The idea for a Reform Bayit in Berkeley was conceived in the Spring of 1980 and modeled after collective Jewish houses on other college campuses. Jason Gwasdoff, Marci Fox, Dori Taback and Karen Desser were the Berkeley students who took the initiative for beginning the project. They felt it was important, as 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 seven other students soon joined in the establishment of the Berkeley Reform Bayit at 19 Hillside Court in September of 1980.
The Berkeley Reform 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 Judaism. The celebration of Judaism was explored, debated and practiced in rituals such as Shabbat T'fillot and Holiday celebrations, and the active relationship to Israel and Zionism. It was and is essential that Bayit members realize the goal of the Berkeley Bayit is 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 Reform Bayit program was endorsed by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (“UAHC” now “URJ” Union of Reform Judaism) College Education Department. Initially, programmatic 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. With the support of the UAHC Pacific Northwest Regional Director, Rabbi Morris Hershman, UAHC Camp Swig Director, Harvey Shapiro and UAHC Camp Swig Board Chair, Leonard Cohn, the UAHC coordinated the purchase of the home. As the Union had a program to encourage Jewish community at college campuses, it was a natural fit for the organization to assist in the fundraising and design of the organizational structure necessary to purchase the home. The former LeConte Manor, a Julia Morgan designed house, built in 1908 for Joseph LeConte, a physician, geologist, professor at the University of California, Berkeley and early California conservationist, who was one of the co-founders and President of the Sierra Club thus became the property of the UAHC. The home was purchased with assistance of former Bayitnik parents, Bayitniks and community members including but not limited to the Koret, and Haas Foundations, Leonard and Roberta Cohn, Rob and Ruth Fox, Miriam Manber, Debbie Trubowitch, Racquel Newman, Tom Lowenstein, Jim Sammet, Aaron and Fran Greenberg and Shirley Tartak).
From 1980 until 1989 the Bayit was overseen and aided in programing by the UAHC Director of College Campuses, Rami Arian and in organization and property management by the UAHC individuals mentioned above. Many of the Bayitniks during these years were deeply involved with UAHC Camp Swig as counselors, songleaders, program directors, administrators or former campers or as UAHC youth group advisors or Sunday school teachers.
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 breakfast after Yom Kippur, Sukkot Party, Open Shabbatot, Chanukah Party, Havdallot, Pesach Seders, and numerous discussions on a wide range of topics related to Jewish practice and thought.
In 1988 the UAHC National Board decided that it was not well enough equipped to manage a robust college program nor duplicate programming in competition with Hillel so it decided to eliminate the programming and transfer the ownership of any of its college housing arrangements, including the Berkeley Reform Bayit. In an effort to provide a smooth transition, it helped create an independent non-profit - 501(c)(3) - organization to own the house and aid the students with organizational or programmatic support.
So in 1989 the Berkeley Bayit Inc., a non-profit corporation, was born. Many of the individuals named above were active on the board with Len Cohn being the original chair of the non-profit. Critical support came from the original Bayit Corporation board (Leonard 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. The Board’s responsibility for capital improvements is something most students are not prepared to do and thus a logical on-going responsibility of the Board.
It was an important aspect of the vision of the original members, and the Board has adopted the position that the house be run by the students. The Board has felt that for the students to truly understand the responsibility of community and of Judaism that they must be responsible for all aspects of the daily operation of the house. The Board’s purpose is to provide support, resource and continuity as well as to facilitate the long-term sustainability of the house and institutional knowledge. However, all decisions about who resides at the house, the level of Judaic practice, the type of programming and roles of the Bayitniks have been determined each year by the Bayitniks.
Over the years since the founding of the Board, in its efforts to be good stewards of the house and the mission, the Board has engaged in a series of capital improvements/major renovations of the house including a new roof, kitchen, bathrooms, upgrading of the electrical and plumbing systems, providing internet services (not something ever contemplated in 1980) all while keeping in mind the historic character and features of the house. The Board also hired a property manager to facilitate contracting and collecting fees, timely responses to maintenance and repair needs, and accounting. In addition, the Board has provided funding and resources to support programming at the Bayit. These efforts continue.
The Bayit continues to provide a Jewish home to students and serve the community through its regular programming and by providing a place for other students to enjoy a Jewish home environment. Over the years, the Reform origins of the house became less apparent as the Bayitniks included students who came from and participated in all denominations of the Jewish community and the house took on the persona of a progressive Jewish cooperative living environment. The Bayit continues to support students of diverse Jewish backgrounds as they explore a progressive Jewish identity. The Bayitniks have served many roles in the UC Berkeley Jewish and student communities including student government, chairing numerous Jewish campus organizations and events, as well as forming a close tie with Berkeley Hillel. As a result, The Bayit and Hillel have jointly sponsored a number of events, with the Bayit providing a more intimate home environment that complements Hillel's larger communal environment.
Current financial support for programming comes mainly from Alumni and several organizations in the Jewish community. Throughout the 2000’s, the Board has been efficiently led by just a few individuals, most notably chaired by original and current Board Chair, Karen Goldberg, former Board Chair Paul Eykamp, Treasurer has been Joel Siegel, each of whom have served on the Board for over 15 years. Without them the Bayit would have lacked the continuity and commitment necessary to stay operable.
The Berkeley Bayit is now the longest continuously running Jewish co-op in the country.