Jewish Childhood & College Experiences: The defining Jewish experience of my youth was a six-week summer teen trip to Europe and Israel in 1997. For 42 days I was surrounded by Jewish friends, who remain some of my closest friends to this day. During the week leading up to Israel, we visited the Theresienstadt concentration camp. I’d grown up hearing Holocaust stories from my grandparents; seeing a camp firsthand and connecting it to my grandparents’ stories deepened my sense of commitment to the Jewish people.
Inspired by that trip, upon entering UC Santa Barbara I joined the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, got involved in Hillel, and became Reform youth group advisor at Congregation B'nai B'rith. By sophomore year I was gearing up to backpack through Europe and take my next trimester in Israel when my father was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Our family’s situation changed dramatically. In order to finish out the year, I applied for a $2,000 loan from the Hebrew Free Loan Association in Santa Barbara; if it was granted, I planned to work over the summer to pay it back. Two interviews later, I received a life-changing phone call: The committee had met with the Jewish Community Foundation of Santa Barbara and decided to pay my final two years of college tuition in full, not as a loan, as long as for those years I continued my Jewish involvement on campus and in Santa Barbara. Then I knew without a doubt: The place I wanted to dedicate my time and energy was the Jewish community.
The following year at Hillel I met Morris Squire, 80, a longtime Santa Barbara resident known for his quirkiness and his adamant opinions on everything. One Saturday morning in the Hillel building he asked me, “If you had a million dollars but could not spend it on yourself, what would you do with it?” I remember rambling on about a whole bunch of ideas until he cut me off, handed me his card, and said to be in touch. When I called him the following week, he invited me to his home. Before I left, he wrote a $10,000 check to Hillel and said I would be in charge of it. What an opportunity! It was the largest check I had ever seen. Each week I would return to his house and share what we did with the money. So, every week for the rest of college and beyond, I visited his home. Over the years we developed 100+ programs in Santa Barbara, including afterschool programs for kids and a teen leadership training workshop. We were running with so many ideas, he was donating $1 million a year! His absolute trust in my leadership and direction, along with his impatience and insistence on immediate results, gave me the audacity to think I could accomplish tremendous change in the world.
Perspectives on Engaging 20s and 30s: Post-college, I discovered I was too old for Jewish life on campus but too young for many local institutions. Then, while visiting my family in the Bay Area, I had dinner with four friends from our 1997 teen trip who were all renting a four-bedroom house. Like me, they felt alienated from organized Jewish life, but had a huge number of Jewish friends, a place to host them (their house), and a desire to be Jewish community leaders.
That’s when the idea hit me: We could create Jewish communities by giving young adults the opportunity to live together and turn their homes into vibrant Jewish communities. I proposed the idea to Morris, and he was on board, so these four guys in their early 20s hosted a Shabbat dinner—and 73 people came! The following week an attendee emailed us to say it was a tremendous experience and asked if he could start a similar home-based program across the bay, in San Francisco. Today 46 Moishe Houses engage 30,000+ young adults in 14 countries, offering 275 different monthly programs. We’re now serving more post-college, 20-something Jews than any other organization worldwide.
The Jewish establishment is working hard to understand the needs of our demographic, but the classic model of hiring someone to run young adult programs to penetrate this population has not produced the desired result. Typically, this is a junior position that demands work during the day and then events on nights/weekends—a very difficult work/life balance that leads to high turnover. More successful in attracting young adults are new approaches to existing synagogue models such as IKAR in LA, Kavanna in Seattle, and Mishkan in Chicago, prayer communities that are built around their age demographic and are not cost prohibitive because they do not have a traditional synagogue infrastructure. Although my wife and I maintain our membership at Congregation B’nai B’rith, which is 300 miles away, we are certainly in the minority.
In order to create strong Jewish communities for the future, established institutions must understand that the infrastructure they have built may not be what my generation is willing to take on. We need to put the needs of potential participants first and foremost.
I am optimistic about the Jewish future. Just as the concerns of today continue to evolve, so will we learn collectively how to address them.