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Moishe House! New York, Beijing, and now Denver

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Josh SperlingIN the semi-darkness, there are no Stars of David or “Shalom” greeting mats distinguishing the basement apartment on Washington Park’s western edge.

A painted sunflower left by previous tenants is the lone indicator that something warm and welcoming beckons inside the spacious green-walled kitchen.

Moishe House Denver, which opened Oct. 1, offers Shabbat dinners, social interaction and tikkun olam projects for underserved Jewish adults ages 21-30.

The local residence, part of a national network scattered throughout the US and international locales as unlikely as Beijing, is funded by the Rose Community Foundation.

The Washington Park domicile belongs to Moishe House Denver staffers Natalie Zelinsky, Josh Sperling and Elliot Cohen, all 24. This is where they live, eat, study, sleep.

But unlike typical roommates who may occasionally host parties for close friends, they willingly open their home to an entire community.

While the apartment exudes a laid-back, off-campus ambience circa 1975, the trio’s sensibilities are pure 21st century.

As their website intro reads, “Moishe House is chillin’ out, maxin’, relaxin’ all cool . . . So if you’re into hangin’ out-relaxin’-celebratin’-eatin’-explorin’-bustin’ a move with the savvy, 20-something Jewish community of Denver, then come on over!”

“There’s a new generation of Jewish kids in the 21 to 30 category,” says Sperling, who sits with Zelinsky at the circular kitchen table. “They’re out of college, establishing careers, often delaying marriage.”

Post-Hillel and pre-federation, this age group often falls off the Jewish radar screen — and some never make a return blip.

“There’s not a lot out there for us,” Zelinsky says. “I think we’re a very neglected sector of the Jewish community. We don’t always join a synagogue or even maintain our Jewish roots –– until we have kids of our own and it’s time to enroll them in religious school.”

Moishe House Denver is an informal chavurah with chutzpah –– no membership dues, just a free pass to hang out, explore and enjoy the Jewish world, and each other.

“We want to infuse energy and a sense of Jewish connection into young adults,” Sperling says. “People who come over are very excited because they realize we’re filling a void.”

SPERLING and Cohen are both engineers pursuing advanced degrees at UCD. Zelinsky is a marketing strategist at a database marketing firm.

They meet weekly –– probably around this very table –– to strategize ways to publicize their existence and plan upcoming events such as preparing meals for the Denver Rescue Mission.

Similar to the 29 Moishe Houses situated all over the planet, Moishe House Denver embraces Jews of all affiliations, singles and couples, and does not impose a religious agenda.

About 20 young people attended the first Shabbat dinner held in the home, and more were expected at the second dinner on Nov. 6.

Some regularly celebrated Shabbat with their families, while others had never participated in the traditional Jewish celebration, Sperling says.

But regardless of prior expectations, they enjoyed the newness of socializing with their Jewish counterparts as independent adults.

Additional activities include watching Monday night football, hikes and other recreational outings, tikkun olam projects and inevitable discussions about Judaism and Israel.

While Moishe House has the potential to be a safe haven where Jewish singles could form alliances with the opposite sex, that’s not the goal.

“That may very well be the basis for a lot of Jewish programming,” Zelinsky laughs, “and we’re open to that. If it happens, we’re happy. But that’s certainly not our priority.”

Sperling stands up and announces that he has to leave. “But first the tour,” he suggests.

The kitchen is huge, the bedrooms small. The bathroom, while far from fancy, functions.

Shabbat dinners are held in the communal room at the end of the hallway. The walls are mellow-yellow.  Comfy sofas are arranged to stimulate conversation. An upright mattress in the corner comes in handy for guests who spend the night.

Zelinsky estimates that Moishe House Denver programs can accommodate 50 to 60 young Jewish adults.

“A hundred,” Sperling raises the bar. “I have the feeling that we’ll grow quickly.”

Then he’s off.

MOISHE House opened its first grassroots community center in 2006 in Oakland, Calif. Funded by national Jewish foundations, the network increasingly utilizes local funders.

Sperling, who has been close friends with Cohen since childhood, met Zelinsky through CU’s Hillel.

Together, their involvement in Moishe House Denver was a fortuitous tapestry woven by overlapping desires.

Born in Texas and raised in Colorado, Zelinsky was involved with Hillel’s Ambassadors program at CU. She graduated with a BS in business marketing in 2007 and moved to Denver to launch her career.

Sperling, who grew up in New York City and Washington, DC, lived for a year on Kibbutz Beit Hashita when he was 16. He became involved with the Habonim Dror Youth Movement and served as ambassador of the movement in Australia in 2006.



 

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