Internationally Zoned In On Education: Moishe Houses outside the US offer Jewish experience in learning in uniquely universal way

Mezuzah hanging at Moishe House Munich; courtesy

By Maayan Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy | JeducationWorld

So often when we talk about Diaspora Jews what we really mean are Jews living in America. But Moishe House is doing something very different. So far, it has nearly 40 Moishe Houses outside of the United States, including those in Europe, South America, China and Israel.

“We call it the international zone,” said Faustine Sigal, International Director of Jewish Education for Moishe House. “I think Moishe House has proven it has a genuine interest and effectiveness in reaching out to young Jews outside of America.”

Sigal sits in France. In her role, she works with 23 Moishe Houses, each with between three and five residents each. Her focus is Jewish education in the broadest sense of the words.

Before the High Holidays, Sigal prepared packets of study and ritual materials to distribute in various languages to her houses. She plans two annual Jewish learning retreats and creates Jewish study content on a variety of topics.

However, she said most of her efforts tend to be individualized. For example, a house in Sydney wanted to do a wine tour around Sukkot. She helped the residents connect wine and Judaism. In Vienna, residents hosted the Chief Rabbi for Havdalah and called on Sigal to make sure they had what they needed so as not to offend the rabbi or embarrass themselves.

“A resident will tell me, ‘I am interested in learning Kabbalah,’ and I will connect him,” Sigal explained. “Sometimes an individual will say he or she wants to study in a certain place, and I’ll help get the money. Answering the private questions of the residents – this is the core of my job.”

Sigal travels a lot. In a week she could be in Stockholm, then Budapest, then Prague. She meets one-on-one with residents and with them in groups, building relationships that make them feel comfortable to approach her for the materials they need to be successful.

On the surface, it seems like Sigal’s peer-led, home-based programming by young adults for young adults aligns with the work of US-based Moishe Houses, which launched in 2006 in Oakland, Calif. And, yes, Sigal’s goal is to train, support and empower young Jewish leaders, as the organization’s website describes.

However, Sigal said that Moishe Houses in the international territories have different challenges and opportunities than those in the United States. For one, European Orthodox Jews tend to be less assimilated and more concerned with putting up walls to protect their way of life. As such, they tend to exclude anyone – Jew or non-Jew – who thinks or acts differently, said Sigal.

Additionally, there is greater focus on Jewish textual learning and content in Europe than in the United States. Sigal said there is almost like a covert but agreed upon Jewish curriculum that individuals are expected to know to play. If you don’t have the background, “you are made to feel illegitimate” and often don’t take part in Jewish life.

“People feel bad in Europe to ask questions about Judaism because they feel they should know more,” Sigal explained. She said she works to build trust with the residence so they will reach out to her for answers.

Also, ritual plays a greater role in European Jewish life than in the States. For example, many of the Moishe Houses decided to be kosher – the residents could not imagine doing or offering Jewish without kosher food.

On the upside, Israel is a great connector.

“In Europe, Israel is probably the most consensual thing you can have,” said Sigal, who said she heard from her American colleagues that Israel can be a hot-button, divisive issue. “Even people who are less affiliated, people with less Jewish connection, love Israel. You are a Zionist and you never question that.”

Sigal said she sees first hand that Moishe House is playing a vital role in educating the youth of the international zone. For those individuals without the background knowledge to participate or who just aren’t interested in entering one of those so-called walled Orthodox communities, Moishe House is a low-barrier answer to getting involved with the Jewish community and earning a Jewish education. She said she strives to provide the houses with educated role models from their own communities that can serve as mentors to the residents and be present at programs.

She is working to help the houses create an environment where diversity thrives and people know that they can come in to a Moishe House as the Jews they are – and leave the same way.

“If we don’t provide Jewish education to people like this, there are no other options for them,” said Sigal.

Natalie Assa is a resident of the Moishe House in Vienna. She became involved with Moishe House in 2005 because she felt “Jewish education is a big responsibility and something we should be thinking about.”

Since then, she has played a positive role in sharing Jewish experiences and knowledge with her peers.

“What can be better than learning something new and having your friends be a part of that?” Assa asked.

Assa said Moishe House works in Vienna because its program is unique and diverse and people can connect to the peers they want. In her house, each of the five roommates have different interests and backgrounds. Collectively, they put together six, monthly programs, each with its own Jewish charm.

“Moishe House…is an experience, a journey, a whole new world,” Assa said. “The combination of fun roommates, interesting new people, old and new friendships, a huge diversity of events and somewhere in between you find yourself and even want to explore more.”

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