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Take This, MTV: Women to Explore Real Jewish Life in the Real World

July 26, 2007 By:
Rachel Silverman, Jewish Exponent Staff
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New kids on the block Rachel Vassar (back), Becky Coren and Rebecca Karp in front of the Moishe House.

Becky Coren, Rachel Vassar and Rebecca Karp are sitting at a wine bar, not far from their new Center City digs.

Sampling tapas, the trio start ticking off their social commitments for the next few months faster than you can say "blonde, brunette and redhead."

"Black-tie bowling, scotch-tasting, book club, kickball team ... " begins Coren, 23, the brunette, a second-year law student.

Karp, the redhead and a 25-year-old freelance graphic and Web designer, continues: "Potluck dinners, yoga, camping ... "

The blonde -- Vassar, 23, who works at an architectural firm -- chimes in as well: "Music concerts, Shabbas dinner, sukkah-building."

Wait -- Shabbas dinner? Sukkah-building?

That's right. Starting this month, these three women will attempt to convert their four-story townhome into a central address for Jewish life among the young in Center City.

The residence will be kosher, but open to Jews of all denominations. It will be run by females, but host to all sorts of co-ed events. It will be inherently social, but also serve as a haven for cultural, intellectual and artistic offerings.

Welcome to the Moishe House.

The idea behind a Moishe House is that a group of twentysomething Jews gets paid ($25,000 a month in rent subsidies, as well as $500 a month for programming) to live full-time in a house and plan Jewish activities there.

Sponsored by the Forest Foundation, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based philanthropic organization that supports creative community programming for young Jewish adults, as well as by the Vancouver-based Center for Leadership Initiatives, the model is meant to appeal to Jews who are out of college but who have not yet settled down.

'Feel the Value'

As David Cygielman, the 25-year old foundation director, explained it: "Right now, it's like the Jewish community keeps their fingers crossed and hopes that they'll come back to it once they have a family. But we want to have people feel the value of being in their 20s and being Jewish."

According to Cygielman, the Moishe House concept grew out of a trip he took to South America in 2005. There, the University of California, Santa Barbara graduate said he visited a number of Hillel-run Jewish communal living spaces, and was deeply impressed.

"I got to thinking that there are probably lots of groups of young Jewish adults that already do things together in a totally informal fashion," he said. "I was trying to think of ways we could keep this going -- and put some support behind it."

The first Moishe House opened in Oakland, Calif., that December. The roommates were Cygielman's friends from a high school Israel trip.

Since then, similar hubs have popped up in 13 cities, including Washington, D.C.; Hoboken, N.J.; Boston; and Sacramento, Calif. There are Moishe sites in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Cape Town, South Africa; and Abuja, Nigeria, with two more international locations -- London and Madrid, Spain -- slated to debut within the next few weeks.

Cygielman said that almost all of the Moishe outreach happens in a word-of-mouth sort of way, since the initiative does not advertise or actively recruit new participants.

The Buenos Aires house, for instance, was founded by an Argentinian Jew who, vacationing in the United States, happened to attend a Shabbat dinner at the Boston Moishe House.

Rachel Vassar said that she first heard of the program from a friend in Israel, where she spent several months living on a kibbutz after college.

The foundation director said that the homes generally function as independent entities, with roommates granted a certain level of autonomy in terms of planning what suits their interests.

He said that the Boston house, for example, where two rabbinic students live, tends to plan much more religious events than the Los Angeles location, which is inhabited by two indie filmmakers and a Web designer. There are no requirements that the homes be kosher; only three actually are.

"We want to let the houses create the kind of community they want to be a part of," explained Cygielman. "We find that participants plan much more creative, exciting things that way."

Singing the praises of this sort of "for us-, by us-type community," Vassar said that environmental education will figure prominently into the local chapter. Among other things, the girls said that they plan on joining a co-op, purchasing PECO windpower, and planting a garden with herbs and vegetables in the backyard.

"Moishe House is supposed to have a component of tikkun olam," she said. "Sustainable living, making things green -- these are issues I care about."

Karp said that the idea of having a social-action platform is particularly important to her, too: "A lot of these young Jewish organizations end up being glorified dating programs. I want to be involved with something that has more substance."

For Coren, who returned from a Birthright Israel trip in May, "the idea of grass-roots community living really resonated with me. I really want to replicate the ideals of utopian kibbutz living in the city."

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