What’s So Jewish About Communal Living?

Cohousing reminds me of the ways Judaism has taught us to come together to access the true richness of community.

It was a Sunday afternoon in January, and my partner Mariel and I were living out a parody of the 30-Somethings On Zillow “SNL” sketch. While we were doing some amount of salivating at the beautiful homes we’d never be able to afford to buy, we were also semi-seriously sorting through 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom homes in our newly-realized dream city of Northampton, Massachusetts. (It has Jews, queers and nature. Case closed). I wanted something walking distance from downtown — if we were going to be leaving Brooklyn, I needed coffeeshops to soften the wound. Mariel wanted a big yard with space — for gardening, our dog and potentially future chickens. We winced at beautiful, nearly 150-year old Victorian-style homes in need of major renovations. “We’re just not those types of lesbians,” we joked.

Then Mariel saw something that caught their eye. She clicked. It was a 3-bed, 2-bath, but it was both smaller and more expensive than all the other homes we had been glancing at. That was because the house was recently constructed and part of a new cohousing community a mile from the city center. “What’s cohousing?” I asked.

Mariel looked at me seriously. “It’s perfect for us. You’d love it. It’s intentional, semi-communal, intergenerational housing. Let’s email them.”

Cohousing did seem perfect for us. As community-minded individuals who had both dabbled in some sort of shared or cooperative Jewish living in our early 20s, there was an allure to the concept, which prioritized hyper-local organizing, mutual aid and self-governance. We also recognized it as a community-supported way to become first time homeowners, as well as a values-aligned framework within which we could grapple with the complexity of familial wealth, class privilege and financial literacy that made it possible for us to even consider (and be considered) to purchase property.

We did some more research. Cohousing, we learned, originated in Denmark in the 1960s as a way for a single mom to obtain shared childcare responsibilities in conjunction with her neighbors. The concept migrated to North America, and cohousing communities started forming throughout the continent. Most cohousing communities look like a series of houses or condos, with homes that are attached or semi-attached, grouped around a shared Common House, garden and other amenities. Many cohousing communities emphasize sustainability through smaller home footprints, ecological stewardship of the community’s land and shared resources. Some cohousing communities share cars or childcare, many have weekly community meals and all engage in some form of self-governance that require full community participation and collaboration.

The community we ultimately came to call home is Village Hill Cohousing, the newest in the plethora of cohousing options in Western Massachusetts. Outside the walls of our private home were 27 households eager to welcome us to the community. We started learning about how to use the Common House, with its two guest rooms, an industrial-size kitchen for communal meals, a dining room, children’s playroom, workout room and meeting rooms. We delighted over the opportunity to bring our compost scraps to the shared community garden. We each got involved with committees that enabled us to contribute to the functioning and decision making of the community.

Although cohousing as a concept isn’t specifically Jewish, from the beginning, it has felt distinctly so. The first thing Jews usually say when I explain cohousing is: “Oh – you’re talking about a kibbutz!” While there are similarities between the concepts, the comparisons end early. In cohousing, we don’t pool financial resources or share everything evenly, the way a kibbutz’s original communist model would entail. We also don’t produce any foods or goods as a way of sustaining our community’s economy. It’s more like a co-op or condo association, but with us all co-leading, as opposed to electing a board to make decisions on our behalf. Mariel and I now refer to cohousing as a de-emphasis of capitalism, rather than something that exists within an alternative economic system.

Cohousing feels Jewish, first and foremost, for a variety of reasons that stem from the Jewish nature of collaboration and disagreement. Historic Jewish commentary — the too-often-cited example of Hillel vs. Shammai, or the way the Talmud is written with several annotations, rulings and conversations occurring simultaneously — is reminiscent of how we, in cohousing, make our way to a decision. We all need to consent to a new policy, so we first examine a need. A circle then comes together with its 4-6 members. It aims to bring as many perspectives into the conversation in these small groups, and they draft a policy to bring for consideration to the full group. Together, we then discuss, adding layers, debating potential pitfalls and offering new solutions. The goal is never to strike down an idea or a policy for the sake of denying an idea, but to keep building on it, so we can come to a place of near agreement. Our motto is: “Safe enough to try, good enough for now.”

Additionally, one of the main draws of cohousing to us was the possibility of forming intergenerational friendships, which to me, also feels distinctly Jewish — speaking to the Jewish concept of l’dor v’dor, “from generation to generation.” Our cohousing community skews older, with the majority of households containing one or more retired persons. There’s a true beauty to being so close with so many people at different life stages. It means we get to celebrate new and ongoing life together, while also being together in times of mourning. This is, perhaps, the part of cohousing that so often reminds me of my synagogue community, which comes together for similar life cycle moments. Our cohousing community (which, yes, does happen to have a lot of Jews in it) has now hosted a sheva bracha dinner, Passover seders, Hanukkah candle lighting and a shiva — interspersed between kids’ birthdays, beloveds’ memorials, solstice gatherings, Halloween parties, Ted-style talks, Fourth of July BBQs and much more.

Finally, Jewish communities are tight-knit, locationally and emotionally, and have been so for all of Jewish history. (Shtetls, anyone?) Finding a daily minyan of ten to pray, getting kosher food from the local butcher and walking from meal to meal on Shabbat or chag requires not only constant closeness of presence but one of mutual familiarity, hospitality and respect. It is not just a recommendation, but a Talmudic obligation, to be in Jewish community. This obligation led Jewish communities worldwide to care for one another, forming systems that span from early life to end of life and everything in between.

If you’ve ever felt relief when that tenth person has walked into the sanctuary, making the minyan and enabling the mourner’s kaddish, imagine putting out a call on Slack for last minute dog sitting help and being greeted with the same feeling of community support. Or, perhaps more uniquely to cohousing, asking for a safety buddy so you can use your electric saw to break up the downed tree that fell across the community driveway in the last storm. Cohousing has started to play this role in our lives, among yes, some of our Jewish neighbors, but also across the relationships we’ve formed alongside each and every person we live with, regardless of their spirituality. If cohousing feels Jewish, it’s because of the ways Judaism has taught us to come together to access the true richness of community.

We’ve now lived here for two years. Alongside our 54 neighbors, we maintain the grounds, remove snow, grow vegetables, sift the compost, cook meals, clean up after meals, try to have less meetings and self-govern using a process called sociocracy. Just like being a part of any intergenerational community — Jewish or not — it isn’t always easy. But at the end of the day, it’s always meaningful.

Naomi Barnesky

Naomi Barnesky (they/them) is a writer, editor, and community builder with a passion for Judaism, gender, and bodies. They live in an intentional, intergenerational cohousing community in Western Mass with their partner, Mariel, and dog, Alvin. You can find more of their Torah (and other) musings on their blog. You can learn more about their cohousing community at villlagehillcohousing.org or on Instagram: @villagehillcohousing.

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