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House Party

An eccentric philanthropist is paying young people to be Jewish—whatever that means

Eli Sanders
December 20, 2007

It’s Friday night in Seattle, and in a residential neighborhood not far from the bars and clubs where you might expect to find them, a bunch of twentysomethings are preparing Shabbat dinner. This is decidedly not the observant, day-of-rest crowd; many of them have plans to hit those bars and clubs later. But for now they’re doing Shabbat, their way—as a sort of semi-religious Friday night pre-party. The main dish is vegetarian Thai curry. There’s hardly a yarmulke in sight. The wine is flowing even though no one’s said Kiddush yet. And the talk is of sex, music, and the lameness of desk jobs.

If you had terrible Jew-dar, and were watching this gathering on television with the volume turned down, you could be forgiven for thinking it a thoroughly secular affair, just a group of young people throwing a boozy dinner party. But it’s not. It’s religious, unusually religious even, considering the people involved. It’s also just plain unusual: The people throwing this party are being paid to be Jewish.

The arrangement is part of a unique philanthropic effort designed to foster Jewish identity within the age cohort of the party’s hosts and their friends. The hosts’ rent, probably about $2,100 a month for this nice central-Seattle house, is being hugely subsidized, as is the food they’re preparing—by a far-off (and, I keep hearing, far-out) Jewish financier. In return, the financier expects simply that these young Jews hang out with other young Jews, and that they all have a good time.

The setup is what is called a Moishe House. There are 20 of them in the world, an eclectic constellation of points on the global map that, at the moment, include Abuja, Nigeria; Washington, D.C.; Boston; San Francisco; Los Angeles; Philadelphia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Montevideo, Uruguay. Many more—including Madrid and Minsk—are in the works, fueled by the popularity of the concept (after all, who wouldn’t want a rent subsidy for being social?) and a recent financial boost from the Center for Leadership Initiatives, a project funded by Lynn Schusterman, a prominent philanthropist.

The heart of the enterprise is Morris B. Squire (“Moishe” is his nickname), an eccentric 84-year-old former psychologist who divides his time between Santa Barbara and Cambodia. His first big financial windfall came in the 1960s, after he bought and turned around a struggling psychiatric hospital. That success launched a for-profit medical empire that has left him worth about $35 million (according to his own estimates). These days, having sold all 26 of his medical facilities and treatment centers, he finds his excess wealth to be of “no use” unless he can give it away. In the past he’s donated heavily to scientific research and university psychology departments. More recently he’s focused on Jewish endeavors, like the Moishe Houses, the first of which launched in 2005 in Oakland, California. At the Shabbat dinner I attended, the young people living in the Seattle Moishe House spoke of Squire in the way a family might speak about their beloved, and very strange uncle: with a mix of gratitude and fond incomprehension.

* * *

As it turned out, a number of people at the subsidized Shabbat were people I already knew—not an uncommon experience at Jewish events in Seattle, where Jews make up less than one percent of the population. Two of the organizers, Jonathan Herzog and his younger sister Norah, were regulars at seders I attended growing up. Now, because they met the qualifications—Jewish, in their 20s, socially outgoing—they’d fallen into this nice situation: The two of them, along with their third roommate, Dave Basoir, are each paying only $138 a month, with the rest picked up by Squire. Making the deal even sweeter, he offers them an additional $500 a month (and up to $1,000 more a year if needed) to accomplish their Jewish-community-building tasks, with hardly any restrictions on what this community-building should look like.

It was mid-March when I showed up at the Shabbat dinner. Herzog, a garrulous young man with a huge smile, was in the kitchen cooking dinner. “I hope this is edible,” he called out to his sister Norah, who took one look at what her brother was up to and silently disappeared into a bedroom for a moment of quiet before the rest of the guests arrived. Basoir, a husky, bearded man whose large, knitted yarmulke was the only one I noticed at the gathering, was relaxing on a chair in the living room. They had recently returned from Santa Barbara, where Squire had gathered all 21 of the American Moishe House residents for a meeting. The Seattle contingent still seemed a bit incredulous at what they’d experienced and they used careful, vague language to describe Squire. “I think I’m involved in something pretty spectacular,” Jonathan Herzog told me. “The man behind it—I think he’s definitely a unique individual who doesn’t play by any of society’s rules.”

