A group of early Bayit residents at a wedding in 1985.
A group of early Bayit residents at a wedding in 1985.

Jewish student co-op in Berkeley celebrates the big 4-0

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When Lesley Said Matsa was at UC Berkeley in the early 2000s, living away from home for the first time, she felt lost as Passover approached. She realized how helping her family cook and clean prepared her mentally for the holiday.

Good thing she knew about the Berkeley Bayit.

The communal, off-campus house built in 1908 is a place where Jewish students live together and host holiday events — so Matsa asked if she could come over and help cook for the seder.

“We had a barely functional oven, and it was a crowd of novice cooks,” she recalled. “But it was so full of energy and love, I knew I was home.”

Matsa went on to live there for three years.

“Living in the Bayit is a long-term gift,” she said. “It’s a connection to a community that spans generations.”

On Jan. 31, Matsa shared those sentiments with more than 150 people who had also lived in the bayit (the Hebrew word for house) in a Zoom celebration marking the co-op’s 40th anniversary.

It’s a milestone that the founders never imagined back in 1980, when 11 Cal students moved into a Julia Morgan–designed house on Hillside Court near the football stadium.

Though its original members were largely affiliated with the Reform movement — in fact, there was a direct link between Camp Swig counselors who attended Cal and the Bayit — one didn’t have to be Reform to live in the seven-bedroom house (or eight, depending on who was counting).

Affixing the Bayit mezuzah.
Leonard Cohn, then a Reform movement lay leader and  chair of the Bayit board, affixes the house’s first mezuzah.

After several years, the owner of the house decided to sell, and the residents of the Bayit wondered if they’d be able to hold on to it. With the help of their parents, Jewish community leaders, and grants from the Reform movement and some big, local foundations (with the names Haas and Koret in their titles), they were able to buy the house, ensuring future generations would be able to experience what they did.

Karen Goldberg, an environmental attorney who lives in Albany, was a founding resident and is the Bayit’s current board chair. She attributed its longevity to the fact that “there’s a strong desire to live communally and collectively, and form a household that’s a living situation for exploring Judaism at home, but also to be a center for the community. College is such a great place for it because it’s where we start to figure out who I am and what do I want to create for myself in my adult life?”

At the Bayit, Goldberg found the confidence to lead a Torah service as well as a Passover seder for the first time — skills that she took with her into her adult life. And she remains in close contact with her cohort, as do many of those who have lived there.

Additionally, she said, “Regardless of background, we came out of living there with a wide appreciation for the range of ways people experience and express their Jewish identity.”

Among the more than 350 Bayit alumni are 10 rabbis, two cantors, a variety of Jewish communal leaders and Jewish educators and nine marriages. A daughter from one of those marriages has now lived there, as well. Around 10 former residents have also made aliyah, and some of those participated in the Zoom celebration even though it was 2 a.m. in Israel.

During the program, the chat was filled with comments from people excited to see each other, albeit online, after so many years. Other sentiments were expressed, too, such as “living there set me on the path to rabbinical school” and “it took me years to be able to cook less than 15 potatoes.”

Berkeley Bayit alumni at a wedding in 2016.
Berkeley Bayit alumni at Karen Goldberg’s wedding in 2016.

The program featured a video tour of the house as it looks today, with introductions to current occupants. Obviously, their experiences are different from their predecessors due to Covid-19.

As current resident Ron Barzilay shared, all of their classes are online, they spend way more hours on screens than they’d like, and they can’t host events — a primary Bayit function — or socialize with others outside the house.

“But we’re together each Shabbat, as well as spending practically every other moment together,” he said, “and I couldn’t be happier about it.”

The Zoom event included a moment to say Kaddish for seven deceased “Bayitniks” (as current and past residents are called), including Marla Bennett, who was killed in the 2002 Hebrew University cafeteria bombing, and four board members who have died.

At the end, following a fundraising pitch, former residents went into breakout rooms with those from their year, with multiple-year residents toggling between several rooms.

Most of the founding members who spoke shared a variation of the sentiment that when they were creating the Bayit, they never dreamed they’d be celebrating its existence so many years later.

Said Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff, spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Stockton and another founding resident: “This was going to be a community self-defined by its members, an urban kibbutz of sorts, where we worked toward a commitment to the group ideal, where Shabbat and Jewish holidays were celebrated, where Jewish traditions were honored and challenged in a respectful fashion, making it a center for Reform Jewish life on campus. It grew to be much more than that. It grew to be a really fun and exciting place to live.”

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."