open my mindset to add the crucial rationale of why it is important to keep our Jewish heritage alive … not simply that it must be done.

I had my doubts, but like the time I joined the Matzah Ballstars softball team through Moishe House San Francisco to play the inmates of San Quentin in a softball game on “The Yard,” I figured that it would make sense eventually. The challenge became the set up. For these two individuals, hiring a teacher was a simple thing. But for me, it would have been cost prohibitive, and I needed the customization and relationship with a teacher I related to and trusted. Thankfully, the board of directors at Moishe House and one of these two philanthropists decided to support me in finding a teacher. It has been the greatest gift.

What started as a once-a-month lesson to learn basic Jewish vocabulary several years ago has evolved into a weekly session. While I get tremendous benefit from the learning, the real beneficiary is Moishe House. More than an organization serving the Jewish community, we have evolved into a Jewish organization. By capturing 2,000-plus years of wisdom, we are making much better decisions than if we simply applied data from the past decade. The Jewish people have been struggling through the same issues of leadership, combating anti-Semitism, family structures, spirituality and all the rest since Abraham and Sarah.

Today, at Moishe House, when we work to build an inclusive environment, it is not enough to just look at studies of millennials and Generation Z. We are also diving into the impact and strategy behind Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, who opened the doors to the academy in Yavneh, and Rabbi Gamliel, who eventually followed suit. When we talk about the importance of work-life balance and the value of being a good parent, wife, husband or the importance of proper succession planning, we turn to Harvard Business Review case studies but also to the Book of Samuel.

Once I understood that it is not about how much Jewish knowledge stored in one’s vessel but rather, that Jewish learning and literacy are a part of who we are and how we build a Jewish organization, I recognized it couldn’t stop with just me. We have now progressed to provide one-on-one Jewish learning to every staff member of Moishe House and in 2019, we extended this gift to the board of directors. It is not a “nice” thing — it is a necessary one that is critical to the work we are doing. To be a Jewish organization, we must utilize Jewish thought and wisdom in how we make decisions, in what direction we go and in how we best serve one another.

If we are serious about building Judaism and Jewish life, then we must unlock the thousands of years of wisdom and guidance in a way that is accessible, consistent and enriching, and which serves as a guide for the leaders of our Jewish community. It cannot be outsourced only to the clergy and Jewish educators. We need to adopt this model for bringing Jewish literacy and wisdom into all our organizations. If we want a strong, vibrant Jewish community, we need to invest the time and resources to make it a reality; it simply will not happen under the current conditions. Please, join us in this direction. It is not about Moishe House — it is about building Jewish organizations and not just organizations doing Jewish work.

A version of this essay first appeared at eJewishPhilanthropy.

David Cygielman

David Cygielman is founder and chief executive officer of Moishe House. He founded the first Moishe House in Oakland in 2006, and was one of its original residents.