Josh Powell writes on how the pandemic has radically altered the means of engagement with young Jews for residents of the Hackney social action hub.
At the beginning of March last year, I moved into the new Moishe House in East London with three of my friends. As we unpacked our suitcases in our Hackney residence, all we could talk about was our excitement for the Friday night dinners we would host, the Shabbat candles we would light and the social action events we could run.
We couldn’t wait to start hosting activities and build our community of fellow young Jewish professionals. But a week later, the government announced the first national lockdown.
Still we remained optimistic. We had a full three months to get settled, get to know the area and furnish our house for all the guests we were expecting to welcome. Little did we know that those 12 weeks would turn into a year, earning us the dubious distinction of being the first Moishe House to have never hosted an in-person event!
My fellow residents (Fran, Lauren, Rosa) and I had grown up together through LJY-Netzer, the youth movement for Liberal Judaism, where we learnt the value of leading Jewish communities. After graduating from university and pondering the next stage of our lives, we turned to Moishe House because it enables people of our age to create a Jewish community hub.
And although we have not yet been able to physically welcome people into our home for dinner parties, the pandemic has afforded us the opportunity to get creative. Over the year, we have experimented with every platform we could think of — from video chat to social media and even the postal service — to start building our community remotely.
It has definitely been a different experience for all of us and there have been some real standout moments. The convenience of Zoom enabled us to run Sephardi Stories, where community members shared their family history, discovering in the process that many of their stories run parallel to others. During our succah building livestream, I received a message from my mum that I was “using pop’s hammer” that he had always used to construct our family succah. Though Covid has prevented us from making in-person connections, it’s pushed us to engage with our community in ways we would have never considered before the pandemic.
So being this very unconventional Moishe House is all that we have known. We have built our community from the ground up and our virtual model has allowed us to reach people across the UK.
This approach has been very rewarding and many people have told us that the virtual programming we offer has been a real support system for them. For those who have needed to isolate, or been unable to see others physically during the pandemic, Moishe House has enabled them to stay connected and build new friendships.
As we look forward, one of our biggest challenges will be applying what we’ve learnt as a virtual Moishe House to in-person programming.
Luckily, we recently gained a new resident, Farrah, who can offer a fresh perspective.
In particular, we can’t wait to begin to capitalise on the area we’ve moved to. Hackney was once the centre of Jewish life in London and in recent years young Jews have been returning to the area and reinvigorating it with a modern twist. East London events such as the drag night “Homos and Hummus” are a great example of this. We are also looking forward to maintaining the relationships we’ve built with organisations including the World Uyghur Congress, René Cassin and Jewish Care and hope to be able to run some impactful social action events in partnership with them.
Despite our excitement for all the possibilities on the not-too-distant horizon, we want to ensure we don’t lose the connections we’ve made with our friends who live further afield. We’re envisioning a hybrid model where we combine in-person programming with virtual webinars and livestreams. We can’t imagine living anywhere but Moishe House and as we reopen in 2021 we are confident that we can adapt to whatever the future holds, together with the Jewish community we have built over the past year.