The Seattle Shabbat, if not particularly devout, was a success in the only sense that appears to matter to Squire. Young Jews got together and had fun doing something they felt was Jewish, or at least Jewish-ish. Shabbat candles were lit—with a green Bic lighter. Wine, if not kosher wine, was consumed heartily. Non-Jews were in attendance. And people scurried off afterward to do un-Shabbat things like attending a reggae show.

Possible future events were discussed, including movie nights on Squire’s tab and a shopping contest “on Morris” at a local discount grocery, the aim being to see who could get the best bargains (“What’s more Jewish than bargain hunting?” Herzog asked). Past events were recounted for my benefit: Poker nights, brunches, women’s nights, a trip to see the Dead Sea Scrolls when they came to Seattle.

I left feeling full, a bit tipsy, happy to have reconnected with old friends and acquaintances, and completely mystified as to why someone would pour so much of his money into a program like this, a program with few parameters, such loosely defined aims, and impossible-to-measure results—a program that, further, operates primarily by placing large amounts of cash and even bigger amounts of trust in the hands of highly social twentysomethings. Dinner was fun, but there are probably less risky ways for a wealthy guy to get a return on a Jewish investment.

What, I wondered, was Squire thinking? A few weeks later, a resident of the Los Angeles Moishe House would pose the same question in slightly different terms: “What did he smoke when he was younger, and how can I get some?”

* * *

The concept of reinventing (or even just reinvigorating) young Jewish life is hardly new. In America, the Hillel movement, for example, has been targeting the minds and spirits of Jewish college students ever since its founder, Rabbi Benjamin Frankel, observed in 1924 that the Jewish college student was in a state of “intellectual flux,” “not sure of his Jewish learning,” and generally in need of religious direction. More than 80 years later, Hillel still has the same concerns and has amped up its mission, seeking to spur “a Jewish renaissance” among young people—a sign that the challenge identified by Rabbi Frankel has not gone away, and, if anything, is now seen by Hillel leaders as needing increased attention (and more grandiose rhetoric).

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Havurah movement took more of a grassroots approach, seeking to reinvent Jewish life using the terms of the counterculture movement. That meant college kids and recent college graduates—people mostly in their twenties, just like the Moishe House participants—leading their own non-denominational study groups and feminist services, and employing collective leadership stratagems. It was all done—quite proudly—without outside funding from establishment Jewish sources. Havurah helped change the way synagogues operate today, putting them on notice that they had to become more informal, less stodgy, and less hierarchical if they wanted to get younger, change-demanding Jew back.

In a sense, the Moishe House movement is a hybrid of Hillel and Havurah, tailored to the lifestyle of the millennial generation. When he described for me the challenge that the Moishe House project is tackling, Yoni Gordis, director of programs for the Center for Leadership Initiatives, used almost exactly the same words that Rabbi Frankel used back in 1924: “People in their twenties are in a state of flux in terms of their identity.” Then, sounding a lot more Havurah-ish, Gordis quickly added: “It would be a mistake for us to try to nail them down and get commitment from them in terms of identity. That would be falling into the old paradigm. We’re there to be enablers for them.”

This new kind of enabling, Squire hopes, will seed a new grassroots Jewish revitalization. The plan: Sprinkle his money onto concentrations of outgoing young Jews and then let them take it from there. Havurah was never so lucky—or so dependent on outside cash. But it never had outposts on four continents, either.

* * *

A two-hour flight down the West Coast and a crawl through rush-hour traffic brings me to the Los Angeles Moishe House, located just off Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. A large apartment with four big bedrooms, a living room, a galley kitchen, a den, and a spacious back patio, it rents for $3,000 a month; Squire picks up $2,250. This means the three residents of the house each pay only $250 a month, an unbelievable coup in the neighborhood, especially for a group of young guys just getting started in their careers.

