By David Cygielman
Moishe House Founder & CEO

The past two months have been incredibly difficult. Rather than planning and opening new houses, executing immersive in-person retreats, playing and learning at Jewish summer camp for adults, or convening with our staff and board, we have pivoted the in-person models our programs were built on to virtual ones that create community when it’s not physically possible

Our team has responded to a whirlwind of changes and adaptations, but since our founding, we have pushed to follow an “if you aren’t growing, you’re dying” approach to our work here at Moishe House. And although there are tremendous steps being taken by our entire team, I don’t think any of us ever could have anticipated being asked to change so much, so quickly, and so soon.

When it became clear in late winter that this crisis would have an enduring impact on our regular programs, we began the complex process of shifting all we do to online platforms. Our staff transitioned to leading virtual learning retreats, we supported Moishe House residents and Moishe House Without Walls hosts as they shifted their weekly Shabbats, Havdalahs, cooking lessons, game nights and so much more to video gatherings, and we encouraged staff to stay connected through Zoom to make up for the face-to-face time we lost by closing offices. We purchased Zoom Pro accounts for each of the more than 100 Moishe Houses worldwide. While we were providing virtual programs and connections for thousands of young adults, bringing people together globally in novel ways, it simply cannot be a replacement for what we’ve built. Zoom works and we use it throughout the day but it can be exhausting and rather than bring energy to the conversation, it can take it away when used too much. It was a decent start that could sustain these communities of Jewish young adults around the world, but it couldn’t build and nurture them in ways that define what Moishe House is and does.

So we had to start asking ourselves: How do we shift our existing experience and infrastructure to meet the needs of a population who, like all of us, doesn’t yet know how socializing or content will be best received in this new environment? It became clear that while virtual programming through Zoom is a reasonable alternative to in-person programming, there must be a way to innovate more interactive experiences, even as people are staying in their own homes. This was not just a challenge, but rather, a real opportunity to grow from hosting virtual programs to creating virtual experiences.

When Camp Nai Nai Nai, our Jewish summer camp for young adults, had to cancel its in-person camps, first we got over our disappointment, and then we jumped on an opportunity to not just do something, but to do more with our camp program. Reimagining a new version of the camp experience meant that we could make camp stretch for an entire month — on participants’ own schedules — and increase accessibility by inviting participants from anywhere in the world.

And hence Expedition Nai was born. Through the month-long global virtual color war, participants have joined us in stepping out of their quarantine routines by participating in weekly challenges and what we call “Playshops,” competing against individuals and teams around the world. As a result of weekly challenges that provide new outlets for Jewish engagement and connection, over 50% of participants have reported adding a new Jewish ritual to their lives. With young adults from almost 30 countries and 50 different Moishe Houses participating, we’ve doubled our typical camp participation, and the range in culture, perspective, and creativity make this virtual experience even more meaningful than we could have imagined.

The residents, Moishe House Without Walls hosts and alumni that lead the majority of our programs are also proving these types of experiences are exactly what they need. For example, they saw an opportunity to create the “Global Shavuot Festival,” combining the ancient Jewish tradition of studying all night long with our plentiful access to technology today. This tikkun leil Shavuot experience will feature more than 30 Jewish learning sessions led by 20 Moishe Houses in 10 different countries, all over a 25-hour time span. With more than a decade of empowering community builders via training conferences to serve as teachers to their own peers, the enthusiasm with which all of these emerging Jewish leaders are approaching the Global Shavuot Festival has us confident that this is going to be something special.

With Moishe House’s more than 60 team members across the globe, this initiative began with our very own staff. With more face-to-face time virtually than ever before, we shifted to shorter, but more frequent meetings to help us stay connected and informed, including weekly all-staff calls. We have used the opportunity to spend time each week breaking into small groups of 3-4 people just to get to know each other better. It takes about one-third of the meeting time but it’s well worth it. Team members from across the globe get to really meet each other, check in on one another and actually see how we live in our respective countries. We aren’t talking about work during this time, we are talking about our lives. We’ve also begun offering two optional Jewish learning sessions each week for staff to join as desired, just to be together and learn together. All of these things, while small, add up to greater feelings of connection with each other as individuals and with the team as a whole.

We’ve tried to extend this feeling of connection to everyone in Moishe House’s extensive network of community builders, participants, partners and supporters. We’ve increased the number and variety of communications we send out, including launching our weekly Global Voices conversation, which provides a live inside look into life in Moishe Houses all over the world, and sharing frequent email updates with our constituents as often as needed in our rapidly evolving reality.

For Moishe House, this unprecedented time has become more than just a shift from engaging in-person to on our devices. These past two months have been about welcoming as many Jewish young adults as possible to the table, to give them a space for that all-too-important sense of community, to be connected with their peers despite in many cases feeling isolated wherever they may be in the world, and to find an outlet for whatever they need at the moment — whether that’s a family to light Shabbat candles with or a prompt to get creative with everyday household items.

We know that Moishe House in-person programming will be in high demand when we can safely gather again, and we know that we will carry much of this shift with us into the next phase of the organization. The accessibility and creativity our community builders are cultivating are setting the precedent now for what comes next. We can only look forward, not back, with a sense of curiosity and hope for what the future holds for Moishe House, gathering, and Jewish life around the world.