An Urban Kibbutz Kitchen — On the Upper West Side

Outside, the Bayit looks unassuming. Inside, you’ll find a boisterous urban kibbutz centered around a kitchen shared by 28 people.

I try to pour myself a bowl of Cocoa Puffs… I’m excited about this rare and special breakfast.

The box is empty.

I’m quite disappointed — and surprised that we’ve finished one large box after only a single day. (Should I have put two boxes on yesterday’s Westside Market grocery list? How much does each box of Cocoa Puffs cost? Could we buy these for cheaper at Costco instead?)

Within this kitchen you will find the heart of my home — — where I serve as the kitchen manager. Around and inside our industrial-sized fridge, my 27 housemates fight over the last Chobani yogurt, organize bulk leftovers from large Shabbat meals and fundamentally build our chaotic and cooperative Jewish intentional community.

Columbia University undergrads and graduate students reside in our six-story brownstone and share this kitchen. Together, we make up a community known formally as Beit Ephraim, which we affectionately call “the Bayit” (literally, “home”). The Bayit community has called this building home since the 1970s and is much like seven other Bayit communities on other American college campuses, including UCLA, UC Berkeley and Wesleyan.

Our house runs on the labor and love of each resident; each individual contributes to keeping our large and loud home running in some way through toranut — a “chore,” or role. I was elected into the position of the Bayit’s kitchen manager at the beginning of this semester: I manage our grocery lists, take inventory and keep the large fridge organized. Others at the Bayit take on rotational weekly tasks like dropping off our large frozen trash bag of compost, or other semester-long positions like Sunday morning bagel-shopper and mail-sorter.

Some residents choose to devote some extra time to caring for our home by running for executive board or shopper positions. Our E-board meetings usually keep to a strict hour-limit every Monday night, while our house-wide meetings last much longer: the more people present, the more issues come up, the more opinions at the table. (I once led a unexpectedly five-hour meeting… I’m certain that set a new record, but our house-wide meetings are generally long and filled with love, tension, laughter and many, many votes.) This pseudo-socialist urban kibbutz can be crazy and chaotic, and also so beautifully influential on our Jewish identities.

While mine is a demanding role, it also lands me front and center for much of the love, anxiety, cooperation and tension that exist within this home’s nucleus. Our community sprouts from the kitchen, in which pairs of residents prepare dinner for the entire house every weeknight. As kitchen manager, I support this process of keeping my housemates happy, healthy and well-fed.

The role is a blessing, and the tasks are endless. I get to navigate kashruth challenges (does our house-rabbi approve of the hekhsher — kosher certification — on this delicious roll of sourdough?) and scheduling chaos (which of our six shoppers will buy the ingredients for this Thursday night’s meal?).

My job as kitchen manager certainly puts the onus on me to ensure all members’ hearts and stomachs remain nourished. I exchange emails with our home’s meal coordinator, Jenn, about whether the majority of Bayitniks will be upset or excited to have two salmon-based meals this week, or if eight boxes of tofu will be sufficient to serve our entire home at next week’s Monday night dinner.

Living at the Bayit requires members to be committed and interested in more than a kosher kitchen or a group of people to celebrate and keep the Sabbath with. At each moment, being a resident here requires that you consider your communal obligations, your role in building our home around the kitchen and dining room table, and our impact on the broader world.

In our kitchen and dining room, we try to live out our values of sustainability and avoiding waste. Many residents are vegetarians, though not all. We work cooperatively to minimize waste by emphasizing slogans like “first in, first out” (older groceries should be consumed first) and making impromptu Sunday evening meals out of the week’s leftovers. I encourage our housemates to use up the food we already have in place of buying something new; in the past, this has led to a debate about whether Frank’s Red Hot and Sriracha have significantly different purposes. A trash bag stored in the freezer fills to the brim with compost, and is taken to the local farmer’s market by a different housemate every Sunday.

We memorize each other’s allergies and intolerances, and navigate the challenges that arise daily when sharing a space with so many people. We turn off lights after each other, and I know that I can always find someone seated at our dining room table who’s willing to eat the other half of the avocado I just cut open.

Over the three years that I’ve lived at the Bayit, I’ve watched this house transform each semester, to be a true home to all kinds of people — Jewish residents from a wide array of backgrounds. I’m honored to be the kitchen manager, a role which has already granted me the opportunity to spend hours in the heart of our home, and to think through the challenges and blessings of living in a messy (and sometimes “mouse-y”) commune, filled with 28 residents who care so much about each other and their community. Life at the Bayit is filled with daily lessons in patience and gratitude, packaged in all shapes, sizes… and sometimes empty cereal boxes.

Dani Kohanzadeh, a Hazon intern, is graduating in May from the Joint Program between Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she has studied Philosophy and Jewish Ethics. She loves cooking for others and especially enjoys making over-easy eggs, Persian herb-filled rice and colorful salads for her housemates.

An Urban Kibbutz Kitchen — On the Upper West Side

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