Monday, May 9, 2011

My First Jewish Experience: MH East Bay Glenn Howe

The first Jewish experience I can remember was when I went to a Seder at the local Synagogue in Arcata, the town where I was attending college at Humboldt State University. It was a beautiful ceremony, and the Rabbi emphasized throughout the main principles of freedom, celebration, and above all, community. I loved the songs, the rituals, the symbolism, and the conversation. And drinking 4 cups of wine while reclining came naturally to me as well. I attended a few Shabbats with some close friends of mine after that, and found the song, dance, celebration, and symbolism to be beautiful, compelling, and powerful. After college, I moved back to my hometown of Oakland, where I didn’t many Jewish friends, and so my experience with Jewish culture tailed off. Until I found Moishe House Oakland, that is.
I came to a Moishe House Oakland for the first time in 2009 as a friend of Brady Gill’s, one of the very first Moishe House residents who started one of the founding houses, Moishe House Oakland, back in 2006. “Brady, I’d love to come over, but…I’m not Jewish,” I said. He reassured me that I would be welcome, and so I decided to come over. The event was a great gathering of young, vibrant people, eating good food, singing good songs, and reading stories and poetry to each other in an informal open mic setting—without a mic. Like I said, informal. I had a great time, and thought to myself, “this is a community I’d LOVE to be a part of.” I came to many more events, and got to know the Jewish community that regularly gathered at Moishe House Oakland. I made many friends, and even hosted a couple of events with them. I took everyone to the B.A.D Girls (Bay Area Derby Girls) roller derby in Richmond one evening, where Joshua Walters, current Moishe House East Bay resident ended up getting a gig beatboxing for the derby for the entire season. I also brought my car over one afternoon for the Moishe House Oakland community to “decorate” with spray paint—you may have seen an eclectically painted Nissan Sentra cruising around Oakland, Pac Man on the driver’s side, a Jolly Roger on the passenger side, sea foam cresting off the hood, ocean waves riding along the trunk, and Einstein smiling out from the compass rose on the roof, guiding me along through the Cosmos of the Mac Arthur Maze traffic.
As my involvement with and ties to the Moishe House Oakland community—and particularly its residents—grew deeper, a question arose: Can a non-Jew be a resident in a home dedicated to building Jewish community? At first, the answer was an obvious NO. We laughed at the idea, dreamed of the day when all peoples live in harmony, and then blessed the Shabbat wine and got down to some serious chillaxing—day of rest, and all. But as the weeks and months went by, the question kept coming up, again and again…the residents were looking for another resident to move in and contribute to the project, and not finding the right person…I was living on my boat—a romantic, but lonely adventure—and was looking for a community to call home. I already had a strong connection to the residents and community, and a knack for helping with and hosting events…the only problem…not Jewish. We’d ask ourselves the question again, and one of us would invariably stop, look at the group, pause, and say, “Not Jewish.” We’d laugh and get back to Mario Karts, Baking Challah, and singing our favorite Jewish songs--mine happens to be “Hinei Ma Tov,” which I play beautifully on guitar, ukulele, and kazoo, in case anyone’s asking.
Then Passover came, the Afikomen was hidden, and when we all searched for it, low and behold, I was the one who found it! Sacrilege? Maybe. Or, beautiful synchronicity? I say yes to the latter. I held it aloft with excitement, uncertainty, and anticipation, and Joshua Walters saw me and burst into a grin. I said, “what do I win?!” Josh said, “You get to live in Moishe House.” A joke, of course…but when I submitted my application to Dave Cygielman, CEO of Moishe House, he invited me in for an interview, and said YES. “YES, Glenn Howe, you can be a resident of Moishe House. You’ve already made an obvious contribution to the community, and are dedicated to the project. We’d love to have you.” The only proviso: There should be at least 4 other Jewish roommates, to make sure that we’re still a majority-Jewish household that will be inviting to young Jews who are looking for a strong, vibrant Jewish community. Done. I became a member, and have LOVED the opportunity to exercise my community building muscles. I don’t have a strong background in Jewish learning, naturally, but I’m able to make a valuable contribution to the community none-the-less because of my propensity to connect with people of all walks. Come to the Moishe House East Bay and I’ll greet you at the door, offer you food and drink, and sit down with you and connect, 1-on-1. The songs, tradition, and rituals of Jewish culture still speak to me with the same clear, simple message that I learned on that first Passover dinner in a synagogue in Arcata: Freedom, Celebration, and—above all—Community. If my presence here in Moishe House East Bay says anything, it says that this community is strong, inclusive, and welcoming. Those are values that I can get behind.


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