'Chabad House without Chabad'

Chabad House without Ch

moishe house 248.88 (photo credit: Michael Green )
moishe house 248.88
(photo credit: Michael Green )
It's just another street in another residential neighborhood of London. From the outside at least, the semidetached house on the right looks like just any other home, set apart by little else than the coat of bright yellow paint covering the walls. The tropical foliage of the large banana tree fighting for space in the front garden temporarily disrupts the uniformity of the identical deciduous trees lining the street, not to mention looking a little out of place beneath the gray British summer skies. The mezuza nailed to the doorpost may be one of the few on the street, but it's hardly a rare sight in the city that is home to more than 50 percent of the UK's 280,000 Jews. But this mezuza belongs to no ordinary household. Part commune, part social experiment, its four walls are home to a group of young people pioneering a new form of Jewish communal life. Since its tenants moved in, Moishe House has become a new hub for activism, Jewish culture and alternative Torah study, attracting 20-something Jews disillusioned with traditional religion and institutions who want to create a community on their own terms. Liana Hulbert, one of the house's six residents, answers the front door. The entrance hall bears more resemblance to a high school or community center than a residential building. The 20-plus coat hooks on the wall are a sign that the house receives more than its fair share of guests. Treading the polished floorboards toward the tea brewing in the kitchen, it's easy to get tangled in the paper chain of Hebrew and English letters descending from the staircase, where they disappear into a corset suspended from the ceiling two floors above. Hulbert explains that the "Torah corset" is a remnant of Moishe Fest, the collective's biggest happening to date, which drew more than 200 people this summer for an all-day festival featuring Jamaican Jewish reggae singer David Dan and Israeli diva Avivit Caspi, who made history last year by singing "Hatikva" at Wembley Stadium for the England vs Israel soccer match. Musician and composer Joseph Finlay, 28, was one of the founders of the project after coming up, together with a group of friends, with the idea of setting up a Jewish communal house. "It was for ourselves really," he says. "We're all interested in independent, grassroots Judaism, not something institutional, something more free." Their vision was galvanized by funding from the US-based Moishe House Foundation and Moishe House London, abbreviated to MoHoLo, became a reality. In October 2007, the residents moved into their new home in Willesden, northwest London. The first Moishe House was established in California in January 2006 by two Jewish entrepreneurs who were concerned with the lack of Jewish social infrastructure between leaving college and starting a family. Nineteen currently exist in the US with others scattered across the world, including Warsaw, Beijing and Johannesburg. The organization provides the housemates with a rental subsidy and a program budget - and the rest is up to them. BY PRIDING themselves on their pluralistic approach to both Jews and the Jewish faith, Moishe House London has earned itself a reputation of being "Chabad House without Chabad." "We have a space where all different types of people can mix together. We don't bring the baggage that other organizations bring. I think there's an atmosphere of respect for where people are coming from," says Brett Leboff, 30, who runs a music management and production company. "We've all had different experiences in terms of Judaism and this is a melting pot where it all comes together, which makes it very interesting from a creative point of view." Leboff and Hulbert, who moved in just before Pessah, joined Daniel Lichman, the secretary of the Reform youth movement, storyteller Rachel Rose Reid who, at the time of writing, is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as well as thespian Joel Stanley, who is incubating new projects at the Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. "It's reasonable to suggest that in the last 20 years, Jewish life has not been as dynamic as it could be. In many cities in the UK there is a lack of exciting initiatives. Over-cerebral Judaism doesn't allow people to express their creative, spiritual side," says Hulbert, sitting on one of the house's comfortable sofas. Facing her is a set of well-stocked bookshelves, split between secular books like Robert Eisenberg's Boychiks in the Hood on the right and religious texts, including liberal prayer books and the works of Rav Kook, on the left. It may be the first project of its kind in the UK, but its existence owes much to the growing movement of alternative Jewish projects and communities, such as the Carlebach Minyan and Wandering Jews, a nonaffiliated group that celebrates Shabbat at different locations each week. "There are minyanim and events [like Limmud], but this is permanent. It's the only physical space," says Leboff. Despite not being financially self-sufficient, the community benefits from creative independence. "They [funders] realized that they will get better results by allowing it to run independently, but the organized Jewish community hasn't always made that connection," Finlay explains. "Autonomy is the key, it's not dictated by rabbis or funders. It's happening in America where funders are more innovative, but the UK is a bit behind." The only commitment is that they hold no fewer than seven events each month, a target which is typically surpassed. The most recent event was Open Talmud, a four-day immersion course for studying Jewish texts with teachers from Orthodox, Liberal and Masorti backgrounds. Finlay wanted to recreate the yeshiva