By Arno Rosenfeld
In Fell’s Point, a group of roommates used to welcome young adults into their home for Jewish programming. The roommates, residents of Moishe House Baltimore, hosted Shabbat dinners, volunteering activities and opportunities to just hang out.
That all came to a screeching halt in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic rendered indoor activities with strangers reckless.
The current residents — Stacy Jarvis, Aliza Silverman, Rebeca Feldman and David Miller — have had to hop on the virtual programming bandwagon, with virtual happy hours, learning programs and more.
“A lot of what Moishe House does is centered around Jewish tradition and Jewish practice and Jewish socialization, and a lot of those things happen around the table, in person,” Jarvis said. “It’s been interesting to have to make that kind of thing happen in the digital platform.”
The pandemic has had a unique impact on groups like Moishe House, which subsidizes communal Jewish homes around the world. They haven’t had to shut down operations altogether, but the focus on producing Jewish events in the home doesn’t always translate to a computer screen in the same way that a lecture series or even a High Holiday service does.
Moishe House is not alone as it figures out how to adapt programming that is meant to cultivate Jewish community in the home.
OneTable, which sponsors Shabbat dinners for Jews in their 20s and 30s, suspended all home-based Shabbatot in March, and began offering subsidies for virtual meal gatherings. But once the platform began allowing socially distant outdoor dinners and meals among housemates in the spring, users quickly showed a preference for live dining.
Since they began offering the option, only 30% of OneTable hosts have chosen to put on virtual dinners.
“People still really want and need in-person connection,” said OneTable CEO Aliza Kline. Plus, she added, “Eating on the computer is so weird.”
Kishkes Cortex and Kinesthetics Principle
Experts actually have a term for why going to Shabbat dinner at your friend’s house feels so much better than joining a “dinner” on Zoom: the affect-behavior- cognition triangle.
Brandeis University professor Leonard Saxe, who has studied immersive Jewish experiences including Birthright Israel and camping, has adapted this term for the Jewish context as the Kishkes Cortex and Kinesthetics Principle.
“If you’re fully involved — mind, body and heart, soul, kishkes, whatever — the experience is going to be more impactful,” Saxe said. “We know that experiences that touch all of your senses are more powerful. You remember them more easily.”
The desire to create those immersive experiences is largely why Moishe House exists.
Lander Gold, associate vice president of advancement, said events at the houses are meant to recreate the childhood feeling of spending relaxed Shabbat afternoons or Jewish holidays at the house of family or friends.
“We want to mimic that home life where people can really enjoy themselves and connect with Judaism,” Gold said. “A home doesn’t have an entry feel, it doesn’t require security clearance or membership. That’s why we use the home.”
Lessons of living communally
Moishe House and OneTable’s virtual and in-person programming schedule was less possible for Avodah, which hosts nearly two dozen recent Jewish college graduates in two adjacent houses in northwest D.C. for year-long placements at local nonprofits.
Dani Levine, national director of the group’s service corps, said the decision to place participants in group homes is intentional. It’s meant to teach young leaders interested in social justice how to be patient, resolve conflict and build teams, all in a Jewish context.
“We’re trying to develop leaders who can work in solidarity to affect long-term change and living communally teaches you how to do that,” Levine said.
The pandemic started about halfway through the last Avodah year, which required adaptation on the fly and a significant deviation in what participants expected their year of Jewish co-housing to look like. Elana Ross, who was on the program at the time, recalled living in a house full of people all trying to figure out how to stay safe, sometimes from one another, at a time when solid information was still hard to come by.
“People initially thought we could social distance from each other in the house,” Ross said. “There was a lot of anxiety, and some people were more anxious than others.”
Avodah’s national leadership also imposed strict protocols on individuals who chose to stay in the D.C. houses, and by late spring Ross said 14 of the 22 original house members had returned home to complete their nonprofit placements virtually.
Ross stayed because it wasn’t possible for her to continue her work, which involved delivering food to those in need, remotely. She said the original protocol felt overly cautious, barring socially distant visits with friends outside of Avodah and requiring her to change and wash her clothes upon returning home.
