After she helped found a Moishe House in Fairfax last year, Sam Magnes became accustomed to welcoming Jewish strangers into her home for dinners, holiday celebrations and just to hang out.
That all came to a screeching halt in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic rendered indoor activities with strangers reckless.
Magnes and her three housemates hopped on the virtual programming bandwagon, gathering on Zoom for Shabbat, hosting an online word game tournament, starting a virtual book club and an anti-racism discussion group after protests broke out later in the spring.
The data show the Fairfax house’s online events to be a smashing success. Magnes said they’ve recruited new members quickly, and that a Tuesday night book club at the house never would have caught on before the pandemic.
“Who had the time?” she said.
But despite the strong interest in virtual events, the inability to host guests at the house has taken a toll on Magnes. Some regulars don’t like online programming and have dropped off since the pandemic started, and it’s harder to touch base and connect one-on-one with people on a Zoom call or in a Facebook group than in your own living room.
“I won’t lie,” Magnes said. “It’s a huge challenge not to have people in our house anymore.”
The pandemic has had a unique impact on groups like Moishe House, which subsidizes communal Jewish homes around the world, including five in the Washington area and one in Baltimore. They haven’t been forced to shut down operations altogether, like JCC fitness centers and Jewish preschools. But the focus on producing Jewish events in the home doesn’t translate to a computer screen in the same way that a lecture series or even a High Holiday service does.
Moishe House is not alone among groups operating in the Washington area as it struggles to adapt programming that is meant to cultivate Jewish community in the home.
OneTable, which sponsors Shabbat dinners for Jews in their 20s and 30s, suspended all home-based Shabbatot in March, and began offering subsidies for virtual meal gatherings. But once the platform began allowing socially distant outdoor dinners and meals among housemates in the spring, users quickly showed a preference for live dining.
Since they began offering the option, only 30 percent of OneTable hosts have chosen to put on virtual dinners.
“People still really want and need in-person connection,” said OneTable CEO Aliza Kline.Plus, she added, “Eating on the computer is so weird.”
Kishkes Cortex and Kinesthetics Principle
Experts actually have a term for why going to Shabbat dinner at your friend’s house feels so much better than joining a “dinner” on Zoom: The affect-behavior-cognition triangle.
Brandeis University professor Leonard Saxe, who has studied immersive Jewish experiences including Birthright Israel and camping, has adapted this term for the Jewish context as the Kishkes Cortex and Kinesthetics Principle.
“If you’re fully involved — mind, body and heart, soul, kishkes, whatever — the experience is going to be more impactful,” Saxe said. “We know that experiences that touch all of your senses are more powerful. You remember them more easily.”
The desire to create those immersive experiences is largely why Moishe House exists.
Lander Gold, associate vice president of advancement, said events at the houses are meant to recreate the childhood feeling of spending relaxed Shabbat afternoons or Jewish holidays at the house of family or friends.
“We want to mimic that home life where people can really enjoy themselves and connect with Judaism,” Gold said. “A home doesn’t have an entry feel, it doesn’t require security clearance or membership. That’s why we use the home.”
But with the houses off limits, what kind of virtual programming could Moishe House produce that a JCC or synagogue wasn’t already offering? For Mangnes, the answer was sustained community.
She was originally drawn to founding a Moishe House after being discouraged by the nature of one-off events like happy hours catering to Jewish adults. It was exhausting to always be introducing yourself to new people, many of whom you would never see again. The house offered a consistent gathering space for a community to develop. Visitors knew the same residents would always be there and there was a good chance they would know some of the other visitors as well.
Magnes has tried to bring that consistency to online events. Like many Jewish organizations, Moishe House Fairfax has hosted a weekly Zoom meeting for Shabbat. But unlike Shabbat video calls that focus on ritual, or seek to provide some rabbinic wisdom, the Fairfax house’s calls try to make people feel at home. Attendees are asked to share one good thing that happened in the past week and one thing that they’re looking forward to — and then follow up the next week, so people could follow each other’s experiences in at least a small way.
It still doesn’t compare to live events, and while the house has continued a steady stream of virtual programming, it also seized on the earliest opportunity to start safely seeing community members in person again, beginning with a concert in July.
“As soon as the state of Virginia said it was OK, we started planning outdoor events,” Magnes said. “I bought a 6-foot-long curtain rod on Amazon to make sure people were distanced.”
Lessons of living communally
Moishe House and OneTable’s hybrid virtual and in-person programming schedule was less possible for Avodah, which hosts nearly two dozen recent Jewish college graduates in two adjacent houses in northwest D.C. for year-long placements at local nonprofits.
Dani Levine, national director of the group’s service corps, said the decision to place participants in group homes is intentional. It’s meant to teach young leaders interested in social justice how to be patient, resolve conflict and build teams, all in a Jewish context.
“We’re trying to develop leaders who can work in solidarity to affect long-term change and living communally teaches you how to do that,” Levine said.
