I have something to admit.
I never went to sleepaway camp.
I was a sheltered child and spent my summers with my little brother in our rec room reading books and painting watercolor pictures of what I imagined other children were allowed to do outside. When I first heard the song Camp Granada, I became obsessed. This must be what it is like to have community, I thought. Getting ptomaine poisoning with fellow campers is how I thought the leaders of our future were shaped.
As an adult, I found myself in a constant search for a space and a group of people who I could call mine. First there was art school, and I found friends, but we were all lone soldiers. It is difficult to make a true community with a gaggle of unique snowflakes who would just as quickly sell you to a gallery owner if it meant a solo show.
Next, I found the crust punk train riding musicians. Again, I made some brilliant friends, dreaded my hair and dyed it pink, spent a lot of nights along the James River watching the moon, but this community was not mine. I could not play the banjo or the ukulele (although I still own one), and while I learned quite a bit about living sustainably, love, and rode a few trains too, I was a fringe member of their circles and when I faded away, was most likely not terribly missed.
Eventually, after a short stint spending frummy Shabbats with a wonderful chabad chapter in Tysons Corner, and then some long, lonely years in New York, I found myself in D.C. with no idea where to go to make new friends. I was lucky that I had a number of good, old friends in the area, but I wanted some new faces, and I wanted a place to go for Shabbat.
An old friend brought me to an event at Moishe House Adams Morgan (now Moishe House Columbia Heights) and I instantly fell in love. This was a mash-up reminiscent of both my progressive crust punk days spent in old victorian-era houses and of chabad. I was intrigued.
As the months went on, I spent more time in the D.C. area Moishe Houses, and at Sixth in the City, Adas Israel Return Again Shabbat, Gather the Jews happy hours, 2239 events and Metro Minyon. At each of those events, I met more people and started forming a loose circle of friends out of the Jew-soup that seemed to flow through D.C. But at many of these events, I found that people tended to congregate around those who they already knew. Since I knew no one, I made it my mission to bounce around and weave people together. People began to ask me if I lived in Moishe House MoCo whenever I was there. I was always washing dishes, or cooking, or (probably too loudly) suggesting a new event idea to the actual residents.
In September, I was at a Shabbat dinner, and I was talking with some people who I knew, and some new ones about the state of Shabbos dinner in D.C. We are never want for a place to go, however a common theme of the conversation was a desire for more intimate Shabbats. There is something truly magical about going to synagogue with 300 other 20-35 year-olds, but it also feels very Hillel 2.0. We wanted a place where we could invite our friends, and they could invite their friends – and then we all could have a real conversation. We wanted our circles of actual, human interaction to repeat themselves over time and develop into sustainable friendships. We were getting sick of I know I have seen him before… Oh goodness was it at Yom Kippur, or was it at a happy hour? I think we actually talked to each other. Crap! I can’t remember his name. We wanted opportunities to make new friends and keep them.
Shabbat Schmooze now has almost 100 people in it, but we have found that our dinners still usually stay between 7-15 people per Shabbat. We organize through Facebook and rotate whose house dinner is at. Anyone can host, and whoever hosts chooses how they want to hold Shabbat. We have had musical Shabbats, full services, Shabbats with a lot of non-Jews, too, porch parties, cook-outs, potlucks with babies… We have a dinner between twice a month and weekly. Different people show up to each dinner, but no matter who is there, you can connect directly for an evening, and more than likely you will see them over again.
I have also become involved in Moishe House Without Walls, which is intrinsically connected to this idea of creating an accessible community. Moishe House Without Walls is similar to “regular” Moishe House, in that it is a global network of community organizers who seek to create Jewish programming that makes Judaism meaningful in a modern world. We are a pluralistic, non-affiliated group whose events encompass fun, thought-provoking, and spiritual aspects alike. However, each host is independent, and does not live in a group Moishe House.
While MHWOW has been around for some time, there was recently an influx of new hosts (I was one of them), and we have taken on a new initiative. We started a Facebook page (Join here for event updates!). We are working to make individual MHWOW hosts’ events more known to the community, as well as collaborating once a month to bring something unique as a group to the D.C. community. Last month we had a house-hopping Shabbat dinner as our launch event. Keep a look out in June for an all-day Limmud-style learning event, and hopefully a huge camping trip in July.
A really big idea that we are working on in MHWOW is how to create events that help people find out who lives in their neighborhood. If you have ideas for this, I would love if you left a comment below this article! Something that I have found really valuable is realizing that I have a number of (fairly new!) friends who live within a couple blocks of me who I can call on Friday and see what they are doing for Shabbat.
On Shavuot, a couple of us from the neighborhood gathered for some ad-hoc late-night learning. We chose to analyze some of the Pirkei Avot – Ethics of the Fathers, in which this line, “Hillel said: Do not separate yourself from the community” stood out to us. We got to talking about what community means to us here in D.C. and I asked the group what they wanted, on a higher level, from the Jewish community here. It turns out that we have community on a large scale, and want communal support on a microscale. Joe Brophy said something great, “I want a community that embraces the struggle, and also the action of not knowing where I will be from week to week.” We want a community that understands that sometimes we are going to go to services on Shabbat and it will be wonderful. And sometimes, we will stay home and eat Laotian takeout with our significant other, or roommates, or dog, and that will be just as amazing. We want a community that gets us as an individual.
If you have ideas about ways to make our community better, are looking for support for events, or just someone to bounce ideas off of, or are interested in connecting our Jewish community with our local community (outreach / activism!), please feel free to email me, or leave a comment below.
Next week: Jews and tattoos. I have tattoos. You might have them, too. Is your mom as angry as mine is?
Michele is the founder of Chopping Block Copy, where she is a full-service copywriter / editor / designer. She gets overexcited about bio-luminescence, corduroy, the roller derby, sustainability, people who can compose a proper sentence, and Grumbacher titanium white oil paint and drinks her whiskey neat, because that’s the only way.
Michele is the community leader for Moishe House Without Walls, D.C. which is a global network of community organizers who seek to create pluralistic Jewish programming that makes Judaism meaningful in a modern world. Find them on Facebook!