“Ridiculous,” says Lee Levin, a resident of the L.A. house. Levin heard about the program through a friend who had been involved in one of the first Moishe Houses: “Orin said someone was paying for him to live. I was like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ So Orin comes and kibitzes with me and tells me this story. I say: ‘How do I get involved? I want someone to pay my rent!’” Not long after, Levin and his friends, David Eagle and Nate Auerbach, became the inaugural residents of the fourth Moishe House in the world, which opened in April of 2006. Levin and Eagle work together as video producers, running their company, Selfish Entertainment, out of the L.A. Moishe House. Auerbach is a music marketing and content manager for the Canadian branch of MySpace.

Perhaps befitting its location, the L.A. house is known as the most social of the bunch. Levin tells me right off the bat that they throw great parties. The house in Boston, he adds, rolling his eyes, has been known to stop in the middle of a gathering and do a Torah reading. Not here. In L.A., Levin says, it’s all about “cultural Judaism.”

To Levin—who was a devoted student of Hebrew as a kid and even considered becoming a rabbi—this phrase seems to describe any gathering in which Jews interact with any part of American culture. Thus, getting a bunch of tickets, “on Morris,” for Jews to go and see The Ventriloquists, a band that two of Levin’s Jewish friends are in, made perfect sense as a Moishe House event. So did getting The Ventriloquists to play a concert on the back patio of the L.A. house in honor of the imminent departure of the band’s drummer; the event attracted several hundred people, most of them Jews. Another recent L.A. house event:

a Purim celebration with an emphasis on the mitzvah of getting drunk. Word of the event went out by phone, email, and through the group’s MySpace page. It drew close to 100 people.

One of the most popular and enduring events held by the L.A. house is poker night, when people crowd into the den, beside the fifty-inch TV and beneath the poster of David Hockney’s Pearblossom Highway. “It’s Jewish because there are Jews there,” Levin says. After a recent poker night, Auerbach—who keeps kosher (his family, he says, is “hard core,” meaning they’re Conservative)—received a phone call from his father. “My dad asked if we’d had poker to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut,” Auerbach recalled. His father knew it was highly unlikely that the residents of the L.A. Moishe House would be celebrating Israeli Independence Day—if they’d even remembered the day at all. Auerbach conceded they hadn’t.

In other words, the Moishe House crowd is not exactly the Hillel set, which on college campuses has a reputation for being made up of young people already committed to being what the older generation expects of “good Jews.” In fact, the people who live in or are attracted to the L.A. Moishe House tend to be precisely the type of Jews who don’t think warmly of their college interactions with Hillel—if they ever had any to begin with. “The Hillel system sucks,” Levin told me. “In college, we wanted to drink, smoke a little pot, and find a girl to take home tonight, as crass as that is. Hillel was all about roasting marshmallows around the campfire.”

In addition, Levin and Eagle told me they didn’t appreciate the sense that Hillel was mainly a Jewish-couple-making factory. They’re not opposed to marrying Jewish women, if that’s what ends up happening for them, but they don’t feel it’s essential, and they find Hillel’s emphasis on curbing intermarriage heavy-handed.

While Levin long ago gave up any thoughts of becoming a rabbi, he told me, with evident pride, that he now feels like he’s finally putting all that religious education from his upbringing to some use—on his own terms. “I was raised with all this religious stuff. Now I’ve got a room filled with Jewish people who don’t know anything about what a kippah is.”

To be able to explain that and other things to them, he continued, “makes me feel like a pillar of my community, rather than just a member of my community.”

But then he told me: “The biggest thing you hear from people who come who are Jews is, ‘I haven’t been this Jewish since I was kid.’ And, honestly, they’re not being that Jewish.”

Is it really that much of an accomplishment, and worth this much of a financial investment, to get on-the-margin young Jews to make themselves marginally more Jewish? And what, exactly, in this context, constitutes a job well done?

Levin said that at Moishe House, success is measured in enthusiasm, seeded and provoked—and registered, often, in small ways.

“To me,” he said, “success is getting a call the next day and the person being like, ‘That was awesome, man. When’s the next one?’”

* * *

That’s a measure of success that the founder of Moishe House wouldn’t necessarily disagree with.

The morning after my stop at the L.A. house I drove up to Santa Barbara to meet Squire, whom Levin had described to me, with evident affection, as “a guy you could have a beer with, talk about fucking women with, and who would pay for the whole night and drive you home.”