Unlike friends outside the program who were able to make a risk assessment about safe and unsafe behavior, Ross said the guidelines left little room for personal choice.
“Avodah basically had control of my life for a little bit,” Ross said.
Levine said that as the pandemic went on, Avodah’s coronavirus task force regularly revised guidelines and granted policy exemptions on a case-by-case basis. By summer, corps members in D.C. were able to take buses at off-peak hours, and heat lamps, tents and new lawn furniture allowed residents who remained in the homes to host guests and socialize.
“We want to be the least restrictive possible,” Levine said. “We’re using the philosophy of harm reduction: We can write the best policy possible but it doesn’t work if people don’t follow it.”
Avodah decided to run its residential program again this year, welcoming a new group of corps members to D.C. this fall. Participants signed up with full knowledge of the safety rules. Residents with in-person job placements are living in one house, while those who can work remotely live in the other.
It’s a balancing act in the Avodah houses, which are located in D.C. and five other cities around the country, as some residents find the restrictions too relaxed while others continue to find them onerous. The pandemic has also pushed utility costs up, Levine said, as people do more laundry and spend more time at the house.
But she said the importance of building an intentional Jewish community outweighed the difficulties of doing so during a pandemic.
“We’re a communal people,” Levine said. “There’s a reason we have to have a minyan for most of our religious obligations and it’s not a coincidence that our houses all contain at least a minyan so we can build a community.
“It’s a mitzvah for us to build that beloved community.”
‘An absolute bias toward in-person gatherings’
While leaders of the immersive Jewish programs agree that it can be difficult or impossible to recreate home-based experiences online, some also acknowledge they have learned important lessons during the pandemic.
Kline, the OneTable CEO, said her organization has long opposed virtual programming.
OneTable was founded in large part to help alleviate loneliness among Jewish millennials and she was always proud to hear when dinner attendees realized they had finished eating without looking at a screen, or even agreed to put their phone in a communal basket at the start of a meal.
“We had an absolute bias toward in-person gatherings,” Kline said. “We couldn’t conceive of solving for social isolation and loneliness through online programming.”
OneTable has also long incentivized hosts to welcome people from outside their immediate household, and even strangers who find their dinners online, by requiring a minimum number of attendees in order to qualify for subsidies, and offering a larger subsidy if strangers are allowed to attend.
Since the pandemic started, OneTable eliminated those requirements. Now the group will sponsor individuals celebrating Shabbat alone or with their roommates, and it has started a central Friday night livestream featuring celebrity chefs and panels on current events that people can tune in to as they eat at home.
Kline expects some of these changes will remain even after social distancing ends. While she’s seen a strong desire to return to more traditional Friday night gatherings once it’s safe, Kline also acknowledged that the options for solo dinners and virtual meals make it easier for people with social anxiety or even just poor cooking skills and cramped apartments to participate.
“There are people doing solo dinners who aren’t immunocompromised; they’re just tired and like alone time,” Kline said. “There’s a lot of humility and learning here about what people need.”
Gold, the Moishe House vice president, said the organization has also seen new connections being made across cities and continents as people who are connected to a Moishe House in China are now able to attend events hosted by Moishe House residents from as far away as Fairfax, Va.
“Most programs before were not accessible unless you lived in that close area,” he said. “A byproduct that we didn’t know would come out of this has been this true sense of global community.”
While Avodah’s in-person program remains active, DC Program Director Naomi Gamoran said house members have relied on virtual programming to augment some of their time at home together, including streaming services from across the country during the High Holidays.
Whether or not more virtual options are added to experiential Jewish programming, Saxe, the Brandeis professor, said that the desire for immersive in-person Jewish experiences means a return to them is almost guaranteed post-pandemic.
“There’s no question that Zoom and internet stuff are going to facilitate and make contact easier,” Saxe said. “But there’s a vital role that actually being with other people plays and I don’t see that being replaced.”
Arno Rosenfeld is a freelance writer. This article includes additional reporting by Selah Maya Zighelboim.