Welcome to the ultimate blended Jewish family

A group of young people from across the religious spectrum have set up home in an experiment in communal living


Shaking our shakers and jingling our bells, we try to keep up with the rhythm of our session leader. Sitting in a candle-lit circle, we are learning how to be “drummers of Zion” with Akiva the Believer, the soulful percussionist whose musical companions have ranged from the singing rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach, to Paul of Peter, Paul and Mary.

The Believer, aka Akiva Wharton, has popped across from New York on a short visit to the UK and now, in a house in Willesden, north west London, he is initiating a dozen more of us into his long-held dream of introducing, or as he would contend, re-introducing, “holy drumming” into Jewish worship.

“That was pretty wild,” he congratulates us, before his rapping fingers return once more to his klong yaw, a long-bodied Thai drum.

That house in Willesden is called the Moishe House and it is part of an international Jewish experiment. The idea is simple — take a group of young Jews who want to live together and help them with their rent in return for offering their home as an alternative community centre.

The Moishe House project was co-founded three years ago in California (where else?) by the unconventional, octogenarian psychologist, artist and philanthropist Morris Bear Squire. There are now 26 houses in seven countries, including China and Argentina.

Since its opening in October 2007, the Moishe House London — Moholo, for short — has found a following for its eclectic Jewish programming via email and Facebook. “We’ve 600 people on our Facebook list and we’ve had about 1,500 different people through our doors since we started,” says Joel Stanley, a freelance educator who uses drama as a vehicle for Jewish learning and, turning 30 tomorrow, is the eldest of the six London houseniks.

Its events cover social action, culture, Jewish study, spirituality and celebration — from Purim parties with hip-hop Megillah and kabbalistic Tu Bishvat seders to social evenings with Darfuri refugees and “open mic” gatherings where people come to play their songs or recite their poems. Its launch party, booming into the early hours, became notorious for disturbing one celebrity neighbour, DJ Sara Cox, who sounded off on her radio show about not being able to get to sleep (fortunately for Cox, the house has since moved from its original venue a few streets away).

This month sees two new ventures — the first is this Sunday’s Moishe Fest, a day-long celebration of music, comedy and poetry, complete with its own “Torah zone”. At the end of the month comes the Open Talmud project, which promises an intensive “egalitarian yeshivah experience” over four days.

Joel Stanley was inspired to form the London group because he longed to recreate the kind of Jewish lifestyle he had discovered at the Elat Chayyim Spiritual Retreat Centre in Woodstock, in the United States, and at the Carlebach-influenced Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo in Jerusalem. Back in the UK, unless you were part of the Orthodox community, it was difficult to celebrate Shabbat and festivals with like-minded people, he found.

“My experience in Israel and America was that there was much more going on, no matter what denomination people were, in terms of inviting people over to houses, having celebratory Jewish gatherings with a lot of song and creativity, and those are things which are really important,” he says.

Two other of the five original houseniks remain, storyteller Rachel Rose Reid and composer and musical director Joseph Finlay. They have since been joined by Daniel Lichman, the mazkir of the Reform youth movement; Lianna Hulbert, currently busy on an attempted record-breaking charity rickshaw ride; and Brett Leboff, who drums with a band fusing klezmer and drum‘n’bass with other genres, once called Emunah but reincarnated as Filthy Kicks.

Rachel Rose Reid, who will be premiering her Edinburgh Festival show at the Moishe Fest, recalls: “I was looking for a communal house that wasn’t about cooking stew every night together — not a co-dependency thing, but more communal empowerment. I feel a lot of depression and aggression, especially in urban society, is caused by people not knowing, not feeling like it makes a difference what you do. Because if it doesn’t matter what you do, it doesn’t matter how you behave.

“I wasn’t necessarily looking for something Jewish but it just so happened that Joel asked me if I wanted to be involved.”

A £10,000 annual grant over three years from the Rothschild Foundation enabled them to take an extra, sixth housemate and increase activities. “We have 10 to 15 events a month, says Joel. “For every event there’s a member of the house who takes overall responsibility — not every housenik has to be at every event. We don’t get a salary for what we do but each person puts in an estimated 30 hours a month… we get subsidised for that. But the more we have to work outside the house to support ourselves, the less time we have to build this community and to make it what it is.”

Naomi Soetendorp, 36, a social worker from Kilburn, north west London, and a regular visitor to the house, believes that London’s Jews are fortunate to have such a community in their midst. As well as chairing Limmud’s social action committee, she runs the Wandering Jews minyan, which holds Friday nights in different houses, and is a poet and singer. At the Moishe House, she says, “they have fostered a nurturing community where we can support each other’s development as artists and as Jews”.

Events “attract a healthy combination of synagogue members and synagogue abstainers,” she says. “What’s important is they create a space where both can pray together and discuss what it means to be Jewish.” Its wish to be inclusive, she notes, has stretched to getting in supervised meals and disposable plates to accommodate more Orthodox participants, while a choice of prayerbooks from different streams of Judaism exemplify its pluralism.

Julian Goldberg, 26, an economist, also from Kilburn, says his Jewish experience has been “reinvigorated and enriched” by the friendships he had made through the house and its “free-spirited” openness. He has given talks there on Spinoza, “the heretic Jew”, and naturalistic philosophy. “If it wasn’t for the Moishe House,” he says, “I could have easily fallen out of Jewish engagement altogether.”

Joel Stanley observes: “One of the things that make us what we are is the fact that we’re trans-denominational, we are attracting a mixture of people and creating a blend which wouldn’t necessarily come together usually.” Some people who come may also go to Orthodox outreach groups like Aish or the Jewish Learning Exchange, for others “we are their primary community and wouldn’t necessarily be involved in Judaism to the same extent. Then we have people who work in Limmud and Judaism is the centre of their lives.”

For Rachel Rose Reid, the “amazing variety” of the clientele, who span from atheist to frum, helps to give the house its character. And on a personal level she has also benefited. “Before I met the people and became involved, I was feeling as though the way I connected to my spirituality was not accepted within Judaism. And yet it is — I just hadn’t met enough Jewish people to know,” she says. “Because often there seems to be a very compartmentalised social scene, I had no way of meeting them.”

Encountering frum people to whomshe feels able to “hugely connect” has also altered the preconceptions with which she grew up. “I always love being surprised, I love having my judgments broken down,” she says. “Jewish people love learning, I love learning from Jewish people.”

Moishe Fest is on Sunday. Details at moishehouse.org/houses/London

    Last updated: 12:06pm, July 15 2009