Welcome to our home
Yoni Steinberg zips through the rooms of his rambling three-story Squirrel Hill dwelling, picking up and straightening up ahead of the reporter and photographer who just arrived.
There’s a get-together this evening at the house, but he’s not quite ready.
“We were suppose to clean up for it, but we didn’t,” Steinberg said. “It’s too messy.”
That’s OK. This is, after all, Steinberg’s home — his and four others’.
People live here. They cook their own food (the kitchen is kosher) — that includes fermenting their own cabbage, pickling their own eggs, brewing their own beer.
They watch TV in their snug living parlor and sleep in their own rooms upstairs.
There’s also a tire swing in the backyard, which happened to be there when the group moved in last August.
There is a chanukia on a bookshelf and mezzuzot adorn doorways.
The residents even do some of their own home improvements, said Steinberg, a graduate student in business administration at the University of Pittsburgh. “Stuff breaks, but we have a lot of tool kits here.”
It’s all very cozy.
Still, this is no normal house. Every month, they put on at least seven Jewish-related programs, on a $500 monthly budget, which have already brought 500 young Jewish adults through the front door, many being repeat customers.
Welcome to Moishe House, the latest effort in Pittsburgh to engage young Jews in Jewish life.
Moishe House is a real home. Its address isn’t publicized. There’s no receptionist when you enter the foyer and certainly no office or staff.
It’s that informality that makes it so attractive to young Jews, residents say.
“They’re Jewish, but they don’t want to go to temple or a big scene,” said Naomi Fireman, a graduate audiology student at Pitt, and another Moishe House resident. “But they meet us and we tell them about our house and they want to come here.”
The house, of course, is part of something bigger. Moishe House is an international organization, based in Oakland, Calif., providing meaningful Jewish experiences to young adults ages 21 to 30. The Moishe House model “trains, supports and sponsors young Jewish leaders as they create vibrant home-based communities for their peers,” according to its website.
David Cygielman, chief executive officer of Moishe House, who was in Pittsburgh last week for an open house at the local dwelling for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, which subsidizes it, told the Chronicle that no two Moishe houses are alike. Some are kosher, some not. Some emphasize religious life, others social action. Some may be environmentally conscious, like Pittsburgh (the residents compost their own food scraps), others may not.
But in all cities, Moishe House residents decide for themselves how to run their dwellings. They are, after all, the ones who sign the leases and pay the rent.
So far, Cygielman is impressed with the Pittsburgh Moishe House.
“We want to average 20 people per Shabbat; they’re averaging 30 or more here,” he said. The houses have done a variety of programing in the areas of religion, culture, social action, holidays and learning, “and particularly this house does a great job of balancing those programs.”
One Friday a month there’s a Shabbat dinner in the Pittsburgh Moishe House, followed by a “Shabbrunch” on Saturday — casual dining followed by hanging out at the house.
They do d’var Torah for most events.
They built their own sukka last September.
And they hold cooking events that sometimes feature traditional Jewish dishes.
The house connects with the rest of Jewish Pittsburgh. In addition to last week’s open house, JFilm recently screened several short subjects films there, asking the young audience for their feedback. Some of those films may appear in this year’s JFilm Festival.
Moshe Baran, president of the Holocaust Survivors Association and a resistance fighter during World War II, visited the house Monday night for a “Night of Tolerance” in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
And this weekend’s Shabbrunch will be a Tu B’Shevat seder.
For now, at least, those young people who come to Moishe House, have little interest in joining synagogues.
“No one our age — and we have had 500 people here this year — has even mentioned anything about a synagogue — ever,” Steinberg said.
That’s, not surprising to Cygielman. Jews in their 20s are usually not interested in joining synagogues until they marry and settle down, if then.
But that doesn’t mean Moishe House competes with the synagogue.
“No one is coming to Moishe House instead of a synagogue,” Cygielman said. “The alternative to Moishe House has never been joining a synagogue, it’s a different stage of life.”
Having said that, Cygielman noted that Moishe House tries to prepare young Jews to transition to synagogue life down the road. Each house is provided a set a set of Judaica when it opens, and house residents often partner with congregations, the rabbis of which frequently come to the dwellings to teach.
“Our hope is that people find their personal connection and commitment to Jewish life. … People are going to have to decide that on their own [about joining synagogues], and synagogues are going to have to think about this.”
He advised congregation leaders that the best way to attract young Jewish members is to build relationships with them, not just program for them.
“Programs really aren’t going to do it,” Cygielman said. “It’s really going to be about what is their connection to the folks in the synagogue, to the people in that community; it can’t just be because you need a place to go for High Holidays.”
Steinberg agreed. “The fact that we have a relationship with everyone who comes into our house is very important to our survivability,” he said. “We call and invite the people to come.”
In fact, relationship building is how the Pittsburgh Moishe House attracts people to its events. One calendar of events is emailed at the start of each month. “After that, we don’t push anything electronically,” Steinberg said. “It’s all through our own network.”
In fact, house members try to keep their turnouts small — 25 or less, Fireman said. “We believe if we have a strong program, the [numbers] will take care of themselves.”
Now that it’s been open since August, members of the Moishe House hope to expand their activities.
“We spent the first half of the year making ourselves known,” Fireman said. “Now we’re going to do more text study events that are more substantial.”
Steinberg hopes the activities the house members plan will be ongoing instead of one-time shots, such as a community garden to support their cooking events. One leads to the other.
That should typify Moishe House, he said. The things its members do don’t end at the front door of the house.
“There’s a connection in here that doesn’t leave when they walk out the door,” he said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)