Funding Fuels Group Homes’ Growth

By Rebecca Spence

Published November 10, 2006, issue of November 10, 2006.
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Call it a throwback to communal housing in Berkeley in the 1960s. Or a Jewish take on the long-running MTV reality show “The Real World,” where a bunch of strangers in their 20s are housed under one roof. Or something in between.

Whatever the comparison, Moishe Houses, group homes for young Jews who have finished college but have yet to get married and start families, are cropping up in cities in North America, South America and even Africa. And with a new partnership between the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Forest Foundation, which launched the Moishe House program in 2005, and the Vancouver-based Center for Leadership Initiatives, founded this year by mega-philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, the number of Moishe Houses may double in the coming year.

Conceived as a way to bring 20-somethings — that segment of the population that many Jewish communal leaders describe as the toughest age group to reach — into Jewish life, Moishe Houses regularly host a staggering array of community events, both Jewish and non-Jewish in nature, from raucous late-night poker games to more contemplative Friday-night dinners.

In the program’s first year, Moishe Houses have cropped up in eight cities around the world, including San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and Los Angeles, as well as Montevideo, Uruguay, and Abuja, Nigeria — where a leader in the Igbo community, an ethnic group that includes many who claim Jewish descent, lives by himself and hosts other community members. The Moishe Houses, now housed under the nonprofit umbrella of Schusterman’s CLI, will now be able to accept funding from private foundations, allowing them to expand exponentially across the map. Next month, the first Moishe House will open its doors in Jerusalem and will serve Americans who are taking a year off after college to live in Israel.

Leaders at both CLI and the Forest Foundation described the union as an ideal match. “For us, it was perfect synchronicity,” said Yonatan Gordis, CLI’s director of programs, explaining that the Moishe House program was initiated just as Schusterman’s latest philanthropic arm came into being.

Unlike many Jewish programs aimed at this age group, the Moishe Houses’ supporting foundations take a hands-off approach when it comes to programming for their 20-something residents. “We’ve heard from research that if we give them the resources and don’t tell them what to do, and allow them to create it in their own image,” close-knit communities can blossom among what are for the most part unaffiliated young Jews, said Gordis. “We actually trust them.”

Moishe Houses typically require a minimum of three residents, and all that is asked of them is that they host anywhere from eight to 12 events per month. In return, the inhabitants get up to 75% of their rent paid by the supporting foundation, plus a programming stipend of $500 a month.

The idea for the project, said the Forest Foundation’s director, David Cygielman, sprung out of a trip to South America, during which he noticed that young Jews there lived with their families until they were married. This sparked a conversation between Cygielman and the Forest Foundation’s founder, Morris Squire, about how to maintain Jewish identity for those who are between college life, where they can attend campus programs, and married life, when they often join synagogues.

“Rather than creating programs for my age group,” said Cygielman, a 25-year old graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara, “we decided to give them the resources to do it on their own and basically create Jewish community centers out of their homes.”

In Los Angeles, the Moishe House in West Hollywood recently hosted a Sukkot party titled “I’m Gonna Get You, Sukkah.”

The Seattle Moishe House, established in February, grew out of an informal group of young Jews who had already been coming together for Friday-night dinners. “We had been having our own Moishe House without realizing that it existed,” said 25-year-old Norah Herzog, the only woman among the house’s four residents. “We’re definitely building and building,” Herzog said. “Every month we get more and more people involved, and more people know who we are.”

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