Ish (stylized as ish), the Cincinnati Jewish cultural engagement organization, has a new home.
On Jan. 19, ish held an open house & fundraiser for its new ish Garage in the heart of Cincinnati’s Northside neighborhood. Meant as a community space, ish envisions the garage as a place to “park yo’self” – that is, a place where you can have a meeting, hang out, use as a coworking space, and create art.
ish began not as a place, but as an event: a semi-annual festival held in Washington Park. The leap from a festival to a garage might not seem an obvious one, but for Lauren Goldberg, ish’s director of communications and brand, it was a natural fit.
“We created this experience for people, and they really connected not just to Jewish culture but Cincinnati history, Jewish art – and so we realized, ‘This is a space for us,’” Goldberg said. So ish turned a metaphorical space into a literal space.
The garage concept is critical for ish, which sees open garage doors as creating a welcoming and open environment for community members.
True to the name, the sides of the historic building open up garage-style, and during the open house, despite the cooler weather, they were wide open. Lights changed colors in the windows of the upper floors, and smooth jazz from a small band wafted out the balloon-decked front door.
In attendance were a diverse crowd: Jews and non-Jews of many genders, ethnic backgrounds, and ages. Artists, ish board members, various community partners, and even residents from the neighborhood came by.
Like the crowd, the food at the open house was eclectic and represented a pluralistic Judaism: everything from certified kosher, catered goods to potluck vegan chili. Over 200 people attended the open house, ish said, and the organization raised over $3,000 to help cover upcoming events.
“[T]o see such a wide array of people from so many facets of our community in our space was simply sublime,” said Christine Chait, the development and events manager for ish.
“All the other Jewish institutions in our city are beautiful and engaging but for generally one demographic,” and aren’t programming with intersectionality in mind, said Chait. “Something we’re harnessing is making these Jewish spaces accessible and available to all.”
At the open house, one woman noted how refreshing the availability of such a space as the ish Garage was in this community. She noted how many kinds of Jews she was seeing at the open house. We need a space like this, she told me; the sort of thing she usually saw provided by Chabad.
Chait said ish wants to have a space where Cincinnati Jews can engage culturally, but not religiously, with their Judaism. Chait, like many area Jewish professionals, can practically quote both the Pew Religious Landscape Study and the more local 2019 Cincinnati Jewish Community Study off the top of her head.
She noted that Americans are less religious than ever, according to the Pew study, and that according to the community study, over half of our Jewish families are interfaith.
That can make some Cincinnati Jews feel like they are forced to make choices about which Jewish spaces they think they’ll be accepted in. But, said Chait, “we make that choice easy because we don’t engage religiously.”
Touring the Garage, you’ll see lots of spaces devoted to different kinds of activity. All areas are available for use or rent, starting with the main space intended for gathering and events. There are tables scattered about, all on wheels, so they can be arranged modularly.
In addition to one-off space rental, ish has also introduced membership plans for the use of the space. “We’re starting to roll out a plan for individuals, businesses, professionals, and teens,” said Goldberg. “People can come in, they can co-work, they’ll have a discount on events, discounts on merch, on tickets… so it will be awesome.”
Up the steep, early 20th-century stairs (historic zoning prevents some updates, Chait told the group) is a surprising variety of spaces that members and others will have access to. There are two fully-furnished, Airbnb-style apartments. A smaller one features a kitchenette, a pull-out sofa and a washer and dryer.
Meanwhile, the large suite features a lofted bedroom, a full-size living area with fireplace, and a real kitchen. Down the hall is a coworking space that could also be used for meetings, which lets out onto a small patio.
These spaces will be used not just as a place people can rent out for guests, visiting synagogue speakers, or whatever needs Jewish Cincinnati might envision, but also as an event space. A local Jewish caterer, Rotem Greniman, and a private chef, Adam Cohen, will soon co-host a pop-up dinner in the room on Valentine’s Day.
The last stop is the loft area at the top of yet more stairs, featuring the desks at which the ish staff themselves work. Back downstairs, down a hall, and past two all-gender restrooms is a small kitchen that can be used during events and serves as a staff eating area.
Finally, the Garage opens up into a large room, also with garage doors, meant to appeal to the teen crowd. There’s a comfortable macrame-style swing, a carefully curated selection of books in a cozy corner, and an entire wall of board games.
Jeanne Bilyeau, a representative of The Friendship Circle, a Chabad Initiative bringing together teen volunteers with children with special needs, was hanging out in this area representing her organization and answering any questions people might have.
The Friendship Circle collaborates with ish, and ish helps them get the word out about their newly-launched initiative, said Bilyeau. There were several Friendship Circle magnets scattered on a nearby locker.
“Normally, we do that at Chabad,” Bilyeau said to a small group asking questions about her organization’s events, her presence speaking to the genuinely pluralistic Jewish space ish is trying – and it seems, succeeding – to create.