The pandemic started about halfway through the last Avodah year, which required adaptation on the fly and a significant deviation in what participants expected their year of Jewish co-housing to look like. Elana Ross, who was on the program at the time, recalled living in a house full of people all trying to figure out how to stay safe, sometimes from one another, at a time when solid information was still hard to come by.
“People initially thought we could social distance from each other in the house,” Ross said. “There was a lot of anxiety, and some people were more anxious than others.”
Avodah’s national leadership also imposed strict protocols on individuals who chose to stay in the D.C. houses, and by late spring Ross said 14 of the 22 original house members had returned home to complete their nonprofit placements virtually.
Ross stayed because it wasn’t possible for her to continue her work, which involved delivering food to those in need, remotely. She said the original protocol felt overly cautious, barring socially distant visits with friends outside of Avodah and requiring her to change and wash her clothes upon returning home.
Unlike friends outside the program who were able to make a risk assessment about safe and unsafe behavior, Ross said the guidelines left little room for personal choice.
“Avodah basically had control of my life for a little bit,” Ross said.
Levine said that as the pandemic went on, Avodah’s coronavirus task force regularly revised guidelines and granted policy exemptions on a case-by-case basis. By summer, corps members in D.C. were able to take buses at off-peak hours, and heat lamps, tents and new lawn furniture allowed residents who remained in the homes to host guests and socialize.
“We want to be the least restrictive possible,” Levine said. “We’re using the philosophy of harm reduction: We can write the best policy possible but it doesn’t work if people don’t follow it.”
Avodah decided to run its residential program again this year, welcoming a new group of corps members to D.C. this fall. Participants signed up with full knowledge of the safety rules and residents with in-person job placements are living in one house, while those who can work remotely live in the other.
It’s a balancing act in the Avodah houses, which are located in D.C. and five other cities around the country, as some residents find the restrictions too relaxed while others continue to find them onerous. The pandemic has also pushed utility costs up, Levine said, as people do more laundry and spend more time at the house.
But she said the importance of building an intentional Jewish community outweighed the difficulties of doing so during a pandemic.
“We’re a communal people,” Levine said. “There’s a reason we have to have a minyan for most of our religious obligations and it’s not a coincidence that our houses all contain at least a minyan so we can build a community.”
“It’s a mitzvah for us to build that beloved community.”
‘An absolute bias toward in-person gatherings’
While leaders of the immersive Jewish programs operating in the Washington region agree that it can be difficult or impossible to recreate home-based experiences online, some also acknowledge they have learned important lessons during the pandemic.
Kline, the OneTable CEO, said her organization has long opposed virtual programming.
OneTable was founded in large part to help alleviate loneliness among Jewish millennials and she was always proud to hear when dinner attendees realized they had finished eating without looking at a screen, or even agreed to put their phone in a communal basket at the start of a meal.
“We had an absolute bias toward in-person gatherings,” Kline said. “We couldn’t conceive of solving for social isolation and loneliness through online programming.”
OneTable has also long incentivized hosts to welcome people from outside their immediate household, and even strangers who find their dinners online, by requiring a minimum number of attendees in order to qualify for subsidies, and offering a larger subsidy if strangers are allowed to attend.
Since the pandemic started, OneTable eliminated those requirements. Now the group will sponsor individuals celebrating Shabbat alone or with their roommates, and it has started a central Friday night livestream featuring celebrity chefs and panels on current events that people can tune into as they eat at home.
Kline expects some of these changes will remain even after social distancing ends. While she’s seen a strong desire to return to more traditional Friday night gatherings once it’s safe, Kline also acknowledged that the options for solo dinners and virtual meals make it easier for people with social anxiety or even just poor cooking skills and cramped apartments to participate.
“There are people doing solo dinners who aren’t immunocompromised; they’re just tired and like alone time,” Kline said. “There’s a lot of humility and learning here about what people need.”
Likewise, Magnes of Moishe House Fairfax said that while she’s eager for the house to reopen once it’s safe, some of the virtual programming is likely to remain.
“We’ve found a totally new way to connect with people,” she said.
Gold, the Moishe House vice president, said the organization has also seen new connections being made across cities and continents as people who are connected to a Moishe House in China are now able to attend events hosted by the housemates in Fairfax.
“Most programs before were not accessible unless you lived in that close area,” he said. “Abyproduct that we didn’t know would come out of this has been this true sense of global community.”
While Avodah’s in-person program remains active, DC Program Director Naomi Gamoran said house members have relied on virtual programming to augment some of their time at home together, including streaming services from across the country during the High Holidays.
Whether or not more virtual options are added to experiential Jewish programming, Saxe, the Brandeis professor, said that the desire for immersive in-person Jewish experiences means a return to them is almost guaranteed post-pandemic.
“There’s no question that Zoom and internet stuff are going to facilitate and make contact easier,” Saxe said. “But there’s a vital role that actually being with other people plays and I don’t see that being replaced.”