The young folks home

You remember the 1993 movie “Indecent Proposal” — high-roller Robert Redford offers desperate couple Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore a million smackers for a night of passion with the future Mrs. Ashton Kutcher, back when the thought of any of those three people unclothed was still potentially pleasant. And while the film sparked numerous water-cooler discussions about indecent proposals, nobody ever seems to bring up a decent proposal.

Nobody but David Cygielman.

A few years back, the Hayward native was running the kids’ services program at Santa Barbara Hillel, keeping the SpongeBob Generation occupied just long enough for their parents to attend services. Cygielman was daydreaming at the lunch table when he suddenly realized he had company. It was that old man who always came to services. The two struck up a lively conversation and had a few laughs before the old man turned serious.

“He asked me, ‘What would you do if you had to spend a million dollars a year and couldn’t use it on yourself?'” recalls Cygielman.

And that’s how it all started.

At any 20-somethings’ party, it’s only a matter of time before the guy with the guitar begins playing “American Pie” or “Lola” or some other song the assembled young people can mumble along with until belting out the memorable chorus. And at this particular youthful gathering in San Francisco’s Lower Haight, Isaac Zones is, inevitably, brandishing the guitar. But he doesn’t want to play “Mrs. Robinson” or “Brown-Eyed Girl.” He’s knocking out “Oseh Shalom” — and the crowd is digging it.

Zones’ rocking the bayit is the direct outcome, five years down the road, of Cygielman’s decent proposal. The old man, it turns out, was Morris Squire, a retired Jewish psychologist who made millions as the CEO and founder of the Forest Hospitals in Chicago. And when he asked Cygielman what he would do with a million dollars, the young man had plans, lots of plans, and they involved the Jewish community.

Squire and Cygielman began meeting, formed a “Harold and Maude”-like friendship and, before too long, put those plans into action with funding from Squire’s Forest Foundation. They would come up with ideas for interfaith programs and spend $1,000 or so to get them off the ground, or hire Hillel students to work in disadvantaged communities. But it wasn’t until 2005 that they came up with “Moishe House,” a concept Zones, a native San Franciscan, jokingly calls “the Jewish ‘Real World,'” after the MTV show.

Here’s the ingredients for Cygielman and Squire’s master plan:

• Step 1: Take a few young Jews (and by “young” we mean far too young to remember the Jimmy Carter years).

• Step 2: Provide a healthy chunk of their rent.

• Step 3: Help them transform their new home into a community center for young Jewish people who want to do Jewish things — or do not necessarily Jewish things with Jewish people.

• Step 4: Repeat in other cities.

Moishe Houses are up and running in Boston, Los Angeles and Seattle. This month new houses open in Washington, D.C., and overseas in Montevideo, Uruguay, and Abuja, Nigeria. A three-person house has been up and running in Berkeley (on Stuart Street, just east of Telegraph) since the first of the month. And, of course, in the tail end of 2005 Moishe House San Francisco opened its doors (which explains the snatches of “Oseh Shalom” you might hear as you head toward the Panhandle on Fell Street).

Twenty-three is a tough age. If you’re like most people, the portion of life you intricately planned out (or had planned out for you) is suddenly over: You’re done with school and forced to think about exactly what comes next. One day you’re sleeping through 9 a.m. labs and the next — well, everything’s different.

And while you’re figuring out just who you are and what you want to do for the rest of your life, it’s not easy to find a place in the organized Jewish community. Between the ages of 22 and 32, more than a few Jews feel as if the community is sending them a message: “So long, and see you again when you have kids.”

“I found in the two years since graduating college, young people are making transitions. You’re out in the workplace, a new version of yourself that you may not be comfortable with. You’re wearing different clothes. It’s hard to find a community,” said Maia Ipp, 24, one of Moishe House S.F.’s four residents.

Ipp’s post-collegiate plans were pretty much limited to “getting the hell out of Los Angeles,” so meeting people at the Forest Foundation and landing a spot in the city’s Moishe House fit right in by default.

Squire “is giving away his own money to create this program that has the agenda of empowering young people to do community work and do work they believe in. And that’s pretty amazing because everyone else is telling you no and closing doors and saying you have to find a corporate job because it’s stable and has benefits,” she said.

Ipp’s job is, in fact, far from corporate. During the day she works as an academic tutor at a San Francisco charter school and interns at the Literary Translation Journal Twolines magazine, but in the evenings she’ll be leading a Jewish women’s group or teaching a yoga class.

David Persyko, 25, works with young athletes. The former small forward for the Cal State Hayward basketball team has arms long enough to change a streetlight, and comes in handy reaching the top shelf during a Moishe House Shabbat dinner.

Aaron Gilbert, 24, looks like he’s just finished a hard day’s work as an extra in “Ben-Hur,” an impression only strengthened by his tendency to wear patterned tunics. And while he actually works with schoolchildren (and rarely, if ever, participates in chariot races), at the Moishe House he’s the leader of the book club.

