Orly Fruchter, Simon Gabbay and Dvir Cahana have set up house together, but they are more than just roommates. They are residents of Montreal’s first Moishe House, which is part of an international network that aims to engage young Jews in unconventional ways.
The non-profit organization recruits Jews between the ages of 22 and 32, to make a home together and open it up to their peers for programming “guided by our Jewish values” and with the aim of “building a community.”
Launched in 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Area and named for its benefactor, the late philanthropist Morris Squire, the network today has 108 houses in 27 countries. Toronto has had one for more than three years.
Montreal’s, which is located in the trendy Griffintown neighbourhood, has been in development for a couple of years, in partnership with Federation CJA. Finding the right place and the right people has taken time, said Fruchter. Before being selected, the three residents did not know each other.
The house is a two-storey, semi-detached dwelling with a backyard and enough space to host the five or six activities a month that the trio is expected to organize.
Residents receive a rent subsidy and programming budget, as well as guidance from Moishe House headquarters in California and the Federation.
Although they just moved in on July 1 and didn’t have their grand opening until today, Moishe House’s programming is well underway, some attracting upwards of 30-40 people, the most that can be accommodated, said Fruchter, 31, who has played a leading role in getting Moishe House off the ground here.
A regular activity is the Salon Shabbati, intimate Friday night get-togethers that feature a home-cooked dinner and guest speaker geared to young professionals and entrepreneurs.
A book club, an Israeli film series and debates related to Judaism have also been held. Likewise, a DIY High Holiday series has covered how to blow the shofar, build a sukkah and prepare a festive meal.
Some events are off-site, such as the Havdalah that was held on Mount Royal and the Pride Week challah bake at Hillel, at which a rainbow-coloured loaf was made.
Moishe House seeks to attract a cohort that is rather neglected: those who have finished university, are single or married, but probably don’t have children yet, said Fruchter. Jews of all backgrounds and identities are welcome.
Residents are tasked with creating programming that attracts those who might otherwise not go to community events, drawing on their talents and interests, as long as it fits with Moishe House’s fundamental goals.
We are trying to find common ground as Jews.
– Orly Fruchter
This pluralistic ideal may require some negotiation, such as on the role of women in ritual. Fruchter said egalitarianism is not the rule, but women have, for example, recited Kiddush and the ha-Motzi at the dinners.
“We want to have those conversations,” said Fruchter. “We are trying to find common ground as Jews.”
The house is strictly kosher and shomer Shabbat, and the three residents come with strong Jewish credentials.
Fruchter has been involved with community all her life, starting with Bnei Akiva, then Hillel and later working as a Birthright Israel leader.
She returned to Montreal a year ago after more than seven years in Israel with the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which included more than a year in the Philippines on a disaster relief mission.
The JDC is a funder of Moishe House and Fruchter has been aware of it since the beginning and visited many houses. She now works with the Worldwide Hearing Foundation, which provides affordable hearing aids to people in developing countries.
Gabbay, 22, is a student at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business and works part-time at a bank. He attended a couple of programs at the Toronto Moishe House with a friend and thought they were “amazing.”
This is the first time he has lived away from his parents’ home in Côte-St-Luc, Que., and said he expects Moishe House to be a valuable transition to independence. Its affordability and location also made it attractive.
“It’s a 10-minute walk to my school and a 10-minute metro ride to where I work,” he said.
This is getting me out of my comfort zone.
– Simon Gabbay
He describes his family, which includes two younger brothers, as Moroccan and Orthodox. “This is getting me out of my comfort zone,” he said. “I’m exploring something different. It’s really a discovery.”
After two months, he is adjusting well. “Orly feels like a sister,” he said.
Cahana spent the summer in Israel and had not actually lived in the house until he returned just before Rosh Hashanah. He is pursuing a master’s degree in Jewish studies at McGill University this fall, after graduating from Concordia.
At 24, this will be his first time he has lived away from his family home full-time. The son of Rabbi Ronnie Cahana, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El, an egalitarian Conservative synagogue, and Karen Cahana, he grew up with four sisters and is used to a home that is open and bustling with visitors.
Cahana thinks he can bring in speakers through his Jewish studies contacts. He is also a musician and songwriter and hopes to produce shows that are fun and instructive, such as hip-hop “battle raps.”
“I think we can spice things up, make it exciting,” he said. “I want to develop my leadership skills and create a community.”
The three are committed to staying at Moishe House for at least a year.
Fruchter acknowledges their living arrangement may raise some conservative eyebrows. “We are trying to change the status quo of what is accepted in the Jewish community of Montreal,” she said. “We are breaking the mold, breaking the perceptions.”