Michael Steinhardt didn’t do it. Lynn Shusterman didn’t do it. Edgar Bronfman didn’t do it. Your Hillel director would have shit his pants. And let’s not talk about what your synagogue’s board would have thought about the idea.
The idea? Tossing your money – hundreds of thousands of dollars of it – at a group of twenty-somethings with no strings attached.
The prerequisites to receive this generosity? Live in a house, with other young Jews. Open your doors to the community. And call your home by the name of Morris “Moishe” Squire, the wealthy Jew from Santa Barbara who began bankrolling these houses two years ago for the purpose of invigorating young Jewish communities.
In those two years since the Moishe House program has been in existence, the roster of houses has exploded from just three (in SF, Oakland, and LA) to more than twenty across the world. Young adults move in together and apply to the program because they’re excited about building community, or because they’re social people who know a good deal when they see one. Sometimes they have a grand vision of what they want to do with Moishe’s money in their city, and sometimes they don’t. They host movie nights and Shabbat dinners, interfaith meet-ups and social justice workshops, parties and potlucks and book clubs. Whatever they want to do.
In Washington, DC the house residents threw a Hanukah party with a live band to benefit a local Jewish activist group. In Los Angeles they play poker, a lot. San Francisco and Portland both field amateur sports leagues. Just about every house hosts an open-invite Shabbat dinner at least once a month.
Living in a Moishe House, you’ve got a lot of decisions to make: What events to put on this week? How to go about advertising for them? What other local Jewish organizations can be partnered with? Who in the house will be responsible for what tasks? How much cash is left in the monthly budget?
Last month Moishe House residents from around America gathered in California for a weekend retreat. This retreat provided an opportunity to meet the residents of other Houses, brainstorm program ideas, and tackle shared challenges.  For those who were in new houses, (those launched since January 2007) it was also their first opportunity to meet Morris Squire and wonder if they really wanted to keep taking this guy’s money.
You see, Morris is a strange fellow. “Eccentric” seems to be the P.C. term most used when people talk about him. Eli Sanders uses the E-word in this article at Nextbook, where he interviews the man and does a wonderful job sketching the outlines of his vision. The article, however, shies away from relating some of the more unsettling aspects of his personality. Morris is the kind of old guy who enjoys pushing people’s limits. There’s a story about him custom-ordering chocolate candies with little pieces of sausage inside, just to see the reactions of folks who unknowingly bit in. He likes to talk about sex, and about painting and displaying nude portraits of his wife. He makes a big deal out of being descended from the Torah’s High Priest Aaron.
Sometimes it’s unclear when Morris is joking and when he’s not – which is a good cover for when he expresses controversial beliefs (about the roles of Jews vs. Gentiles, and about how he would solve world terrorism, for example) which are unconscionable to the young Jews whose rent he subsidizes, and likely to most Jewschool readers.
However, one thing’s for certain: Morris knows that our generation doesn’t share his values, and he doesn’t care. Dr. Squire’s favorite new story to tell is about the Boston Moishe House defying him by running dialogs with Muslims, against his wishes. The story ends with him watching their accomplishments on CNN, and kvelling over the free publicity.
So what’s it mean in the end, when the fellow who pays half your bills, and subsidizes your lazy Sunday dreams, turns out to be a guy whose agenda infuriates you — but lets you use his cash for any kind of community programming your young Jewish heart desires? It’s an awkward, but lucrative, windfall for you; even if it leaves you questioning what end goal Morris Squire believes he can accomplish, lacking any specific mandates or strategic plan by which to steer his “Moisheniks”.
I’d love it if every philanthropist followed “Moishe” Squire’s lead. I want cash, few questions asked. I want us all to be empowered to pursue our own agendas using rich people’s extra dough. The explosion of diverse and creative Jewish life that would ensue could change the face of what being Jewish looks like and feels like across the world. But this one endeavor, the Moishe House Project, only exists because in his visionary wackiness Dr. Squire believes that the goals of Jewish twenty-somethings are his goals, even when they’re not. How can we get our hands on what he’s smoking, so we can pass this attitude around? And if someone did succeed in “Moishefying” the Jewish establishment, how sustainable would the new philanthropy paradigm be?