Bringing It All Back Home

A few at a time, more than 50 men and women strolled up the curving hillside cul-de-sac in the hills of Berkeley, Calif., toward the great old house — all smiles and filled with happy memories.

Inside they hugged hello, ate and drank, complimented one another’s adorable kids and caught up on all that’s happened since last they met — a typical family reunion.

Except they’re not related, at least not by blood. They’re alumni of the Berkeley Bayit, which celebrated its 25th anniversary with a reunion Sunday and claims to be the nation’s oldest, continually running Jewish campus communal home. What began as a small, informal student havurah evolved into a sort of urban kibbutz, a chain of life-long friends that has grown by a dozen per year into what now seems a huge family.

Yet the bayit was and is about more than communal cooking, cleaning and social occasions. Students from diverse backgrounds have challenged and built on one another’s conceptions of Judaism here for a quarter-century, making an incubator of rabbis, Jewish educators, community leaders and volunteers.

“It helped us crystallize the concept and value of Jewish community, the value of debate. We debated Jewish ritual and life to the wee hours of the morning, as you only do in college years,” said founding bayitnik Barry Cohn, 45, of San Francisco.

He and Debbie Trubowitch met at the bayit in 1980, and they said they spent seven nights debating whether their dating would harm the bayit’s greater good. Their three daughters probably believe they reached the right decision, as would the greater Jewish community; the San Francisco-area Jewish Community Federation has honored each of them as Volunteer of the Year.

Like most bayitniks, they were active in Jewish youth groups and camps earlier on, but they credit the bayit as a formative experience.

“So much of it was experimentation,” said Debbie Cohn, 45, former associate director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Yet so much of it was like coming home, too. “I thought I was the lone Reform Zionist in the world… and suddenly I wasn’t an individual, I was part of a movement and it was very exciting.

“But I don’t think any of us thought we were going to be standing here 25 years later.”

It began in the spring of 1980 with a handful of Reform Jewish student group leaders who thought that living under one roof could further focus their commitment to Judaism and Zionism. They were inspired by a bayit at University of California, Los Angeles, that, but for a five-year interim stint as a homeless shelter, has been open since 1974.

They found a house for rent, but not just any: Tucked behind Berkeley’s fraternity row next to a vegetarian co-op, 19 Hillside Court was designed circa 1908 by famed Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan as a home for renowned professor and Sierra Club cofounder Joseph LeConte.

“It was more than we bargained for, but we said, ‘Hey, this could be something more than we were thinking,’” said founding bayitnik Jason Gwasdoff, 47, who in 1980 was a campus organizer for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union of Reform Judaism).

Gwasdoff remembers convincing the landlord to rent to a bunch of Jewish student activists, and then making a late-night, keyed-up phone call to UAHC regional president Len Cohn, Barry Cohn’s father.

The UAHC, aggressively courting college students back then, made a $10,000 loan for a lump-sum rent payment, supporting the bayit’s programs for two years. Then the UAHC bought the house outright.

“Everything was from the ground up; every decision we made was a huge ordeal,” recalled founding bayitnik Marci Fox Greene, 45. And this meant everything from how kosher the kitchen would be — as kosher as the most kosher bayitnik, then and now — to how much to spend on groceries. “I was emotionally, intellectually, spiritually challenged on a daily basis.”

Gwasdoff remembers the interminable Sunday-night meetings fondly. “You know the old saying: ‘You put two Jews in a room, and you get three opinions,’” he said.

“But that’s what made it more than just a house — that’s what made it into this collective where we shared in each other’s lives and defined who we were,” he said, noting that the bayit soon transcended its own walls to become a focal point for Jewish campus life — especially at the monthly potluck Sabbath dinner.

“It was so crowded, you couldn’t move; the living room was stuffed with people from wall to wall,” he said. And when services and dinner were done, someone might put on a Rolling Stones record so that the dancing could start.

The UAHC’s 1989 sale of the house to the bayit’s nonprofit corporate board began a transformation from Reform enclave to a more diverse minicommunity, a counterpoint to Berkeley’s Hillel: As one tilted more toward Reform, the other tilted more toward Conservative and Orthodox. But while a few foundations had helped the board buy the bayit, there were no ongoing subsidies and Berkeley’s rent-control ordinance was making student housing easier to find; by the mid- to late 1990s, the bayit was struggling to stay afloat.

Wholesale board turnover between 1997 and 2000 helped reinvigorate management, even as aggressive recruiting work by the bayitniks themselves kept the home’s dozen slots filled. Today the bayitniks foot the mortgage bills while the board raises money from donors — mostly alumni and their families — for programming and renovations.

Eight of today’s 10 board members are former residents. Sarah Zitsman, 24, 2000-01 bayitnik, joined the board right after graduating with a religious studies degree. She’s now the religious school administrator at Berkeley’s 600-household Congregation Beth El, so she can immediately start giving back to an institution that gave her so much.

“This house does such amazing things for people,” she explained simply.

Athalia Markowitz, 21, a senior from nearby Albany, Calif., is in her second year as a bayitnik. Learning to cook for 12 has been an adventure, she quipped — “I end up eating a lot while I’m cooking, that’s the only way I get through it” — before acknowledging how she has flowered at the bayit. “I’m giving advice now instead of other people advising me. I’m much more vocal when something around the house needs to be done… I take the lead a little more often than I did.”

The bayit family has shared its joys — so many marriages, scores of babies — and its tragedies. Many fondly recall 1998-2000 bayitnik Marla Bennett, who was killed in a July 2002 bombing at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Sunday’s reunion included a memorial for 1984-85 bayitnik Loren Frankel, who died in a car accident late last year.

LenCohn remains on the bayit’s board and is now Berkeley Hillel’s president; his wife, Robbie, is first vice president of the nonprofit Sinai Memorial Chapel, the Bay Area’s only Jewish funeral home, and a philanthropic supporter of the bayit. Standing in the dining room Sunday with bayitniks’ children gleefully tearing around the house, they recalled that long-ago, late night call from Gwasdoff.

“We had no idea,” Cohn said, fairly brimming with nachas. “Exciting is not even the word… it’s thrilling.”

Gwasdoff couldn’t attend Sunday’s reunion — as rabbi of Stockton, Calif.’s Temple Israel, he had Sukkot duties to fulfill — but he is grateful for what the bayit has brought his life. “That sense of community, of kehila, that I experienced living in the bayit is something I’ve always tried to bring to the congregations I’ve served.”

“We were pioneers; there was that feeling of newness and excitement,” he said, guessing that most bayitniks from later years must feel the same. “I know it definitely must still carry some essence of that excitement and that community, or else it wouldn’t be there 25 years later.”

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