Squire’s villa sits high in the hills overlooking Santa Barbara, down a steep driveway and surrounded by riotously planted grounds. Out back is an orchard designed to evoke the tastes of Israel—figs, pomelos, macadamia nuts, custard apples, and blood oranges. The entry, two heavy wooden doors that look to have been rescued from a castle, opens onto a foyer lit from above by a skylight in the shape of a Star of David. I took off my shoes as instructed by David Cygielman, Squire’s burly 25-year-old consigliere and public face, and entered the mansion.

Cygielman helped Squire come up with the idea for Moishe Houses, shortly after the two met in 2002, somewhat ironically, at the Hillel building at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where Cygielman led a community minyan. Squire attended the minion, took a liking to Cygielman, and offered him $10,000 to make Santa Barbara a better place for Jews, no strings attached. Today, the Moishe Houses have an annual operating budget of $350,000.

I arrived to find Squire sitting at his glass-topped dining room table, wearing soft house slippers, slick black pants that look like the bottom half of a high-end track suit, and a grey dress shirt. “I put this shirt on because of you,” he said. For an 84-year-old man, he looks great, at least ten years younger. His receding grey hair is slicked back, his eyes glisten with excitement behind gold-rimmed glasses, and his beard is trimmed to a fashionably short length. Behind him stood a well-stocked mirrored bar. In front of him, the vast expanse of his living room—a grand piano, 30-foot ceilings, thick white carpet, deep couches, huge windows looking onto his pool, a giant wall of books, and, hanging everywhere, his oil paintings—of famous people, such as Bill Clinton and Dennis Rodman, and of friends and family. His twenty-eight-year-old Cambodian wife, Lei The Dei Squire, a convert to Judaism, offered me a glass of water and went back to squeezing blood oranges for a juice we would be drinking at lunch.

The couple met in Cambodia through Lei’s sister, who worked in Squire’s Cambodian art studio. They were married in Cambodia in 1999, married again at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2003, and a third time, in 2004, at their local synagogue. Cygielman, who taught Lei to read Hebrew, signed their ketubah.

Every day at 10:00 a.m., Squire and Cygielman have a meeting to discuss Squire’s Jewish projects. On this day in April they’re meeting with Levi Felix, the trim, energetic manager of the Moishe Houses and a rising star in the universe of Jewish do-gooders who surround the man with the checkbook.

Moishe House is just one part of a larger philanthropic initiative by Squire, an initiative known as the Forest Foundation, and Felix is one of 26 employees (almost all of them under the age of 25)—all of them based in Santa Barbara and recruited, mainly, through Jewish social circles. They run various programs, mostly of their own invention, targeted at Jewish youth, and improve themselves through the “personal growth budgets” Squire offers as part of standard operating procedure. Those budgets start at $1,000 a year, go up by about $1,000 every year thereafter, and are used by foundation employees to pay for workshops, retreats, and anything else their hearts desire. One employee recently went to a clowning school to get more comfortable on stage. Not long ago Cygielman used his stipend to attend a program called “Finding Your Deepest Passion” at Esalen, the renowned retreat for seekers and self-improvers in Big Sur.

Felix wants to travel to the Bonnaroo Music Festival, in Manchester, Tennessee, with a group of like-minded friends, in a bus—the Moishe Mobile—converted to run on vegetable oil. This will be an opportunity to spread the word about the Forest Foundation and the Moishe House program, and also a chance to encourage a Jewish “repair the world” type of environmental awareness. At Bonnaroo, Felix explained, he and his clan will do yoga and Tai Chi, hold Shabbat dinners and drum circles, and offer workshops on globalization and sustainable living. The whole affair will cost Squire $13,500.

“Why do you have three girls and five men?” Squire asked. “Are these girls fuck girls?” He turned to me. “Excuse me for my vernacular.”

“No,” said Felix.

“I would plan a sexualized game,” said Squire. “And recognize what you’re doing it for.” The goal, Squire explains, is to draw young people into the Moishe Mobile orbit for altruistic, not carnal, ends. “You have to figure out something that is not going to make you indecent, but will help you grow.”

Someone at the table suggested foot massages. Squire approved. “And you can’t go above the foot,” he said. “If something else happens because of that beginning, great.”

Clearly, we’re a long way from Hadassah.

