Overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Laguna Beach is a white house that is unlike any other. Young Jews in their 20s have been flocking there over the past 14 months, whether it’s to learn how to cook, handle finances, or simply hang out, have a glass of wine, and watch the sun go down.
This house is part of an international organization called Moishe House, which develops houses strategically placed throughout the world for young Jews in their 20s to develop a local community. And for Rae Gross, founder of Moishe House OC, it’s the fulfillment of a quest with her organization, JewC.
“There isn’t a whole lot of programming in OC that’s really specific to this age group,” Gross said.
Gross, along with Parker Weinthal and Mitch Potsdam, make up the current residents of the house. They host eight to nine different events a month, ranging from holiday parties to learning sessions. Each roommate has brought to the Moishe House his or her interests and passions, which the roommates have been able to share with the community at large.
“[It] gives us a chance to explore things that we love, and turn people on to things,” Weinthal said.
It all began three years ago, when Gross completed her conversion to Judaism from Mormonism. In 2008, she went to Israel through Birthright. The experience she had with her group opened her eyes.
“When I came home, I realized that I wanted to recreate the community that I felt on my trip in Orange County,” she said.
She began JewC, a Facebook group for local Jews in their 20s and 30s to join. In four months, the group grew from 30 to 300 members. They began to host Shabbat dinners and happy hours. After a while, several of the members suggested that Gross open up a Moishe House.
In March 2009, Gross began looking into the organization. At first, Gross said, Moishe House was skeptical that there was an audience in Orange County, but she pointed out her success with JewC, which at that point had 500 members. Two months later, after she and her roommates applied and filed the proper paperwork, they were given permission to look for a house – a challenge in itself.
“It was a real struggle to find a house in a neighborhood that wouldn’t mind that we were having get-togethers, and a house that could hold 70 to 80 people with ample parking,” she said.
On July 3, 2009, the Moishe House had its first event, partnering with Gesher City Long Beach for a Shabbat dinner. The next night, there was a housewarming party and Fourth of July celebration. Within the first month, the house was given an award for being the best Moishe House. In the next 12 months, it hosted 97 events and had 2,453 people come through the doors – 657 of whom were new.
The organization has become a crucial part of the young professionals community in the area, as it has accounted for 90 percent of programming for 20-somethings in Orange County.
“There are events through temples, but there aren’t many organizations set up for that age range,” Potsdam said.
Gross agreed, adding that the Moishe House has two goals. “One is to find people who will eventually be able to inherit a thriving community, and the second overarching goal is to keep our community engaged and excited about Moishe House, because if Moishe House isn’t here, there isn’t a whole lot left,” she said
Although the roommates are required to do a certain amount of tikkun olam and religious events per month, there isn’t a lot of oversight.
“The organization leaves it up to the house members as to how they want the house to be. It believes that local residents know the community best,” Gross said.
It is up to every Moishe House to determine how religious the house is, how much programming is done inside and outside the house, and the type of events that are done every month. Some of the roommates’ favorites include the Pink and Black Hanukah party, Shabbat dinners, and a visit to a dueling piano bar.
Just because it’s a place for fun doesn’t necessarily mean that running Moishe House OC isn’t hard work. There are meetings, preparing the calendar for each month, working throughout the event to make sure people feel welcome, and pre- and post-event cleaning.
It also includes pursuing local donors. Although a lot of funding for the Moishe House comes from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and other donations, the goal is to have the houses supported by the local community. For Moishe House OC, it means finding the $48,000 a year that it takes to keep the house running strong, which includes the programming budget and rent subsidies. According to Gross, the ideal goal is to get every Moishe House funded independently from local donors.
Many of the visitors to the Moishe House have no idea about how much work goes on behind the scenes.
“When people ask me, ‘What’s the deal with Moishe House? It’s so easy,’ I blink a few times,” Weinthal said. “It’s a part-time job. It’s 10 to 20 hours a week doing this.”
This part-time job is in addition to the world that each resident of the Moishe House does during the workday. Gross is a social media manager for Sanuk, a locally based footwear company, while Potsdam is the director of accounting for a wealth management firm in Aliso Viejo. Weinthal runs Smart Planet Kitchen, where he manufactures Jilli’s Bisquits, sold in Whole Foods.
But for them, Moishe House OC is worth it, and they are looking forward to the month ahead, which includes building a Sukkah in the backyard and a class on the High Holy Days.
“For us, Moishe House is a labor of love,” Gross said. “We do it because we want to see the Jewish community in Orange County grow and thrive. And it t doesn’t matter if you’ve come a dozen times or have never come before. We have an incredible and dynamic and warm group of Jews in Orange County.”