Yiddishkeit infuses Berkeley home of tenants-in-common

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And whenever anything breaks, any number of opinions can weigh in on how to get it fixed.

But the four unrelated Berkeley residents who took a big plunge last August by purchasing a home together and creating a Jewish household say their adventure in living has been an unqualified success.

"It's actually better than I expected," said one of the housemates, Marcia Brooks, the 49-year-old executive director of Berkeley's Kehilla Community Synagogue. "It's very nourishing. For me, it's community."

Indeed, their spacious north Berkeley home is the frequent site of Shabbat dinners, spiritual gatherings and sing-alongs. The celebrations, both planned and informal, often draw not only the four housemates but many guests as well.

Visiting rabbis and other out-of-town Jews often stay in a separate guest suite. More than 60 people showed up for Sukkot last year. Their Passover seders drew 18 participants each night and the first one didn't wind down until 2 a.m.

"It was just awesome," said 44-year-old Sharon Tomsky, recalling the singing, reading and overall celebration of their first Passover together. As the second year of their cohabitation approaches, Tomsky, an occupational therapist and dancer, suggests that "we should have an anniversary."

The dedication ceremony they threw shortly after moving in attracted, not surprisingly, a full house.

But all is not one big spiritual party for Brooks, Tomsky and fellow housemates Peter Kreps and Pam Gordon. All have their own careers and private lives.

"We're not all joined at the hip," said Kreps, 51, a former software developer who now designs Jewish meditation cushions.

Each has a separate bedroom. "We each have our own space and for me, it's ideal," said Gordon, the 39-year-old president of a consulting firm. "When I get home, I want to be with my cat upstairs. And any time I want, I can come downstairs and see these lovely people."

Brooks notes that on many weeknights, the housemates are out attending classes or meetings.

Despite their individual spirits, they share a common bond in the Jewish Renewal movement. Brooks, Tomsky and Kreps attend Aquarian Minyan while Gordon goes to services at Kehilla.

The living room, dining room and kosher kitchen they share is filled with their combined collections of Jewish artwork, books and other Judaica. A basket on top of the grand piano is filled with an assortment of brightly colored kippot. The cabinet in their breakfast nook contains a half-dozen or more menorot.

In keeping with the Jewish flavor of their home, they've even hired an "eco-kosher" housecleaner.

Reflecting on the past year, Kreps feels the sum of the experience has been greater than its parts. The shared living arrangement, he said, has helped raise his level of religious observance.

If he were living alone, he said, "I wouldn't be reaching the level of involvement in terms of Jewish events. Actually, I think I have more Jewish involvement than I would in a normal nuclear family. Having other adults to take the initiative is really a blessing."

Kreps believes the tone of hospitality they've set for the home has enriched the Jewish experience for all its inhabitants.

"We have a consciousness about being hospitable and sort of caring about each other." In addition, he said, "music is one thing we do a lot of in this home and it's one of the things that brings us together."

The shared arrangement has its practical side as well. By pooling finances and buying the house as tenants-in-common, the four were able to afford a home far larger and lovelier than any one of them could have purchased on their own.

Kreps and Brooks were longtime friends. Gordon had been sharing a place with Brooks, while Tomsky had been a housemate of Kreps.

"I saw this home and said, 'This is my dream house,'" Gordon said.

On top of that, she recalled, "I was just swept up by the romance of living in a Jewish household."

They put in an offer, drew up a lengthy legal agreement and moved in. Now a year into the enterprise, the romance doesn't appear to have withered.

"It does feel really like a family," said Tomsky.

As with most families, they've developed patterns and routines.

Sometime during the week, the housemates generally review their plans for the coming Shabbat. About twice a month, they'll celebrate together. Whenever anyone invites friends for Shabbat, there's an unstated rule that any of the other housemates is welcome.

Likewise, "when we build a sukkah, it's everybody's sukkah," said Kreps.

Gordon recalls coming home one Saturday evening after boating on the bay. She walked into the backyard and found a group of people gathered for havdallah.

"There were all these wonderful people in a circle, beckoning me to join," she said. "What a treat."