Kibbutz-Style Living Fills A Void For Young Jews

By Robert L. Smith
Religion News Service

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio (RNS) Raychel Bone, Sam Selker, Naima Cohn and Taliesin Haugh sat on their front porch and mulled the surprising successes of the venture that teaches young Jews how to live together, laugh together, split the rent and, above all, share the faith.

Movie night in the backyard brought over the neighbors. The sushi how-to session stocked the Sabbath meal. The wine-and-painting party not only drew a flash crowd, it filled the living room with wonderful art.

"Everyone comes with their own experiences and skills, and we learn together," said Bone, an artist who moved into the house in January. "That's why I love it here."

She's part of an innovative community-building effort known as Moishe House, a kibbutz-style strategy to fill a void in the spiritual life of young Jews.

Mo Houses, as some call them, are activity hubs designed to bridge the "gap years" between college and settling down with a spouse and a synagogue.

Bone and her roommates offer skill-building workshops, Sabbath traditions, the occasional beer tasting, and a place to hang out and be young and Jewish. They tend a lamp that draws wandering faithful back to Judaism.

A hammock sags on the front porch of the aging gray duplex beneath a colorful Tibetan prayer flag. The young people who descended on the house on a recent Friday evening--most Jewish, some not--walked inside and exchanged a shalom and sometimes a hug with familiar faces.

Then they washed their hands, grabbed a beer or a glass of wine, and began making bread. By evening's end, nearly two dozen 20-somethings felt a little more connected, maybe a little more Jewish, and ready to do it again.

"I always sought out a good Jewish vibe," said David Solomon, 26, a software engineer who had always found a Jewish scene at summer camp or on campus before it all ended.

"You get out of college and you lose that connection," Solomon said. "There's nothing for me. Like, I would never join a temple at this age."

At Moishe House, he joins a household of other young Jews who talk about majors and movies and deep-sea fishing, and recite the Kiddush before a Sabbath meal.

"This is fantastic," he said.

The concept emerged in 2006 in Oakland, Calif. David Cygielman was a couple of years out of college when he ran into some old friends "who had become totally disconnected from Jewish life."

He persuaded them to turn their four-bedroom house into a hub of young Jewish activity and see what happened. The first Sabbath meal drew nearly 70 people.

"It was eye-opening," said Cygielman, now 28 and Moishe House's executive director.

The houses are named after the philanthropist Morris "Moishe" Squire, who underwrote the initial concept, which now includes houses in 20 U.S. cities and 10 countries. The national office covers part of the rent and seeks tenants who commit to be catalysts.

"The goal is to offer young Jews a continuity in their Jewish experience," Cygielman explained. "So that when they're making big life decisions, there's a Jewish connection and Jewish values involved."

The idea appealed to childhood friends Selker and Haugh. The pair had been taking part in communal Sabbath meals, and along with Cohn, they pitched Cygielman about launching a Cleveland Moishe House. It opened in September 2008.

"It's just like an extension of my social life, which is really cool," said Selker, who describes himself as a social engineer. "I'm happiest when I bring new people together for a good time."

Haugh said he had been seeking an "intentional community," a group that pursued ideals rather than waiting for them to evolve.

He's a passionate young man, a master of Brazilian martial arts, a stilt-walker, a full-time student at Cleveland State University and, like Selker, a restaurant cook.

"I was pretty much looking for something like this," he said. "It's no small commitment. It becomes a big part of your life."

Moishe House living has its stresses and strains, the roommates say. There are four busy schedules to accommodate and four to five events to stage each month.

The national office pays half the $1,300 monthly rent and extends a $400 monthly stipend for party supplies, but there are plenty of other bills to moan over and to split.

"We're all strong personalities. That does present its own challenges," said Bone.

But they are also all tied to an ancient tradition, to rituals and beliefs as old as Judaism.

As the sun set, a dozen young people--graduate students, an accountant, an actress, a baker and an environmental scientist--sat down at a long table on a narrow back porch. Conversation and laughter quieted as candles were lit. Selker filled a silver Kiddush cup to the brim and let the wine overflow, softly chanting the blessings in Hebrew.

Silently the cup was passed and everyone took a sip, as they had once done with their families, as they do again as young adults--unsure of their futures, embraced by their faith.

(Robert L. Smith writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.)