About 140 people came to an event to hear about the planned Berkeley Moshav cohousing development, Dec. 8, 2019. (Photo/Deborah Newbrun)
About 140 people came to an event to hear about the planned Berkeley Moshav cohousing development, Dec. 8, 2019. (Photo/Deborah Newbrun)

Jewish cohousing project Berkeley Moshav announces future home on San Pablo Avenue

He’s been dreaming about it for more than a decade. Last night, Berkeley Moshav founding member Roger Studley stepped up to announce the future site of the country’s first Jewish co-housing project.

“And now, the big reveal,” he told a crowd of about 140 people who had gathered at Congregation Netivot Shalom on Dec. 8 to find out more about this experiment in Jewish intentional living.

With a flick of the switch, he projected a map onto the white screen at the front of the room. And there it was: a half-acre of land at 2403-07 San Pablo Ave. in West Berkeley, near the corner of Channing Way. It’s about a half-mile from Conservative Netivot Shalom and Modern Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel — within walking distance of both synagogues, as promised.

“It’s two blocks outside the eruv, unfortunately,” said Studley, referring to the boundaries within which observant Jews can carry objects on Shabbat. “But we’re working on that.”

The cohousing movement was developed in Denmark in the 1960s and moved to the United States three decades later, when Muir Commons opened in Davis. Today there are 168 known cohousing developments in the U.S. “We’re number 169,” Studley said to applause.

Cohousing communities come in a variety of formats, but all share a commitment to encouraging communal engagement and social interaction while preserving individual autonomy. As one member of Swans Market, a cohousing community in downtown Oakland, told the crowd, “Want company? Step outside. Want to be alone? Just shut the door.”

As general interest in cohousing has increased, so has interest in creating similar living arrangements with a Jewish atmosphere. A number of self-described Jewish intentional communities exist in this country, and there’s even a national organization to sustain them. While a few groups have announced plans to create Jewish cohousing, Berkeley Moshav is the only one that has actually purchased a site and is ready to move forward.

Patterned more after the Israeli moshav than the kibbutz model, in that members will own their private homes but maintain extensive common facilities, Berkeley Moshav wants to attract a diverse representation of Jewish households. That presents a central challenge: How can observant and nonobservant Jews share meals and holidays, particularly Shabbat?

Berkeley Moshav founding member Roger Studley introduces the project in Berkeley. (Sue Fishkoff)
Berkeley Moshav founding member Roger Studley introduces the project in Berkeley. (Sue Fishkoff)

That will take creative flexibility, Studley said. For example, the community will maintain “a Shabbat vibe,” respecting the “spirit of Shabbat” in public spaces such as courtyards and the communal dining room, while residents can do as they please in their own homes — so long as it doesn’t infringe on the sensibilities of the more observant (e.g., no loud music).

“The price of this is that everyone will be a little bit uncomfortable,” he said.

Over the next few years, the small buildings on the site will be gutted so the new space can be constructed. The founders’ vision is a multilevel building designed around a courtyard, with the first floor for retail or commercial space and the second floor for the common areas, including the kosher kitchen and communal dining hall. Residences would be on the floors above. Units will range in price and size from what Studley says are “still guesstimates” of $500,000 for a 650-square-foot one-bedroom, to $950,000 for a 1,350-square-foot three-bed, three-bath. Move-in is planned in about 3½ years.

Four families already have committed to the project, and there is room for 20 to 40 in total. The aim is to be multigenerational as well as intentionally Jewish — two of the four committed families have young children, including Studley and his wife, Rabbi Chai Levy, the spiritual leader of Netivot Shalom.

Berkeley Moshav closed on the San Pablo site two weeks ago, thanks to an interest-free loan provided by Hebrew Free Loan, using monies from an anonymous donor-advised fund at the Jewish Community Federation. The loan will be paid back once the homes are built and sold.

“This is the first time we’ve done this,” said Sue Reinhold, the Federation’s director of philanthropy. “It’s a model we think will be successful again and again. We hope to do it more.”

Once the main announcements had been made, the crowd broke up into small groups to ruminate and come up with questions they later posed to Studley and his co-members.

And questions were plentiful. Will there be discounts? (Yes, Studley said, mainly for those who become members early on.) How will decisions be made? What if members’ needs change, and they want a smaller or larger home down the road? What about pets? How will you ensure that all members pull their weight? How many communal meals will there be per week, and how will that work?

To most of those questions, Studley had a simple answer: “Become a member and help us figure it out.”

For more information and to find out about membership, visit berkeleymoshav.net.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.