Awakening My Jewish Spirit: The Role of Moishe House in my Life as an Empowered Young Jewish Adult

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Cheryl Pruce is an education policy researcher in Washington, DC focused on educational equity issues for low-income and minority youth. She focuses her entrepreneurial, creative energy on engaging young Jewish thinkers in a sustained Jewish learning group, the Minyan of Thinkers.  

Cheryl recently became involved with Moishe House, an organization that trains, supports and sponsors young Jewish leaders as they create vibrant home-based communities for themselves and their peers. 

I’ve had quite a Jewish journey. In high school I explored traditional Judaism, attending a modern Orthodox Jewish day school, spending Shabbat weekends with Rabbis and their families, davening frequently, studying Torah, and working to increase my Jewish observance level.

During my college years, and perhaps with the added bonus of being 3,000 miles away from home, I broke down my faith based on fear and commandedness, and built it back up again with a foundation of love and empowerment. I made Judaism my own. I spent years designing my own prayer book made with modified versions of traditional prayers and some of my own reflections of gratitude, took on leadership positions through Jewish student groups and Hillel at Stanford, and continued my Jewish learning in a way that better aligned with my beliefs, values, and place on the Jewish ideological spectrum.

When I came to DC to begin my professional journey, I struggled to find my place and sense of empowerment that I had during high school and college. I was drawn to the spirited, ruach-filled services of more traditional services. With my pink sequence tallis and my self-made prayer book, I tried to enjoy the beauty of the service while acknowledging the ideological differences I had with those settings. At a certain point, I realized I couldn’t sustain that and feel like I was being logically and internally consistent.

I transitioned to more progressive, liberal prayer services, which felt better, but I missed the community activities associated with more traditional Jews such as intimate Shabbat dinners after shul and serious Jewish text study. I tried to find a Jewish learning group that wasn’t traditional-leaning but I couldn’t find a consistently high quality, pluralistic group.

What bubbled up in my consciousness was the idea of a new kind of minyan that harnessed the brainpower of ten young, Jewish thinkers to grapple with scholarly but non-traditional texts related to major contemporary Jewish issues of our choosing.

Becoming a ConnectGens fellow, sponsored by PresenTense and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, allowed me to learn social entrepreneurship basics and develop my concept for my new group, the Minyan of Thinkers. It’s a little bit tongue-and-cheek because every minyan should be thinking! I spent months connecting with other thoughtful, reflective young Jews and 20-minute coffee chats grew into hour-and-a-half discussions of our Jewish identities and Jewish needs.

Eventually we formed our first cohort group, chose the topic of intermarriage and conversion, and delved into the National Jewish Population Survey and two related articles by Steve Cohen and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute. We dug into the data with a critical eye, and fleshed out the arguments presented in the related articles.

To complement the intellectual part of the work, we also did a variety of community building activities and shared our own experiences (we had Jews from a variety of backgrounds, some single, some couples, some married to Jews, some married to non-Jews, some married to non-Jews who converted) related to intermarriage that made it an emotionally enriching experience that made us feel connected to each other, not just the data.

We met monthly for a few hours (we started with two but people asked to go for three so we did) and had dialogue-oriented sessions. In the spring we transitioned to writing workshop sessions where we began to reflect on what we had discussed and formulate our own thoughts on the contentious topic we had chosen for the pilot year.

I couldn’t have asked for a more successful pilot. There were many challenges along the way, but we executed my vision and dove deeply into a major Jewish topic facing our community. However, I was struggling to continue the minyan. Mostly I couldn’t sustain the dialogue and writing sessions without financial help. For a time I focused on continuing to connect with interesting and engaged Jews in the DC area.

A friend invited me to a Moishe House event, where I met some incredibly thoughtful young people. At that time I didn’t know a lot about Moishe House, but after hours of chatting, eating, singing, relaxing on the hammock and talking with friends, I realized that Moishe House is bringing together young Jews in a way that I was wanting and needing.

One person encouraged me to attend a Moishe House retreat, and not knowing much about it, I signed up for a Shabbat spirituality retreat. I found myself transported back to the empowered Jew I had been in college and when I first started my venture, connecting with fellow Jews, engaging in community building exercises, learning how to lead Jewish rituals in a way that felt true to who I am. They told us about their Moishe House Without Walls program to help support our own programming work.

Even before the retreat ended I was furiously texting my friends about jump-starting my minyan again. That was November. December I had my first session, and one of the teachers at the retreat served as our first guest speaker. We talked a lot about Jewish identity and engagement, and that may become our minyan topic for this year. In a few days we have our second session where we will dig into data from the 2013 PEW study on Jewish Americans (mostly chapter three on Jewish identity, a few other tables from other chapters).

Moishe House Without Walls money is used to pay for our food and materials, and thanks to additional offerings from the program, we will be applying for funding for our summer retreat and Shavuot and Sukkot public dissemination events. These are critical opportunities for minyan members to develop leadership skills and facilitate discussions and writing sessions with young professional Jews in DC.

Moishe House is genius. The retreat, spiritually rich and intellectually stimulating with its thoughtful programming, empowered me to LEAN IN to the Jewish community and ACTIVELY make the Jewish community what I want and need it to be. Financially supporting my minyan has inspired me to not give up on my dreams of making big waves of positive social CHANGE in the community. Moishe House rocks my Jewish world, and has shaken me into spiritual awakening. 

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.