Moshav planner eyes cohousing for Jews in Berkeley

It’s not as if Yossi and Tamar Fendel were sitting around dreaming about living in a Jewish cohousing complex. But once the Berkeley couple heard that someone they knew was working on building one, they knew they were in.

“We are always trying to get our friends to move nearby,” Tamar Fendel said, “and we find it depressing when we don’t have Shabbat guests. So when we heard about the concept, it felt very true to who we are. I lived in a Jewish co-op while at Cal, and communal living makes a lot of sense to us.”

Roger Studley is one who has been dreaming about this for years. And as the lead organizer of Berkeley Moshav — as he’s calling the nonprofit project — the Jewish community visionary is hoping to make a Jewish cohousing complex a reality in the coming years.

Studley brings some solid credentials into the venture. He was an organizer of Mission Minyan in San Francisco, a co-founder of the East Bay Minyan in Berkeley, co-chair of a Hazon Food Conference and a board member of Berkeley Hillel.

Prospective members of Berkeley Moshav in 2014

Studley and his fellow Berkeley Moshav planners opted to call the project a moshav (where everyone owns their own homes but a certain amount of space is shared) rather than a kibbutz (historically defined as a community in which everything is shared and there is no private property). “Moshav” better suits how this new community will take shape, Studley said.

“With cohousing, you own your own house with your own kitchen and your own space, but on top of the layer of private ownership is another layer of intentional community,” explained Studley, who works as an education research analyst for RTI International.

At Berkeley Moshav, Studley added, there will be a dining room large enough to fit everyone and a big kitchen where residents (by agreement) will cook and eat at least three meals together per week. The architecture will include a play space for children, who will be able to wander from one house to another within the interior of the property; cars will be pushed to the periphery.

“It’s a conscious effort to re-create the neighborhood as we imagined it 50 or 100 years ago,” Studley said, “where you know the people you live with,  have meals with them and take care of them, and see their comings and goings.”

While Studley has been quietly talking about Berkeley Moshav for the past few years, the project is still very much in the planning stages, with no blueprints, location or final list of people who might be living there.

A bit more light will be shed on the project during a talk about the modern kibbutz movement in Israel, and other cohousing, that is scheduled to be given four times from July 11 to 14 (see the end of this article for the schedule). One of the speakers will be James Grant-Rosenhead, who is, among other things, the founder of Kibbutz Mishol, Israel’s largest urban kibbutz.

In addition, two open houses specifically about Berkeley Moshav are penciled in for August.

According to many cohousing communities around North America, the modern theory of cohousing originated in Denmark in the 1960s. Three decades later, Muir Commons in Davis opened and reportedly was the first entirely new cohousing community built in the United States.

Studley said he first came across the cohousing concept in an article he read about 15 years ago. Immediately he thought he’d like to live that way some day, and given his extensive Jewish involvement — his marriage to Rabbi Chai Levy of Congregation Kol Shofar is just the tip of the iceberg — he thought “why not combine these two things?”

A Jewish cohousing complex that supports and encourages Jewish life would be a “Jewish summer camp for adults,” Studley jokingly said. Seriously, though, he added, it would take one of the best things about close-knit Orthodox communities, whose members are always sharing meals and helping each other out, and allow Jews who aren’t necessarily observant to live that way, too.

Over the past few years, Studley started talking about the idea to people he knew. In November 2014, members of 19 households met to hear more, and a subset of those then toured several East Bay cohousing communities to see an “intentional neighborhood” in action. In June 2015, Studley headlined a panel at Limmud Bay Area titled “There’s No Housing Like Co-Housing: Discover the Urban Moshav Jewish Intentional Community in Berkeley.”

A lot has transpired in the last couple of years. Some of the families that were initially interested have dropped out, realizing the project wasn’t quite for them, while others have signed on. Currently, nine households have been meeting twice a month to hash out further details about their vision. They have signed a membership agreement and hired a consultant.

While the goal is for this community to be as diverse Jewishly as possible — meaning all observance levels and including nontraditional families such as single parents and/or LGBT couples — the member families have agreed to having a kosher kitchen and observing Shabbat in communal spaces. There are a few stipulations. For example, vegetarian food without a kosher certificate may be brought into the commual dining room (but not into the kitchen),  and while no one should be on their phones in common areas on Shabbat, it’s OK if someone opts to do laundry on a Saturday morning in an adjoining room.

Studley said he hopes to have 20 to 35 families involved in Berkeley Moshav; research has shown that cohousing communities with those numbers are the most successful, he noted.

Initial steps to find a site will come in the fall, Studley said, adding that his group will have to get creative given the Bay Area’s housing costs. He suggested options such as repurposing something that already exists, or building something new.

One thing the group will not compromise on is its location; Berkeley Moshav must be within two miles of a pair of Berkeley synagogues: Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom (on University Avenue near Sacramento Street) and Modern Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel (on Bancroft Way, eight blocks away). Members of both synagogues are on board with Berkeley Moshav, but they need to be able to walk to shul.

The group is receiving support as part of Hakhel, a U.S.-based incubator for potential Jewish cohousing communities in North America sponsored by the environmental group Hazon, and Urban Moshav, an umbrella group that wants to establish Jewish cohousing in U.S. cities besides Berkeley.

The upcoming talks — titled “Modern Kibbutzim in Israel and the U.S.” — are scheduled to be held at the Jewish Federation of the East Bay in Berkeley (Monday, July 11), Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco (July 12), Mountain View Cohousing (July 13) and Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon (July 14). Each talk will start at 7 p.m. and last approximately 90 minutes.

Studley and Grant-Rosenhead will be the speakers. Grant-Rosenhead is involved with Hakhel and is a leader of Makom, the movement of 200-plus social activist communities in Israel. â– 

Berkeley Moshav is seeking interested parties. For information, visit www.urbanmoshav.org or send an email to berkeley@urbanmoshav.org.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."