Moishe House hosts ceremony between Jewish, Muslim U. of C. students

left to right
Yitzhak Bronstein, Cat Cleveland, Mati Engel and Dahlia Herzog

Staff Writer

There is a Moroccan tradition called Mimouna that marks the end of Jewish Passover. After eight unleavened, mazo-heavy days, Muslims would bring their Jewish neighbors yeasted bread and join them in a feast.

In one of the many houses in Hyde Park where a mezuzah, a piece of parchment inscribed with Hebrew verses set in a small container, affixes the door frame, University of Chicago graduate student Cat Cleveland wondered how she would commemorate the end of Passover this year.

Her home is Hyde Park’s Moishe House, where four U. of C. graduate students live communally and aim to fill the gap they feel in Hyde Park’s religious and cultural Jewish life for those too old for the undergraduate Jewish organizations. Three of the four, Yitzhak Bronstein, Dahlia Herzog and Mati Engel, study at the Divinity School, and Cleveland is in the Middle Eastern studies program.

In Mimouna, Cleveland was thrilled to find an occasion that could bring the U. of C. Muslim Students Association to Moishe House. She asked them to bring flour. Last Saturday night, they came together for tea and Mofletta, a traditional Jewish Sephardic pancake.

Leyla Abdella, a U. of C. undergraduate and president of the Muslim Students Association, said it was “praiseworthy” that Moishe House revived the tradition and did not want to give the impression that the gathering was about relieving tension. “I don’t like to feed into that narrative that Muslims and Jews need to break bread, because it implies that there’s some inherent reason why we couldn’t get along,” she said.

The Moishe House organization was founded in 2006 in Oakland, California, to give a community space for out-of-college but still unmarried Jews. Today, there are Moishe Houses all over the world. Residents, three to five at a time, receive assistance for renting a home in return for organizing five to seven events a month.

“Moving here, I had heard there wasn’t much in terms of established Jewish community for graduate students,” said Bronstein. He and the three others applied as a group to establish the house in Hyde Park, which opened in September 2017. The four share living expenses and prepare meals together in a Kosher vegetarian kitchen.

They plan programming around Jewish culture, Jewish learning, social justice and social events. The most popular event is the Friday Shabbat dinner, which always begins with ceremony and usually functions as a potluck but changes in form from week to week.

Earlier this month, Moishe House hosted representatives from the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, one of Chicago’s leading social justice organizations, for Shabbat to discuss the Coalition for Police Contracts Accountability’s proposed set of 14 changes to police contracts.

“It was a powerful evening,” said attendee Alex Soble, 29, of Hyde Park. “We studied ancient texts on justice, we studied the Chicago police union contracts, we talked about City Council members and where they stand. I think everyone left the night with a stronger understanding of Chicago’s police union contracts and how urgently we need to change them to create real accountability.”

The four residents are trying to negotiate a place for Moishe House in the broader Jewish ecosystem of Hyde Park, noting that it can be difficult for young adults to engage with it when students only live in the neighborhood for a few years at a time. Bronstein noted that people are unlikely to make a home in a synagogue unless they are religious and that Moishe House wanted to create a space both for religious and secular Jews.

“Judaism doesn’t need a wide tent; it needs a lot of small tents,” he said. “There are people who keep halakha, or Jewish law, strictly, and those who come from completely secular backgrounds, and we strive to make the space comfortable for both of them.”

Cleveland spoke on the Saturday event’s interreligious theme. “As a Passover seder is thinking about who we are as a Jewish people, Mimouna is thinking about who we are as a broader community,” she said to her guests. Then she went into the kitchen to fry Mofletta, which are flipped one on top of another as they cook to create a large stack to be served all at once. Cleveland appreciated the neat parallel between this act and the coming-together event she organized.

The Muslim Students Association at the U. of C. helps its members fulfill spiritual, social, and intellectual needs—its mission statement says “this function is a concerted effort to increase understanding and cooperation through service and education.”

Graduate student Amir Kazi was just thrilled to be there. Referencing his native Pakistan’s strained, diplomatically nonexistent relations with Israel, he said, “This is a chance for me to interact with the Jewish community in a way I couldn’t possibly do otherwise.”

In less than a year, Bronstein said he believed Moishe House had met success with its target audience and the neighborhood Jewish community. “The idea that Moise House would become a community fixture is really exciting to us,” he said.