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Trusting Young Adults to Build Their Own Communities From the Ground Up

This piece is part of a series on next-generation engagement following a panel discussion at the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (The Foundation). This universal topic is front of mind with Jewish leaders striving to create pathways of inclusion and connectivity to Judaism for “Gen X” and millennial Jews. Each panelist, including this author, has received a Cutting Edge Grant from The Foundation. The multi-year grants of up to $250,000 are awarded to creative thinkers, social entrepreneurs, and innovative organizations to develop and implement transformative programs of high visibility and impact in the Los Angeles Jewish community. Since being established by The Foundation in 2006, more than $15 million in Cutting Edge Grants have been awarded to 84 programs, with a particular emphasis on initiatives to drive Jewish engagement and inclusion.

If I do my job right, I’ll never run a Jewish program for young adults again. I won’t plan another program. I won’t purchase a single loaf of challah. I won’t create a Facebook event and invite my friends. I won’t come up with “Sangria in the Sukkah” or “High Holy Day Meditation” or “The Best of Mel Brooks Movie Night.” You see, at Moishe House, we don’t think we – or any organization for that matter – can create programs and cultivate Jewish life for young adults like the young adults themselves. And I’m not talking about chairs and co-chairs or board members or anything like that. I’m talking about the people who live a few doors down from you, your buddy from college or your friend from yoga.

Moishe House was born when four Jewish twentysomethings began hosting Shabbat dinners in Oakland, California for their friends back in 2006. Fueled by enormous demand for peer-led, home-based programming, Moishe House fills a gap for post-college Jewish adults who are transient by nature in career and location, but looking to find their niche before settling down. As a result, Jewish young adults are connecting their ability to generate buy-in from their peers to the pipeline in their local Jewish community that feels natural and welcoming.

Since there is no one better in the world at creating programming for Jewish young adults than other Jewish young adults, we do our very best to empower thousands of these young adults every day through our Moishe Houses, where a handful of people (residents) live together and host programming in their shared home weekly. Similarly, through Moishe House Without Walls (MHWOW), a growing community beyond our house networks, young adults host programs from their own homes a few times every year.

In August of this year, for example, the residents of Moishe House Baltimore hosted a discussion on Judaism and gender, while across the pond in London there was a sushi-making night. In Sofia, Bulgaria, residents and community members hosted a Havdalah and dinner and in Auckland, New Zealand, a large group of young adults attended Limmud New Zealand together. We give young people around the world the means to build the Jewish lives they create for themselves, in their own homes and for their own friends.

The numbers we are seeing seem to support this effort. In August 2016, more than 4,000 unique young adults around the globe participated in a Moishe House or MHWOW program in their communities. During this timeframe, there was an average of 20 Moishe House or MHWOW programs held every single day throughout the month. Through holiday celebrations, Shabbat dinners, service projects and so much more, our residents, hosts and community members are showing that Judaism can be innovative, engaging, casual, fun and most importantly, accessible.

Every statistic and study shows us that this shouldn’t be happening. More and more young adults are leaving organized religion and aren’t participating in institutional activities. But by taking out the middleman, the actual institution, we’ve opened up a new world for Jewish young adults. They get to define Judaism and Jewish life for themselves, without the constraints of typical avenues of engagement. And every few years, Moishe House residents and MHWOW hosts cycle through. There are constantly new emerging leaders stepping up to the plate to do this important work, meaning we have a consistent stream of fresh ideas and renewed enthusiasm from people who love Judaism, embrace being Jewish and want to share that passion with their friends and peers.

My job, and the jobs of everyone at Moishe House, is not to plan programs. Our job is to inspire, empower and enable these leaders to do that for themselves. And that matters because if we, the Jewish community, don’t evolve and adapt to meet the changing needs of Jews, no matter what their age and level of involvement, we’re going to lose them. But if we meet them on their level and give them the tools to do the work of forging connections to Jewish traditions and to each other, we will keep them in the fold of the greater Jewish people and strengthen the fabric of our Jewish communities for years to come.

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