Finally, Zones, the 25-year-old guitarist, is actually a full-time employee of the Forest Foundation, who traverses the nation helping set up other Moishe Houses. Zones is soft-spoken with a friendly and reassuring smile — which serves him well as the resident card shark at the Moishe House poker night.

“At this age, we do have a role in the Jewish community. We’re not just waiting to have kids or have someone ask us to become board members of a synagogue,” says Zones.

“Morris feels that a lot of people in their 20s are capable, bright, creative and hard-working but don’t get a break in a lot of situations and have low expectations of themselves. This job demands doing community organizing, it demands taking an idea and seeing it through. Even though you’re 23 years old, just out of college and still getting your bearings in the city, you can actually put your ideas into action.”

With the foundation picking up around $2,500 of Moishe House S.F.’s $3,500 monthly rent, the quartet have time to plan events ranging from Torah and Talmud study, lectures and Yiddish lessons, to bowling outings, cooking classes, softball league games (Rabbi Camille Angel of Sha’ar Zahav plays a mean hot corner), poker marathons and movie nights (including the tangentially Jewish films “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “The Big Lebowski” featuring the character Walter “Shomer F—–g Shabbos” Sobchak).

“Something different is going on here instead of the typical gathering where the focus is really on drinking alcohol. It’s not necessarily my goal to get people to go out and join a synagogue or read all the great Jewish books or learn Jewish history. For the most part, I want people to feel they have a place they can go, where they can choose [to do all the aforementioned activities] or not, and, in the process, make a lot of friends,” says Zones.

Every Moishe House has its own vibe. In Boston, where the joint is stocked with rabbinical students, you might be more likely to walk in on a discussion of the parshah than a Coen brothers flick (CNN showed up to document an interfaith dialogue there). And the folks at the Forest Foundation are happy either way, just as long as there’s some semblance of balance.

“One of our successes is, rather than tell people what they need to be doing, we give them the opportunity to run with it. We don’t have to tell them, ‘This month why don’t you have havdallah at the beach instead of urban capture the flag,'” said Cygielman, now the Forest Foundation’s 24-year-old Santa Barbara-based executive director.

“We’re not really into defining what Judaism is. For some people, playing poker on a Tuesday is as meaningful as a Shabbat dinner. Our feeling is, if you’re doing it as a Jewish community, that totally meets our needs.”

Squire, 83, sees it that way too. He travels the world for half the year and is currently in Cambodia, but did email j.: “Moishe House was created to give young Jewish adults a family where they can eat, sing, argue, and most importantly have fun. As a psychologist I spent my professional life working with people and believe that it’s so important for these young adults to have a family when they are creating their direction in life and away from home. Moishe House is designed to be that family.”

Moishe House is also designed to be cost-effective. If Squire had opted to hire staff people and send them around the nation, he could never have done it for the $2,500 or so a month he pays for four “staffers” in San Francisco, or the $2,500 a year it costs to pay the rent in Nigeria.

“The Forest Foundation gets its bang for the buck in our house,” says Gilbert.

While he was a staffer at Camp Tawonga and is now a resident in a Jewish communal situation, Gilbert isn’t sure how connected to the Jewish world he’d be if he had a different home address. But that doesn’t make him all too different from many of the people who come through Moishe House’s doors.

“People can come for whatever they want. And they come back. And when they’re thinking about High Holy Days or Shabbat, they have already been to a community they feel close to. There are a lot of organizations in San Francisco that cater to this [age group], but not all of them are able to capture this population.”

San Francisco Moishe House’s electronic newsletter now has nearly 500 subscribers. The Moishe Housers will be the first to tell you that’s not a tremendous number — they could poach other groups’ lists and have thousands of names to play with — but it’s a source of pride that every person on that list requested his or her name be placed there.

“We could be reaching thousands, that’s true, but then you have people you don’t even know or are very random and we wouldn’t be building as tight a community,” says Gilbert.

Like the film “Logan’s Run,” there is an upper age limit to the Moishe House experience. Thankfully, however, it’s not set in stone — unlike the film, Moishe House doesn’t insist on a strict cutoff at age 30 (and, most importantly, doesn’t put 30-year-olds to death).

“We do kind of have a ‘gray cutoff.’ But the concept is post-college, pre-family. So we feel like that’s somewhere from 22 to 32, though our doors are open,” confirms Cygielman.

And while he’s got seven years and change before he hits the gray cutoff, Cygielman has grand plans for Moishe House. He’d like to open one or two a month for the next six months (and with funding now coming in from the Shusterman Foundation, one of Hillel and BBYO’s biggest donors, that’s not a pipe dream) and host two yearly conferences of Moishe House residents. And it will be Zones, the native San Franciscan, who traverses the nation setting up these houses.

So, next year at this time, could we be hearing strains of “Oseh Shalom” in 10 or 12 cities around the world?

For the smiling poker player Zones, that sounds like a safe bet.


Go East, young men: Moishe hits Berkeley

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.