Growth and Leadership: A Q&A with Moishe House CEO David Cygielman

Image taken from Moishe House Website

David Cygielman conceived Moishe House over Shabbat with friends when they realized that there was a lack of cultural and personal engagement between young Jews navigating adulthood. What began as one Shabbat dinner in a home in Oakland, CA in 2006 became a network of homes around the world that provides over 60,000 Jews with chances to engage in their communities through programs, education and fun every year.

Moishe House continues to thrive and their decision to move their headquarters to The Hive in 2013 has inspired our co-working community, added vibrancy to local Jewish life for young adults, and attracted hundreds of Jews in their 20s and 30s to North San Diego County for leadership retreats. While visiting HQ a couple weeks ago, David gave us the opportunity to catch up with him about Moishe House’s growth, his vision for the future and his recent  article in eJewish Philanthropy.

Has Moishe House grown in the way you envisioned?

Originally the vision for Moishe House was just the houses. I thought that we could, at our best, grow to 50 houses. I thought that we’d probably need to raise a certain amount of funds to support that number each year and I thought that was a long ways away. But we quickly grew to 35 houses, then 40 houses, and I realized that there could be a lot more. There were so many cities that we didn’t think could have more than one house, or one at all, and then they did successfully. Then the concept expanded internationally and all these programs beyond Moishe House grew – Moishe House without Walls, Camp Nai Nai Nai and our Jewish Learning Retreats. You turn around and there’s 108 houses in 26 countries. It’s far surpassed what the initial vision was.

What was the moment that you realized Moishe House was going to be more than what you thought it could be?

The moment we started getting applications from other countries showed us that word was spreading fast and demand outweighed our current supply. We quickly realized, “If we could say ‘Yes’ to these people then we could grow very fast.”

Your article in eJewishPhilanthropy talks about “investing in leaders.” How does Moishe House invest in leaders?

It’s beyond theory, it’s practice. We let the hosts and residents lead. They are in charge of building, operating and running their Jewish community. Through initiatives like The Open Dor Project, we also provide financial resources and consulting. But the best way to grow a leader is to give them the chance to lead and then support them and their success. By turning over the reins to hosts and residents, we enable them to learn all the aspects of leadership by practicing it.

What does the future of Jewish leadership look like to you?

I like the question, but what I think about more is what Jewish followership looks like. There are lots of Jewish leaders, but they aren’t leading in the Jewish community. Will the generation of Jewish leaders who have funded, built and led current institutions be willing and able to follow younger leaders? If they are, I think .

We need to figure out how to build strong followers who won’t pull their participation because a Jewish institution took a risk and it didn’t work out. We need followers who will stay on board to support young leaders that they believe will be successful.

In your article and the talk you gave to Hive members, you mentioned the idea of “stretch projects,” and how providing them invests in leadership. Would you mind elaborating what that looks like?

It’s giving someone the tools to run with and own a project outside the walls of your job. For example, if you worked at Moishe House and asked me what I thought about opening an LGBTQ or Jew of Color-specific Moishe House, I’d rather say back to you, “How do you feel about it?” If you feel like we need one then giving you a stretch project would mean saying, “Okay! Let’s see if we can make that happen,” and letting you explore and start the project. It’s about following you taking on this project and supporting you however we can.

What do you want to see next in Moishe House?

I want to see us have over 200 houses! I want us to have a big R&D department to innovate new ideas. I would like to see a laboratory more than an organization. There are a lot of young adults out there that aren’t engaged in classical ways but could be in others, and there’s so much more we can do with Moishe House.