International young adult movement comes to Greater Hartford
WEST HARTFORD – If demographic studies of the American Jewish community point up one sign of the times, it’s attrition from Jewish life in this country. Intermarriage, flagging synagogue affiliation, shrinking day school populations, dwindling Jewish philanthropy are all presented as both cause and effect of the alarming statistics, which seem to be affecting every age cohort in the Jewish community. Kids are dropping out of Jewish education as soon as the bar-mitzvah band packs up; college students can’t stand up to Israel-bashing on campus; twenty-somethings are dating and marrying out of the faith; young families are bypassing synagogue membership and Jewish preschools.
There are outreach programs designed to inspire and retain every sub-group. Among those aimed at young professionals is Moishe House, a pluralistic international organization that creates home-based, peer-led communities. One of the newest additions to the organization is Moishe House West Hartford – aka MoHo WeHa. Launched at a kickoff event earlier this month, MoHo WeHa is located on South Quaker Lane and is home to four young Jewish professionals: Bryan Dunn, Derek Holodak, Carly Hoss, and Steph Sperber.
Founded in 2006, Moishe House has grown from four friends hosting Shabbat dinners for young adults out of their home in Oakland, Calif., to more than 60 houses in 14 countries. It is the largest organization of its kind, serving more than 50,000 Jewish young adults around the world annually. Moishe House serves the Jewish post-college young adult population by providing opportunities for community involvement, Jewish learning and leadership.
Co-founder David Cygielman came up with the idea while working for Morris Bear Squire, a philanthropist and artist based in Santa Barbara, Calif., whose Jewish name is Moishe. Cygielman wanted to create something for Jews who are too old for college organizations but not yet members of synagogues. Squire’s Forest Foundation funded the opening of the Oakland house and another in San Francisco three weeks later. In 2008, Cygielman incorporated Moishe House as a 501(c)3 charity so that it could seek grants and tax-deductible donations.
MoHo describes its modus operandi as “a creative, low-barrier, cost-effective, and scalable model for building vibrant, peer-based Jewish communities and learning opportunities for Jewish young adults in their 20s and 30s” that strives to cultivate young leaders who will create relevant Jewish community for their peers. At the center of this model is a home created and managed by a group of three to five young-adult residents from a variety of Jewish backgrounds and leadership experience. The MoHo “team” plans and hosts cultural and social events in their home for community members, and partners with local Jewish organizations.
MoHo WeHa has been in the works since 2010, when Derek Holodak learned about the organization in a New York Times profile. When he graduated from UConn a few months later, he applied to live in the D.C. house, but withdrew his application after landing a job in Bolton.
Six months later, Holodak’s friend and fellow UConn graduate Carly Hoss returned to West Hartford after living in an Oregon cooperative. Holodak suggested that she apply to Moishe House D.C. but she, too, found a local job.
The two began hosting informal Jewish programming with friends and realized that there was enough interest in the community that might warrant a more tangible resource like Moishe House.
Last May, Hoss became administrative director for Chai Mitzvah, a national non-profit organization promoting lifelong Jewish education that is based in West Hartford. She discussed Moishe House with Chai Mitzvah executive director Audrey Lichter. At a Lion of Judah event that fall, Lichter and Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford executive director Cathy Schwartz met David Cygielman, co-founder and CEO of Moishe House, who was promoting the organization along with several residents from around the country. Schwartz and Lichter arranged a meeting between Holodak, Hoss, and Cygielman at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly last November.
It took only six months to find two additional housemates and a place to call home.
West Hartford native Steph Sperber came to the group through her mother, who saw Hoss hanging a MoHo flyer at Starbucks. “When I returned to West Hartford from college in 2007, there wasn’t anything for my age group,” Sperber says. “Synagogues don’t cater to our demographic, my high-school friends had scattered, and my college friends are far away, so I didn’t have a network of local friends. Over the past two years, I have been getting increasingly more involved in my own spirituality and Judaism – staffing trips to Israel, participating in Young Israel of West Hartford. My mom thought it was a good idea to join with other young adults who are exploring their Jewish lives.”
Bryan Dunn, a third recent UConn graduate, rounded out the quartet. They submitted an application to the Moishe Foundation and spent the next few months looking for a house.
The original location, at 36 Iroquois Road in West Hartford, required a special-use permit, as town law prohibits unrelated individuals cohabiting in a single-family house. When the group discovered the two-family home on Quaker Lane, they withdrew their planning and zoning application.
MoHo WeHa is a joint venture of the Moishe Foundation, the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. The house was purchased by a private donor who rents it to the residents at a subsidized rate and serves as landlord.
Each of the four has a track record of involvement in the Jewish community. Dunn, a Canton native, was involved in USY in high school and at UConn Hillel. Hoss has taught in Hebrew schools since she was a teen growing up in Cromwell, and served as president and then an intern of UConn Hillel. Sperber grew up as part of Kehilat Chaverim, an independent West Hartford chavurah that her parents helped establish in 1978. Holodak, a native of Orange, is a Jew by choice.
Israel also plays a part in the MoHo WeHa environment. “I went to Israel once, on Birthright in 2006, and everything in that 10-day period influenced everything I did from then on in the Jewish world,” says Hoss. “I felt very spiritual after that, I wanted to keep in touch with the other UConn kids on my trip, and Hillel became my second home. On a personal and spiritual level, it inspired me to want to give back and work with my own peers.”
As a Birthright staff-person, Sperber says she learned how to create accessible, “non-aggressive” Jewish programming, making Judaism relatable to teens’ lives. “That made me aware of ways I could connect people here to Judaism,” she says. “If I keep my eyes open, I can make these little non-threatening lesson plans.”
The young professionals also have day jobs. Dunn is a lab technician with Bristol, Meyers, Squibb and an active member of the UConn Hillel Alumni Board. In addition to her position at Chai Mitzvah, Hoss is principal of Toratenu, the Hebrew school at B’nai Tikvoh-Shalom in Bloomfield. Holodak is owner of, and brand awareness consultant at, Custom Impressions Marketing Solutions, LLC in Bolton, and a substitute teacher at Toratenu. Sperber is a history teacher at Hopkins School in New Haven, and a Zumba instructor on the weekends. She leads trips to Eastern Europe and Israel with BBYO and Taglit-Birthright Israel.
MoHo caters to Jews ages 22 to 35 with programming that ranges from the spiritual, religious, and cultural to the secular. The house keeps Shabbat and the laws of kashrut and is part of the West Hartford eruv committee. The group participates in Jewish Local Greens Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) in West Hartford, which supports and receives produce grown at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village. As part of its commitment to the environment, MoHo WeHa maintains a community garden and hosts a monthly program on Judaism and environmentalism, with guest speakers from Isabella Freedman.
The group publicizes its programming through word of mouth and via flyers and Facebook. “It’s very organic,” says Sperber. “If people have ideas, they come to us and we can work with them or get the word out to other potential participants. A lot of this early stage is figuring out what we want to do.”
For more info: mohoweha.org
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