Moishe House: Building in Beijing

By Alison Klayman

Published November 13, 2008, issue of November 21, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

My roommates and I built the only rooftop sukkah in Beijing, 16 floors above the traffic on Second Ring Road, overlooking Sinopec headquarters and the small Olympic park next door. It was a true Chinese sukkah — made in part with PVC pipes and metal wire from a local construction market — and we were nervous that our neighbors would assume we were building some kind of permanent structure and report us to the Public Security Bureau.

GROUP EFFORT: Young Jews worked together to put up a rooftop Sukkah in Beijing.
GROUP EFFORT: Young Jews worked together to put up a rooftop Sukkah in Beijing.

We put up our sukkah frame quickly, hanging the cloth walls at the last minute, in hopes of avoiding a culture clash with the police. (“Don’t worry, officer, by definition a sukkah cannot be permanent. I promise it will be down after Simchat Torah.”)

We didn’t want our sukkah to draw negative attention to our house: Besides the fact that Judaism is not technically a legal religion in China, we plan on hosting many more Jewish community events in the future.

That is because our apartment was recently designated as Moishe House Beijing, meaning we are one of 25 hotspots for the young Jewish community around the globe. The California-based Moishe Foundation furnishes us with a programming budget and a partial-rent subsidy, occasional leadership training and networking opportunities with our peers at other houses — and leaves the actual community-building up to us.

The Moishe Foundation’s mission is to empower us, young Jewish leaders in our 20s, to cultivate meaningful Jewish experiences among our peers. Established Jewish community structures often rely on synagogues and schools to engage people, which leads to a gap in active Jewish participation for post-college, pre-family adults. If young adult Jews are having difficulty finding their place in Jewish life in the United States, how much more so in Beijing?

So the construction of the Chinese sukkah was less important to the Moishe Foundation than the sukkah’s inhabitants. Our events throughout the week of Sukkot saw a parade of Jewish 20-somethings and their friends come to dine, drink, discuss and create in our rooftop sukkah.

That is the biggest genius behind the Moishe House model — not the monetary support, but a reliance on grass-roots programming initiatives. The money currently comes from a few different sources, but mostly from the Center for Leadership Initiatives, funded by philanthropist Lynn Schusterman. Yet there is not a single ideological string attached to a single dollar (or RMB).

The Moishe Foundation does not issue directives from the top about what specific events should be held each month, but it does ask for a mix of religious and secular activities. This means that when it comes to bringing together Jewish people, a Tuesday night dinner counts just as much as a Friday night dinner, and a Chinese class is just as valid as a Hebrew class.

Furthermore, Moishe House materials specifically mention that events should be open to everyone, and even state that a house can have non-Jewish roommates (they simply aren’t covered in the rent subsidy). These kinds of policies avoid the perception of Moishe House as a closed-off community with mysterious deep pockets.

It seems as though Moishe House successfully steers clear of sectarian agendas, and these include the issue of “intermarriage prevention.” Although it may sound like a live-action JDate service, Kevin Sherman, Moishe House’s director of international programming, stressed that the Moishe House concept is not a matchmaking strategy. “That’s not why we come to the office in the morning,” he said about himself and his four colleagues, all in their 20s. If any relationships grow out of a Moishe House community, they will arise naturally.

Beijing is the first Moishe House in Asia, and we are part of a growing number of international locations for this program, originally designed for implementation in the United States. Expanding to international outreach isn’t about finding an exotic corner of the globe and marooning young Jews there, lying in wait for businesspeople and tourists who need a place to celebrate Passover. The objective of Moishe House Beijing is the same as the objective of Moishe House Hoboken, N.J. As a young Jewish American in her third year living in China, I think that the Moishe Foundation’s decision to include communities abroad, whether they comprise mostly locals or expats, shows that the organization really is attuned to the realities of my generation. We are mobile, we are equipped to maneuver in a global economy, and we believe we can be Jews anywhere in the world.

And thanks to technology, the foundation can keep tabs on the activities of members all over the world. In Beijing, we host three events a month, write blog posts, upload photographs and food receipts, and provide an attendance count as well as the number of first-time participants. In 2007, Moishe Houses worldwide hosted a total of 1,628 events that engaged 29,492 young people, 10,658 of whom were first-time attendees. Last month, 33 people came to our events in Beijing, and half of them came back twice in the same month.

With attendance figures for the first 10 months of 2008 already exceeding those for all of 2007, the success of Moishe Houses shows that an adaptable and organic approach to building Jewish community and identity works better every time.

Alison Klayman is JTA’s Beijing correspondent.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.