Sharsheret partners with Moishe House
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Sharsheret partners with Moishe House

Talking about cancer risks with twenty-somethings

Eliza Carney, left, and David Cygielman
Eliza Carney, left, and David Cygielman

One mission of Sharsheret is to support, educate, and advise young women with cancer and others at high risk for cancer. The mission of Moishe House is to help young “post college, pre-family” Jews organize community activities promoting Jewish culture, knowledge, and tradition. The two organizations once again are teaming up to raise the awareness of young Jewish adults about hereditary issues in breast, ovarian, and other types of cancer. Together, they’re working on “Pink Shabbat” programs for breast cancer and “Teal Shabbat” programs for ovarian cancer for this month.

Ashkenazi Jews carry mutations of the cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 at significantly higher levels than the general population does. Approximately 1 in 40 Ashkenazi Jews may carry a variant of BRCA cancer genes associated with an elevated lifetime risk of breast and ovarian cancer. For many years, Sharsheret has offered educational material and programs to young couples, families, and Jewish college students. There is one demographic group that has received less attention — the single post-college twenty-somethings, some of whom are not formally affiliated with synagogues or other Jewish institutions. Those young Jews may slip through the cracks and miss out on programs offered in schools and shuls, and by other mainstream Jewish organizations.

Sharsheret originally was founded to educate and counsel young women with cancer and their families, and to raise awareness of the issues that Jewish populations at high risk for cancer face. The spectrum of medical choices available now is vast, and more confusing than ever before. Part of the new landscape of medical treatment involves genetic screening, which in many areas of medicine has become a critical part of the medical workup; knowledge of a person’s genetic risk factors for cancer can be essential to determining proper treatment for that person. For example, some people with higher genetic risk may need close surveillance in order to ensure early detection of cancer. That is why Ashkenazi Jews are encouraged to be screened for BRCA mutations so they may learn if they are at an elevated risk for breast and ovarian cancer.

The Sharsheret team reaches out to organizations in the Jewish community to connect with as many people as possible. In this spirit, they have teamed up with Moishe House, an organization that establishes mini-communities of young Jews. The goal of this partnership is to raise awareness and educate that population on issues in cancer biology that affect the Jewish population.

Ellen Kleinhaus of Englewood, Sharsheret’s director of campus and community engagement, explained that the partnership was initiated in 2010. “We have a mutual motivation — to educate young adults, safeguard their health, and save lives,” she said. “Twenty-somethings are at the point in their lives where they are taking on responsibility for their own healthcare as they’re living independently. If we can equip them with resources they will need, then we’ve done our job.”

With the advent of online and direct-to-consumer genetic testing it is more common for young people to be interested in genetic testing, for ancestry as well as health related information. “If they go for genetic screening, we encourage young adults to reach out to Sharsheret to talk to our genetic counselor,” Ms. Kleinhaus said. “When they get results, they can learn what the next steps are. We do know that we’re making a difference in their lives.”

On the other side of this partnership, Moishe House provides funds to establish and guide young post-college Jews in community- based homes. Moishe House residents develop and run Jewish-themed programs for their peers.

Moishe House was founded in California in 2006, by philanthropist Morris Squire (that’s Moishe) and David Cygielman, who saw the need to connect young Jewish adults to Jewish life and community more actively. It started with one Shabbat dinner, and as described on its website, it grew into “a wide variety of peer-led Jewish programs.” The Moshe House concept was to help support “a group of young Jewish adults, living together in a house, hosting Jewish programming for their friends and community.”

“The number of Moishe Houses is growing — currently there are 110 Moishe Houses in 27 countries,” Mr. Cygielman, the organization CEO as well as its co-founder, said. “We provide [guidance on] best practices, a rent subsidy, and a program budget. The young leaders create programs. About 20 people participate in each event, and each house schedules about six events each month.”

Mr. Cygielman reported that the 110 Moishe Houses ran more than 11,000 programs last year. “They are young adults, a pre-married population, so we have quite a few weddings and engagements, and Moishe babies,” he added.

Moishe House helps set up home-based programs in communities the world over. There are three Moishe Houses in Israel (in Be’er Sheva, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem) and others in London, Madrid, Prague, Buenos Aires, Kiev, Moscow, Sydney, and Melbourne, as well as in other cities around the globe.

There are two Moshe Houses in New Jersey, in Hoboken and Montclair, and six more in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Each Moishe House, a subsidized home with two to four residents, runs programs focused on Jewish holidays, Jewish culture, Jewish learning, and tikkun olam, and also hosts other social events. In the Hoboken Moishe House, the two women and one man who live there run programs for young Jews in the area. The organization pays half the rent and provides a $400 program budget every month.

Mr. Cygielman, who lives in Charlotte, N.C. — that’s where Moishe House has its east coast office — with his wife and 2-year-old daughter, said that the houses have “representation across the spectrum” with regard to Jewish observance. “It is peer-driven,” he said. “The largest group is culturally Jewish, secular. Because it is home-based it makes it easier for people to come and bring friends.” He reported that a large number of Moishe House participants went on Birthright Israel, which supports educational trips to Israel for tens of thousands of young Jewish adults every year. “People want to continue the Jewish experience after Birthright,” he said.

“It’s a great space for people to come and explore and determine how Jewish they wish to observe in the future,” Eliza Carney, Moishe Houses’ marketing director, said. “Each house determines for themselves the level of observance. Even the less traditional will do Shabbat candles and challah, at Friday night dinners.”

Last year, 20 Moishe Houses participated in the Pink Shabbat Sharsheret program, Ms. Carney said. Sharsheret now is accepting applications for 2019 Pink Shabbat grants from individual Moishe Houses. “Sharsheret provides program ideas, discussion cards, screening guides, FAQ sheets, and other resources for residents planning the programs,” she continued. “The programs are centered and focused around breast cancer and cancer awareness in general.”

“Young adults are working longer and longer before they settle down and have kids, maybe in their mid-thirties and early forties,” Mr. Cygielman said. Because of this shift in demographics, the collaboration between Sharsheret and Moishe House, raising awareness of cancer risks in post-college young adults, is critical. “To catch cancer on the early side would be a matter of life or death,” he said.

“Partnerships are really important for us,” he added. “We encourage people getting involved in Jewish life outside Moishe House. Our goal is to build bigger Jewish life and community.”

For more information about Moishe House, go to www.moishehouse.org. Sharsheret’s website is www.sharsheret.org, and the joint programs are showcased at sharsheret.org/moishe-house/

Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman, the Jewish Standard’s science correspondent, is a professor of biology at William Paterson University of New Jersey and the author of “The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World” and “Brave New Judaism: When Science and Scripture Collide.”

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