Correction to This Article
The article gave an incorrect name for Eli Wald's employer. He works for the American Jewish Committee.

Young Jews Find Social, Spiritual Nourishment at D.C.'s Moishe House

Megan Brudney of the District and Mark Cohen of Arlington help themselves to dinner. Credit for the large turnout at Moishe House events has been given to the relaxed atmosphere.
Megan Brudney of the District and Mark Cohen of Arlington help themselves to dinner. Credit for the large turnout at Moishe House events has been given to the relaxed atmosphere. (Richard A. Lipski - The Washington Post)

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By Brittany Levine
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 18, 2009

After college, Eli Wald spent a year in Israel before moving to Washington to work for the American Jewish Committee.

Now 24, he grew up a devout Jew, worshiping at synagogue. He still sports a silver charm around his neck that is adorned with the names of Jewish angels.

But Wald said he began to feel "boxed out" of life at the synagogue and its social gatherings as he entered his 20s. He was looking for something more "cool, relaxed."

He found it in Adams Morgan at Moishe House. It is now his home and the center of his social, as well as spiritual, life.

Tucked on a tree-lined street, the house is part of a fast-growing network of Jewish community centers in 25 cities around the world. Young Jews live in the houses and organize religious and social events for twentysomethings. In return, Moishe House subsidizes their rent and pays for the events.

The Jewish community has been struggling to engage young professionals for some time, said Rachel Miller, who was until recently the executive director of the Jewish Study Center in the District. Synagogues and other Jewish institutions have tried to create a community for post-college, single Jews but their attempts have had little success, she said.

The problem with those attempts has been that "they don't feel planned by us, for us," said David Cygielman, 27, executive director of the Moishe House program, which has a $1 million budget supported by foundations and donations.

In January 2006, Cygielman persuaded four friends to convert their Oakland, Calif., home into the first Moishe House and convinced his former boss, 85-year-old artist Morris Squire, to fund it. It was named for Squire's childhood nickname, the Yiddish version of the Hebrew name Moshe or Moses. The D.C. house -- the fourth one -- was founded in September 2006.

Last November, Wald moved into the tan house on Euclid Street. He said he wanted to "help create a communal space engaging to young Jews." Three other Jews under 25 also live in the three-story house, which is a few blocks away from the 18th Street strip of bars.

A rug with the Hebrew letter Mem (for Moishe) sits outside the front door. A local map hangs in the hallway that leads to the living room. Two of Squire's paintings hang on the walls. In one, the residents look like they have been wrapped in a rainbow and taken to Mardi Gras. The other looks like the cast of "Friends" meets psychedelic art.

About 100 people stuffed the house recently for a Shabbat dinner. They drank wine in red plastic cups and ate free chicken as they grouped in the hallway or sank deep into plaid couches.

One secret to the big turnout was the relaxed decor. "You don't have to show up to some big building or rec center. It's just easier to walk in the door of your friend's house," Leo Beckerman, 25, said. Beckerman, who has dreadlocks down to his mid-back, founded the house. He recently moved to Los Angeles, and Wald took his place.

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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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