The idea for a Reform Bayit in Berkeley was conceived in the Spring of 1980 and was modeled after collective Jewish houses on other college campuses. Jason Gwasdoff, Marcy Fox, and Karen Desser were the Berkeley students who took the initiative for beginning the project. They felt it was important, as Reform Jews, to live in an environment that encouraged active participation in Progressive Judaism, community, and personal growth. Other Jewish students at Berkeley shared this belief in taking responsibility for the development of their Jewish identities, and eight other students soon joined in the establishment of the Berkeley Bayit at 19 Hillside Court in September of 1980.
The Berkeley Bayit was founded with an ideology. The functional
running of the eleven-member household with work shifts, shopping, meal
preparation, and community service was organized after the model of a
Kibbutz, stressing the ideological importance of work as an expression
of commitment to the group ideal. This same commitment to community was
expressed in the discussions and practice of Shabbat t'fillot
and Holiday celebrations, and the active relationship to Israel and Zionism.
It is essential that Bayit Members realize the goal of the Berkeley Bayit
to be the strengthening of individual and communal commitment to Judaism
and Zionism through active exploration and participation.
At its inception in 1980, the Berkeley Bayit program was endorsed by the Union of American Hebrew Congregation's College Education Department. Resources of the UAHC were made available for educational, communal, and religious development and programming.
In 1982 the owner of 19 Hillside Court wished to sell the property. UAHC had a program to encourage Jewish community at college campuses and undertook to purchase to purchase the property, the LeConte Manor (a Julia Morgan designed house circa 1908) in 1982. From 1982 until 1989 the Bayit was overseen by the Regional Director of UAHC and the Director of UAHC Camp Swig. Most of the Bayitniks at the time were former Swig Counselors.
The Bayit became a place of Jewish community for both the members and the Berkeley Jewish community. The Bayit sponsored a number of events each year, including: a break fast after Yom Kippur, Sukkot Party, Open Shabbatot, Chanukah Party, Havdallot, Pesach Seders, and discussions.
In 1988 the UAHC National Committee strongly desired Camp Swig to get out of the college housing business and a group of Northern California Jewish leaders (including those who originally worked on purchasing the Bayit) worked with the students to acquire the house from UAHC. Major donations from UAHC Camp Swig, the Koret, and Haas foundations, and the parents of the Bayitniks (Raquel Newman, Rob and Ruth Fox, Cissie Geballe, Miriam Manber, and Debbie Truwich) enabled the purchase of the Le Conte Manor from UAHC in 1989. Critical support came from the original Bayit Corporation board (Lenonard Cohn, Karen Goldberg, Aaron Greenberg, Tom Lowenstein, James Sammet, and Shirley Tartak) and a number of other benefactors. This new independent board took over ownership of the house and management of the Bayit.
When the new Board took over, they undertook a series of major renovations on the Le Conte Manor including a new roof, kitchen, electrical system, plumbing and repairs to the foundation and other structures.
In the early years filling the house was usually fairly easy (though from time to time there were years where it was a stuggle), but by 1995 the loss of subsidy from outside organizations and the effect of rent control on the Berkeley housing market led to several years where it was difficult or impossible to completely fill the Bayit and with the need to refinance the mortgage in 1995, serious consideration was given to winding up operations and selling the Bayit. The existing Board was having trouble perpetuating itself as most of the members had served since the Bayit's inception.
The Bayit limped along until 1997 when the existing mortgage was again due for refinancing and once again it appeared that the Bayit could not be filled for the following year.
Several of the Bayitniks at the time, pushed hard for the continuation of the Bayit. One of the Bayitnik’s parents agreed to guarantee the loan on the house, and a new board member was found though a chance conversation at Berkeley Hillel’s Conservative Minyan one Friday night. By dint of a poster campaign enough students were found to fill the Bayit for another year.
In 1997 and 1998 a complete changeover in the makeup of the Board, began and strong programming by the Bayitniks made filling the house easier. By 2000 none of the original Board members was still on the Board and a new Board had been recruited (filled through chance meetings of former Bayitniks) had taken over responsibility for the Bayit. The new Board has a much heaver representation of recent Bayit alumni than in the past and has a closer relationship with the Bayitniks than was the previous practice. The Board generally has its meetings at the house so that the Bayitniks can actively participate in the business of running the cooperative.
The end of Rent Control changed the housing market in
Berkeley and along with a surge in Jewish activity at Berkeley
Hillel, the Bayit again had two or three times as many applicants
as places. A gradual increase in contract charges allowed a renewed repair
program including fixing the wooden steps, replacing the galvanized pipe
upstairs, adding DSL and a LAN, and reconstructing half of the kitchen.
Later, part of the house was resided and the concrete sidewalks and steps
replaced. Recently the floors were refinished, the plaster was repaired
and the interior was fully repainted, and a new set of light fixtures
was installed. In 2009 the Bayit got a fresh coat of paint on the inside
and two of the bathrooms were redone. In 2010 there was new dining room
furniture and yet another new range. In 2012 a new water heater was installed
and over the summer the upstairs floors were redone. The renovation goes
The Bayit continues to provide a Jewish home to (now) 12 students and serve the community thought its regular programming and by providing a place for other students to enjoy a Jewish environment. Since it is no longer affiliated with UAHC, it has a weaker connection to the Reform movement. Recent membership has come from all three movements. It also has a closer tie with Berkeley Hillel. Both are a result of Hillel becoming more pluralistic in membership since the 1980's (when the Bayit was seen as a necessary adjunct to the more Conservadox focus of Hillel at the time). The Bayit now focuses on seeking to provide a somewhat less institutional environment since Hillel's enormous success has made it a rather overwhelming experience for some people.
Current financial support for programming comes from Alumni and the Sinai Memorial Chapel.
The Berkeley Bayit
19 Hillside Ct.
Berkeley, CA 94704