As abruptly as it veered off course, the discussion returned to Felix and his proposal. Squire attempted to get at least one of the young men to admit what seemed obvious: the expense of Felix’s proposed trip to Bannaroo is hard to justify given the somewhat loopy plans and limited potential impact. That didn’t happen.

So Squire went ahead and said what he was thinking: “I think it’s a gift. I think it’s a $13,500 gift. I think it’s an ego-piece for Levi.”

Levi protested, but Squire was having none of it.

“You got a $13,500 gift, boy,” he said. “That’s what it is. You deserve it.”

A few weeks later, the Web site,, was up, a 1997 GMC Vandura school bus had been converted to run on veggie oil, and Felix and his crew were preparing to depart to Bonnaroo, another Morris Squire enterprise launched.

* * *

In 1922, on their honeymoon, Squire’s mother, a pharmacist in the Ukraine, and his father, a dentist, were arrested by Azerbeijani authorities—motivated, says Squire by both anti-Semitism and greed (his father was carrying gold and silver for fillings)—and sent to a prison camp, where he was conceived.

According to Squire, when they got out, they made their way to North America on a cattle boat, landing in Canada. From there they headed to Chicago, where Squire’s uncle, a wrestler and a boxer, lived. They all moved into a basement apartment where, on November 5, 1923, Squire was born, on the kitchen table.

When Squire was young, one of his aunts created the first Orthodox Jewish nursing home in Chicago, filling a regional void. That was the beginning of Squire Nursing Homes.

In high school Squire worked as a night nurse in his aunt’s facility, an experience that, he says, helped him discover deep personal wells of empathy. World War II came. He served at an air base in Guam, then returned to Chicago and studied psychology on the GI Bill, first at the University of Illinois, then at the University of Chicago.

While in school, he worked at various Jewish agencies in Chicago. At one, he felt the older clients were being treated terribly—left to lie supine all day, paid little attention. He began taking them out of bed and putting them in wheelchairs, playing Jewish music that was familiar to them, “getting them moving around.” Eventually, he says, some were able to move beyond their perpetual bed rest.

One day in 1958, a colleague told Squire that a friend had put his psychiatric hospital up for sale. “I looked at the hospital and said, ‘That’s for me.’” He borrowed money from his aunt and from friends in local unions, pledged his home, and bought the place, with the help of “a very clever attorney,” who convinced the sellers that Squire was a better choice than 15 other potential investors. “He told them that I could turn it around. And I did.”

Over the ensuing two decades, he bought up and revamped 26 psychiatric facilities and treatment centers around the country. In 1963, he established the Forest Foundation, which he initially used to give money to university psychology programs and scientific research. In 2002, he shifted his focus to Jewish causes.

“I believe that Jews have a function,” he told me. “The function of the Jew is to make the world a better place. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that in my time. And I’ve got a short time. Our primary push is to see what we can do to bring the Jewish culture to this young age group.”

Squire is not concerned that younger Jews be Jewish in any certain way—he doesn’t care about intermarriage (“assimilation is wonderful, because you’re accepting more people to come into your game,” he told me) and he doesn’t believe that people in their 20s, the group he’s most interested in, respond to being told what to do anyway.

Instead, he believes deeply in the value of shocking young adults with the amount of trust and faith he places in them. He wants them to live their lives naturally, rather than ape their elders. When left to their own devices, people in their 20s, Squire said, operate as if they’re on a vision quest: “I dream, I think, I seek, I want, I find,” is how he puts it.

“I think we have to alert young Jews to the fact that they are responsible,” Squire explained. “We bring them to a party, give them a drink, introduce them to nice people, and say, ‘Hey, you are responsible. What are you going to do?’ And if they say, ‘I don’t know,’ I say, ‘Go find out.’”

When he does this, he said, getting them live up to expectations is not a problem. “They demand more than I.”

But what, exactly, does he demand? What does Squire expect to get out this investment, and how will he measure his return? And what would failure look like?

Cygielman, standing at his side, answered: “For us, failure is not an issue. It’s the process.”

“What else would you do when you’re 84 years old?” Squire asks.

