Rachel’s gentle admonition echoed lightly in the busy courtyard of Berkeley Moshav. When it reached Jake’s ears, he excused himself from a pleasant schmooze with Mordy and Esther, dodged an errant ga-ga ball and its two excited pursuers, waved to Naomi and Ruth as they picked tomatoes for a community Shabbat dinner from the shared garden (while quizzing their daughters on the day’s Hebrew lesson), and approached his wife.
“I expected you an hour ago!” Rachel chided unconvincingly. She knew well that extended neighborly chats — not to mention impromptu meal invitations, minyan-making, childcare trades, and music jams — were the happy hazards of life among the community’s 25 close-knit households.
Given the benefits of living in community, the absence of neighborhoods like Rachel and Jake’s is surprising. The evidence is clear: People flourish in community. The Young Foundation in the United Kingdom reports a strong correlation between wellbeing and simply talking to one’s neighbors. Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design elaborates on this, drawing on insights from psychology to argue that feeling connected to others promotes happiness. Similarly, neuroscientists are learning that the defining feature of the human brain, even beyond intellect, is our capacity for social connection.
Jewish life also flourishes in community. Mordecai Kaplan (among others) noted that Jews thrived in the diaspora largely because we lived in community. The shtetl was not entirely a bad thing! (What was bad, of course, was being forced to live there, persecuted, and not allowed to integrate into society.) Imbuing daily life with Jewish community and meaning is how Jewish life has persisted over the centuries. Today, it is a primary factor in the growth of Orthodox Judaism and the success of Jewish summer camps and the Moishe House movement.
But what exactly is community? It is more than simply relationships or social networks: Community is mutual, deep, and sustained interconnectedness among a group of people. This type of interconnectedness nurtured people in tribes, villages, and neighborhoods of old, but it is mostly absent from modern life — leaving a void between the intimacy of family and the disconnectedness of our cities and suburbs.
Cohousing can fill this void and restore the intermediate cradle of community. A form of intentional neighborhood, cohousing is characterized by private residences, extensive common facilities, and a balance between communal and private life — similar to an Israeli moshav. The common facilities typically include a group dining hall and kitchen (used for several shared meals each week) and possibly also recreation spaces, gardens, a children’s playroom, guest rooms, an art or exercise studio, a workshop, and space for offices. A critical feature is a commitment among residents to participate actively in neighborhood life.
Jewish cohousing — as depicted in the imaginative vignette above — would harness the established cohousing model in support of Jewish life. (Indeed, cohousing promises to work even better in a Jewish context, where a common Jewish heritage creates a stronger foundation for intentional community.) Residents of Jewish cohousing — who ideally would constitute a village diverse in age, family composition, economic circumstance, and Jewish observance — would engage together in Jewish ritual, study, and culture, creating a milieu in which daily life is infused with Jewish life. Communal aspects of Jewish observance (e.g., kashrut in the group kitchen) would be negotiated by the residents, and variations in personal observance (e.g., kashrut in individual homes) would be respected, accepted, and valued. Jewish life would be more integrated with secular life and reinforced by the bonds of community. Children growing up in this environment would be more Jewishly literate and attached to their Jewish identities, making it easier for them to retain these identities after leaving the nest. In these urban and suburban moshavim, Jewish life would strengthen community and the community would nurture Jewish life.