This month, coworking giant WeWork opened its first Jerusalem location. As part of its advance promotion, WeWork opened a temporary coworking space in a sukkah downtown a few weeks before the opening, combining a celebration of Sukkot traditions rooted in ancient times with very modern trappings, from free Wi-Fi to evening parties with DJs and bartenders. As offbeat as this might sound, it could serve as a metaphor for a direction that coworking spaces and Jewish communities are taking—toward each other.
This past April, Bnei Brak, another Israeli city, welcomed the opening of Ampersand, the first coworking space in the country catering to ultra-Orthodox Jews. WeWork masterminds consulted on the project, an initiative of KamaTech—an Israeli nonprofit organization focused on integrating Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population into the tech fields—and with support from tech giant Cisco. The space looks like any other modern coworking hub, except it is divided into male and female areas and offers a strictly kosher kitchen.
In the United States, too, Jewish coworking is on the rise. Take, for instance, The Hive, a newer addition to Leichtag Commons, a farm and urban campus run by the Leichtag Foundation. The Commons, outside San Diego, offers fertile ground, literally and figuratively, for agricultural and environmental initiatives and promotes Jewish values as well as the value of self-sufficiency. Nonprofits and enterprises that share these values can become grantees of the foundation and take part in the space.
Two years ago, The Hive emerged on the property, offering organizations under the Leichtag umbrella a place to work and create. “The concept was a place to truly experiment and collaborate, more than picking up the phone or sending emails,” said director Jenny Camhi. “The foundation wanted to see what would happen if we put representatives from grantees in an intentionally small space, when you can’t help but overhear what everyone else is doing. That’s how it all started.”
The move was partially inspired by the fact that Moishe House, an international nonprofit working with young Jews, received a grant and moved its local offices on-site. “It really started feeling like a community,” Camhi added, “and people from outside the organization started asking about coworking with us, about bringing friends and introducing colleagues to the concept.” Last year, The Hive became available for any members of the community who touch upon the arts and culture, or affiliate themselves with the topics of Judaism, sustainability, or environmentalism, values the foundation identifies with. Organizations and sole proprietors are welcome, as long as they have liability insurance. “Diversity really breeds creativity,” said Camhi. Non-Jewish nonprofits are welcome, but all member organizations, about 40 according to Camhi, have to sign a “Community Ketubah,” which outlines the most important Jewish values everyone has to commit to. Kosher laws are kept in mind, “but we’re not looking at anyone’s lunches,” Camhi said. “We advise vegetarian or fish, however.”
In addition to traditional coworking amenities, there’s also room for tradition: celebrating Jewish holidays, Shabbat gatherings, and Jewish meditation workshops. Similar spaces have recently been founded in other American cities. In Atlanta, Chabad is on the cusp of opening Twenty Four Six, a new Jewish coworking space with an event program led by Intown Jewish Academy. Discounted rates, according to the website, will be offered to young professionals under the age of 30, if they attend a cultural and educational event affiliated with Chabad. In New York City, the Brooklyn-based Flatbush Jewish Center recently dedicated some of its empty rooms to Cowork on Church, a space with WiFi and friendly member rates, when compared with WeWork or The Wing. In Chicago, SketchPad, the city’s first Jewish coworking space, opened in late 2017 and offers coworking membership plans, incubator-style support and development, and Jewish learning opportunities to Jewish entrepreneurs and organizations. “Relationships are important,” said director Irene Lehrer Sandalow. “We have all these people here who can work together and walk over to each other, so it’s easy to have access to potential partners, no FOMO. And, we share values.” To highlight these values, SketchPad offers a sukkah for Sukkot, and pre-made kashrut labels stating whether a food item is kosher, vegan, or otherwise, among other things.
Outside the United States and Israel, in places where living Jewishly doesn’t come as easily, the promise of coworking is utilized as well, with manicured, stylish spaces ranging from London, in the form of J-Hub, to Melbourne, where Launchpad, a new coworking hub dedicated to Jewish innovation, is accepting members. In the small Ukrainian city of Zaporozhye, not too far from conflict-ridden Donetsk, local Jews flock to Edison Space, a coworking space founded with the help of World Jewish Relief and USAID. Although it’s open to non-Jewish young professionals, those who partner with WJR can work at the space for free, and receive professional-development services. “You can get support and opportunities, and this affects the welfare of Jewish families for the better,” said co-founder Julia Shapovalova. The local Jewish community isn’t large, she says, but highly supportive of its members. “We also introduce Jewish investors to young people with business plans and ideas,” she added.
Connections, belonging, opportunity, and the lack of communal FOMO are all things millennial Jews can appreciate. Joshua Avedon, an L.A-based social entrepreneur and the co-founder of Jumpstart Labs—a self-described “thincubator” for Jewish organizations—attempted to open J Space in Los Angeles a few years ago, but was deterred by technicalities and costs. “Like everything in the Jewish community, having sufficient funding is the baseline for getting any program going,” he said. “All the reasons for a J Space still exist, but any coworking space requires sufficient underwriting to be affordable to cash-starved startups.” In 2010, when J Space was starting, it was, in hindsight, ahead of the curve: “At the time Jewish innovation and startups were just starting to get traction in the marketplace. There was little funding, and little interest from mainstream Jewish organizations in supporting these efforts,” said Avedon.
Now, times have clearly changed, as Jewish organizations and innovation, in its myriad meanings, are embracing each other. “I would like it to be another avenue for people to find Jewish engagement,” said SketchPad’s Lehrer Sandalow. Camhi added: “Everyone’s wrestling with questions like how do we reach the unaffiliated, how do you make space for everyone? The power of having these conversations communally has no rival. I’d say The Hive wouldn’t satisfy as an alternative for a synagogue, but it’s a touchpoint to offer a positive Jewish experience, perhaps leading to wanting to engage more.” What the new spaces do attempt is to try and meet young and innovation-driven Jews in their natural habitat—in front of the laptop.
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Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.