* * *

When I return to Seattle I called Gordis, of the Center for Leadership Initiatives, and asked him the same questions: What return does he expect to get on his center’s investment of an undisclosed sum that is meant to fund five Moishe Houses? And how might that return be measured?

“In terms of measuring impacts, it’s really a good question,” he told me. “We’re wrestling with that right now. It is very hard to measure. It’s sort of a leap of faith in these people.”

But, he added, at a cost of only about $10,000 to $30,000 a year to run a Moishe House, it’s not the biggest of financial risks. Particularly considering the number of people who now interact with a Moishe House (an internal report for March of this year showed 103 events worldwide with a total attendance of 2,609 people, half of them first-timers), Gordis said.

“Something’s really working. Nobody out there in the Jewish world could quote those numbers for this age group. If the people who come out of the Moishe Houses are feeling that they have a home in the Jewish community, whatever that home might be, and if they are feeling that elements of Judaism, however they use them, provide them with a senses of vision and values and belonging, then it’s worked.”

* * *

Herzog, from the Seattle Moishe House, is nearing the end of his tenure.

After about a year and a half organizing events and exploring his own Jewishness on Squire’s dime, he’s ready to try a new living arrangement, one that involves paying his full share of the rent. He wondered, over the phone with me in June, whether giving up his sweet deal is “the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.” But, he added, he’d just finished his undergraduate work at the University of Washington (he majored in oceanography), he’s planning to apply to grad school, and he would be turning thirty soon. With 30 being the unofficial edge of the Moishe House age group, and with his life turning in a more adult direction anyway, he thought it was a good time to move on.

“I think I got more comfortable with my Judaism,” Herzog told me. “I’m a bigger proponent of it. And I’m going into the Judaism thing even though I just told you how un-Jewish our events were sometimes.”

He had recently returned from an event held in a cabin on the Washington coast. It was his farewell event, a “blowout” over Memorial Day weekend. Twenty-two people came. The group did Shabbat on Friday evening—salads, lasagna, “pretty low maintenance stuff.” The challah came late because someone was delayed in traffic. And the rest of the time they played volleyball, built bonfires, did a beach cleanup. “People just kinda came to hang out and enjoy the beach and get away from the city,” Herzog told me.

On the last day, to reward people who stayed to help clean up the cabin, Herzog organized a seafood feast—Copper River salmon, raw oysters, a full Dungeness crab for each person. “I bought as much shellfish as Moishe could spend,” he told me. “The most Jewish part was that we could all joke about how treyf that dinner was.”

And yet events like this, in combination with events for which he had to learn a bit more about Judaism in order to pull them off—hosting Shabbat and holding gatherings that coincided with Jewish holidays—have made Herzog feel more Jewish.

“I think a lot of Jews, including myself, are not very secure in their Judaism,” he told me. “But I know that if I’m in a room full of other Jews, and someone’s like, ‘Why don’t you say the hamotzi’—to say it is scary with a bunch of Jews. It’s one of the more scary things that I’ve been part of.” But now, because the sink-or-swim aspect of the Moishe House experience forced him to learn it, he can say the hamotzi like a champ, as well as “the long Kiddush—not the three-liner.”

He continued: “The old way is your parents telling you what to do. You’re not going to do that. I really think that freedom is the most powerful thing. And when someone hands you money, there’s some responsibility to it. You have to take ownership of it. Which is really empowering.”

That process, and its results, he said, “made me much more comfortable with the level of Jew that I am. I see that I don’t have to be quasi-orthodox to be a Jew.”

And then, rather casually, he dropped the line that is probably the dream of every Hillel board member—and Squire’s last care in the world. “I think if I was dating a non-Jewish girl, and then started Moishe House, I probably would have broken up with her.” As it happens, after “a life littered with shiksas,” he began dating—and continues to see—a Jewish woman during his Moishe House tenure.

Like Levin in Los Angeles, Herzog told me that some of his most meaningful Moishe moments came when people told him his events were the first Jewish thing they’d done since childhood, or the best Jewish thing they’d ever done.

“The Moishe House goal, as it was stated to us, is to build community,” Herzog said. “What the hell that means, I have no idea. I mean, really: Build community? What does that mean? I have no idea.

“But I think we did it. I know we did it.”

Eli Sanders is an associate editor at The Stranger and the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. His website is