Yoni Buckman, 25, thought he was following the crowd when he decided to attend the University of Maryland College Park as a Jewish studies major.
But after taking several classes, he realized his college experience wasn’t going as planned. So he changed his goal from graduation to running a business with the intent to “fail hard, and early.” That decision was only one in his unorthodox path to becoming a “professional Jew.”
What was your business?
I started a cleaning company and we were called the YOLO Cleaners. We were cleaning up before or after parties. Before Passover, I cleaned a bunch of houses of Jewish students who were staying there for Passover. I figured if I totally failed, I just paid for an education, and I would have cleaning supplies, which I would use anyway. That lasted about nine months. College is a great place to start a business because you have a city full of young, talented people who are willing to do you favors.
What did you do after finishing classes at the university?
I had a friend who lived in the Adams Morgan Moishe House [for Jews in their 20s] and they were having a Super Bowl party. He heard I had a cleaning company so he wanted to [hire me]. I [had been working] in College Park, so I didn’t know what this house would look like or how much I would charge.
Being a Moishe House person, he said: “Why don’t you come to the party, scope out the house, and then come back the next day and clean?” And that was my introduction to Moishe House.
When I moved into this Moishe House, I still had the cleaning company for a month and then I shut it down.
Were you disappointed to shut it down?
My goal wasn’t to build a successful business, it was to fail without spending a lot of money. So I [wanted to] make all of these mistakes, learn from them and it [didn’t] cost me that much. I ended up breaking even.
With that background, how did you become youth and family educator at Adas Israel Congregation?
I have cousins who live in the area that are members at Adas. I went to one of their Ultimate Frisbee games and hung out with my cousin and his friends. The coach, who is a member at Adas, saw me hanging out with this group of teenagers.
He called me later and said: “Do you know how to teach? We have this exact group of students and they just gravitated toward you. We need someone to teach this grade. We think if you were the teacher, they would come.”
So I started teaching that class and I clicked with the people at Adas. I started picking up extra work there and my hours [were growing]. I thought if the synagogue can give me full-time work, I’d be able to stay in the area. [Eventually] I pieced together a full-time job.
Did you always intend to have a Jewish-oriented life?
No! I was trying to run away. I really thought after college that I was just going to be a guy, not even a Jewish guy. I thought Moishe House was temporary, I thought the Hebrew school teaching would be a temporary job until I found another job. But I needed a place to live and Moishe House seemed fun. I fell in love with the Hebrew school teaching and now I’m essentially a professional Jew.