Simona Gilman has a busy few weeks coming up. In addition to hosting a chicken soup-making night, she and her roommates will supervise volunteers cooking for the homeless. Then a seminar on mental health, then Shabbat at the Seaport, then a book group. The list goes on.
But this is nothing new for Gilman, 26, who grew up in Newton. In fact, she and three other friends – Chelsea Rapaport, Mariah Kretch, and Ben Suster – organize a different event each week in their roles as residents of the Cambridge branch of Moishe House, an international organization aimed at building community for young Jewish adults. Just like the residents of the more than 100 Moishe Houses around the world, Gilman and her fellow residents organize seven Jewish-themed events per month in exchange for generously subsidized rent.
“One thing that makes the Moishe House model work really well for our house is that we’re friends first, and roommates and event planners second,” said Gilman, who works in marketing at a health care tech firm.
Friendship between young Jewish adults is the cornerstone of Moishe House. Back in 2006, David Cygielman, a recent graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara, was living with four friends in a house in Oakland, and decided to host a Shabbat dinner. When 72 people showed up, Cygielman realized there was a genuine need for Jewish programming and community for young adults too old for high school youth groups and university Hillels, but too young to start families and join synagogues.
Cygielman decided he wanted to fill this void by creating a network of houses just like his own, and Moishe House was born. The model of residence-based programming worked well, and led to astonishing growth: 13 years later, there are over 100 Moishe Houses in 26 countries with over 300 residents. Greater Boston, with its unusually high concentration of young adults, is one of the fastest-growing areas. There are Moishe Houses in Cambridge, the South End, Fenway, Brookline, and Brighton (which is a house specifically Russian-speaking Jews). Any young adult who feels there is a need for a new place nearby simply needs to find a house, two to four other friends, and apply.
“It really puts the ownership of the program design, of the outreach, the community-building – it’s all owned and implemented by the young adults it impacts,” said Lander Gold, senior director of advancement and philanthropic partnerships. “We provide them with the resources and tools to build out their ideal meaningful and welcoming Jewish community.”
These resources include approximately half of the monthly rent on the residence, a programming budget, a regional supervisor, and training on how to run effective events, workshops, discussions, and retreats. Moishe Houses are funded by local philanthropic organizations, and in Greater Boston, that includes Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Edward Fein Foundation, the Leifer Family Fund, and the One8 Foundation.
As Gilman’s busy schedule shows, Moishe Houses offer a diverse range of programming in addition to weekly Shabbat dinners and Jewish holiday celebrations. Many of these events are social gatherings designed to “get this young adult population into more brick-and-mortar Jewish institutions,” said South End resident and founder Simon Luxemburg. That includes partnering with Boston’s Vilna Shul on a latke bakeoff or with CJP on Israeli beer tasting.
“Some events are Jewish by nature – there’s Jewish content, Jewish learning, or a Jewish holiday, and some of them are purely social, giving a Jewish space to have social interactions,” said Luxemburg, citing a fall cookie exchange and an ice skating trip on the Boston Common as examples. One of Moishe House’s most high-profile examples is Camp Nai Nai Nai, which recreates the classic Jewish summer camp experience – from bonfires to sleeping in cabins to Color War – on the site of three location on the East Coast, West Coast, and in the Midwest.
Some events focus on community service, while others aim to help young adults navigate new responsibilities like managing their finances or interviewing for jobs.
“We’re collaborating with the other houses on an ‘adulting’ series, if you will,” said Gilman, referring to anything from enrolling in health insurance to maintaining cars and homes.
Other events provide Jewish education. Moishe House has a Jewish educational department, and also hires young rabbinical students from each region to work with residents. The education department also holds retreats and Shabbatons, which can be led by either staff or community members.
Gilman recently helped coordinate a weekend retreat in Plymouth that focused on how different Jewish cultures and identities interact and intersect. She also partnered with the house for Russian Speaking Jews in Brighton to lead a retreat for Russian Jews, many of whom she knew from childhood.
Gilman cites that retreat as one of her most meaningful Moishe House experiences. “We did Havdalah, and a bunch of people had never done Havdalah, and it was mindboggling to me that I was able to give people this opportunity to engage in something they’d never done,” she said. “When we were leaving, one of the girls said to me, ‘I really feel more Jewish leaving this retreat, and thank you for making that happen.’ These people are my peers, they’re friends, they’re people that I’ve known since the beginning of my Jewish journey, and we were all on very different wavelengths, and now we’re all coming together in this space, with this common goal of being more Jewish.”