Madison Holt, 22, graduated from Indiana University this year and moved to Seattle, in part because of its thriving Jewish community.
Holt was accepted to live in the Seattle Central District’s newly opened Moishe House, a co-living house for young Jewish adults in the same neighborhood where Seattle’s first Jewish community put down roots in the 1890s. After two years of pandemic distancing and life in a world where antisemitism is on the rise, Holt and her Moishe House roommates are finding solace and taking pride in this community they’re creating in the CD.
Holt, who is from Bethesda, Maryland, said she faced on-campus antisemitism regularly in Indiana. She felt afraid to be Jewish; she’d never felt that way back home. Just existing as a Jewish student was draining.
Instead of hiding her faith, Holt became more active in a Jewish student group. The group put up mezuzas, a spiritually elevating religious symbol, across campus. Holt realized the value both in having a tight-knit support system and in celebrating her culture.
“Purposely being a part and creating community became my way of being like, ‘I’m alive, I’m Jewish and I’m happy,’” Holt said.
At the Moishe House, Holt and her roommates, three other Jewish 20-somethings, are doing just that: creating a community. In fact, creating community is in the rules for their co-living situation.
The nonprofit Moishe House was founded in 2006 to solve a community problem for young Jews: Those who were too old for college groups and too young for synagogues (more geared toward full-fledged adults and families) had limited options to stay in touch with their religious community.
In Moishe Houses, three to five residents (ages 21 to 32) live together in rent-subsidized houses, usually in the hearts of major cities. The residents must host around five or so community events a month for other young Jews.
Sixteen years after its founding, more than 70,000 young people live together in Moishe Houses in more than 27 countries. In the beginning, Moishe House tried to establish hubs primarily in places with small existing Jewish communities, according to a New York Times article. In Seattle, Moishe House is now doing something new: reviving Jewish history.
Back to the roots
The new Seattle house, which replaced a Moishe House in North Seattle that closed in 2021 and joins a two-person “pod” in South Seattle, establishes a Jewish community in a neighborhood Jews helped build.
Back in the day, from the 1890s until World War I, Sephardic Jews set up temples, delis, markets and their lives in the Central District. Over time, they left for and settled in the more suburban parts of Seattle, such as Seward Park.
Moishe House roommate Clara Prizont, 24, who was raised in Seward Park as an Orthodox Jew, is familiar with the legacy of her community’s past in the Central District.
Every time her mom drove by the Central District’s Tolliver Temple Church of God in Christ, she would say, “That used to be our synagogue!” The church still bears Stars of David, signs of its past life as the Sephardic Bikur Holim synagogue.
“Everyone who’s been in the Seattle Jewish community is like, ‘Oh, the Central District?’” Prizont said. “‘You’re going back there?’”
Of course, the Central District’s landscape has vastly changed. After the Jewish community moved out, the area became Seattle’s predominantly Black neighborhood and stayed that way for decades. These days, well over half the Central District is white. A lot of this demographic change is tied to rising rents and skyrocketing home prices.
In Seattle, where rents are up nearly 25% compared with this time last year, the Moishe House’s rent subsidy can make a difference for young people trying to live in the city.
Prizont, a community connections associate with Jewish Family Service of Seattle, couldn’t afford to live in the Central District without Moishe House. The nonprofit subsidizes their $5,500 rent by 50%.
Prizont explained how she and her roommates are intentionally bringing pieces of the historical Jewish community and the new Jewish community together. For their house’s first event in August, Leschi Market — a Jewish-owned family business which used to be based in the CD back in the ‘40s — donated food.
The history and the community still remain, Prizont said, even as the Jewish population has waned. She described a bus stop not far from the Moishe House covered in Yiddish words.
“It’s somewhat underground,” she said, “but there’s a really vibrant Jewish community still in the CD.”
A new kind of Jewish community
Before moving here, Holt knew she’d be welcomed in Seattle, that she’d have a home. And just weeks into knowing each other, she and Prizont got along like old pals. Prizont had already given her a nickname: “Moose.”
Still, it was hard to shake old habits and fears.
“The first week I was here,” Holt said, “I asked if it was safe to wear my Jewish star.”
Her roommates assured her it was fine, but the base instinct isn’t necessarily unique even for Jews in Seattle. Nationally, the Anti-Defamation League recorded 2,717 antisemitic acts in 2021, a 35% uptick compared with 2020. Washington state recorded 45 antisemitic incidents in 2021 and 50 in 2020. In January, a rabbi found hateful graffiti a block away from his job at the Jewish Family Service of Seattle building near the Central District.
“Safety is something we’re thinking a lot about,” Prizont said. “We don’t publish our address online.”
Surrounding themselves with community helps assuage some fears associated with life in a United States where nearly 25% of young Americans either believe the Holocaust didn’t happen or believe conspiracies that the tragedy was exaggerated.
Prizont, Holt and their two other roommates have events planned throughout the month to bring young Jewish adults together, like an evening of astrology and Judaism for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. On days when they don’t host events, Holt said the Moishe House has an unofficial open-door policy. Anyone can drop by. And people do.
Per Nicole Tafoya, Moishe House’s West Coast director of advancement, 76% of Moishe House residents said their participation in the program helped them cope with the pandemic.
Now that we’re slowly emerging from COVID-19 social hibernation, Prizont and Holt said they think people are hungry for in-person human connection. They’ve seen a big response to the events they’ve hosted so far, including song sessions, a baking fundraising party for unhoused youth, bagel brunches, a shabbat dinner with local Ethiopian food and more.
Tafoya explained that these social opportunities are all part of the nonprofit’s mission to facilitate a connection to the Jewish community for young people.
“Rather than prescribing a single way to be Jewish or build Jewish community,” Tafoya said via email, “young adults are empowered and supported with the tools to explore their own identities and cultures, and consequently, find deeper and more relevant paths to build their own Jewish lives.”
Each member of the Moishe House in Seattle’s Central District has a different relationship with Judaism. For instance, Prizont was raised Orthodox, but no longer is, and Holt was raised with a Jewish mom and a Catholic dad.
“It doesn’t matter how Jewish you are — and even if you’re not Jewish — you’re welcome at Moishe House,” Holt said.