experience in the house, after studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. "Some people were avowedly secular but saw the value in what they were studying. There was just the sheer commitment to want to study the texts," says Finlay. "Judaism is rich enough here and you don't necessarily have to go to Israel or the States." "That was a great example of what we are trying to do here. Outside this house there is a real tendency to group Jews into their sects; there's lots of politics and we want to get away from that," says Leboff, who recalls a friend who was made unwelcome in an Orthodox community when it was discovered that she was of "questionable origins." In other words, her father was not Jewish. Others have had experiences of being deemed "too Orthodox" for Reform or Liberal congregations. "There is a strong desire to be open to people with different viewpoints." The regular Beit Midrash has featured sessions on Spinoza, Einstein and democracy in Israel. "We promote egalitarianism in prayer," notes Finlay. "There are some people who only come to the most secular events and others who just come to the religious ones." But Moishe House only takes egalitarianism so far, setting aide the Sabbath from the rest of the week. Shabbat is observed in the communal spaces, which often turn into a drop-in center for friends and local shul-hoppers, but anything goes in private rooms. As well as holding in common "certain liberal and social democratic values," the housemates share an approach to kashrut, including keeping a vegetarian kitchen, which they view as a statement of values. "We don't want to only use hechshered products because it means going to Hendon and Golders Green to buy packaged food which conflicts with our environmental values." MOISHE HOUSE might be the first of its kind in Britain, but new models of urban Jewish communities have been developing since the 1970s when Israelis took the model of the agricultural kibbutz and adapted it for city life. Urban kibbutzim or kvutzot (groups) sprang up partly as a response to the decline of the rural kibbutzim, as well as aiming to bridge social gaps, such as Beit Yisrael in Jerusalem which brings together religious and secular Jews for a year of pre-army community service. Kvutzot also exist in North America, where they are often initiated by left-leaning Zionist youth movements such as Hashomer Hatza'ir and Habonim Dror, driven by a shared ideology and, in some cases, bank account. But such projects haven't taken off in Europe or the British Isles. At any rate, life in Moishe House is more social than socialist. "It's not like a kibbutz; we don't share income or food," stresses Finlay. "They often come from youth movements, but we are not coming from that place. People coming here might be older and not youth movement graduates." The home comforts of Moishe House are undoubtedly better suited to a group of young professionals than the prefab apartments in a typical kibbutz. One goal that both the kvutzot and Moishe House have in common is a desire to breathe life into the local area. The Willesden Jewish Cemetery serves as a reminder of the district's once-thriving Jewish community that was once home to an array of synagogues and kosher eateries until migration to other parts of London in the 1970s and '80s forced them to close. The cemetery is one of Britain's most important Jewish burial grounds and is the final resting place of several members of the Rothschild family as well as former chief rabbis Joseph Herman Hertz and Israel Brodie. More modern local landmarks include the unmistakable green and gold domes of Brent Mosque, the Pakistani community center and a Buddhist temple based in a converted church. Interest is already spreading through the wider Jewish community, and there are plans for a religious rural retreat focusing on green living. One youth movement is due to set up a shared house in London next summer. BUT IT WAS never the intention of the six housemates to exist in a Jewish bubble, detached from society at large. Together with the Jewish Community Center for London (JCC), Moishe House hosts monthly "Hang out at the House" evenings which bring together Sudanese refugees and local people. "Part of being a Jew in London in the 21st century is working with people outside your community," believes Hannah Wessfeld, the JCC's social action and campaigns coordinator. "The Sudanese people wanted the opportunity to socialize with and talk to British people, and someone's living room is a conducive place to do that." "There's an obvious link between our community in terms of what they have been through," she adds, although this connection is sometimes missed. But Wessfeld insists that, in her experience, the Jewish community in London has been very positive towards Sudanese refugees. "Moishe House is a great place to recruit young Jewish activists." Hulbert, daughter of a Liberal rabbi, has just returned from a 1,500-km. rickshaw ride from England's most westerly point, Land's End, to its most eastern location, Lowestoft. Inspired by witnessing the impact of Tzedek, a charity working to alleviate poverty in the developing world, she embarked on a month of pedaling and camping, with only Shabbat off for rest, to raise money for Action Village India. Putting six young Jews together under one roof was never going to be without its tribulations. Their main challenge is juggling the relentless schedule of events with holding down day jobs, but this is compensated for by the ease of putting new ideas into action, says Finlay. "We can make ideas happen that would take months of committee meetings somewhere else." "I'm overwhelmed by how well this place works. There are always people willing to help out and do things here," says Leboff. "It comes back to community. People get enthusiastic about making things happen."