September 7, 2000
A Very Fine House
Students join together to revitalize the Westwood Bayit.
The socialist experiment may have failed and the kibbutz movement may be struggling, but communal living is alive and well at the Westwood Bayit. Part of Jewish life at UCLA since 1974, the Bayit (Hebrew for house) is a cooperative living setup where young men and women commit to participating in Shabbat, kosher group cooking and dining, and Jewish programming.
"I decided to live here because I needed to have a kosher kitchen and a shomer Shabbat [observant] atmosphere, and I liked the idea of living with Jewish people in a Jewish community," says Ruth Pitterman, a UCLA student from Las Vegas who has lived in the Bayit for a year.
Having gone through a cycle of ups and downs during the past 25 years, the Bayit in the past few years has benefited from a major facelift and a commitment on behalf of its board to revitalize the program.Avi Davis, now in his third year as president of the board for the Bayit Project, a nonprofit group that owns and operates the house, says the Bayit's influence goes well beyond the 18 students who live in the 4,200-square foot facility.
"My own philosophy is that the Bayit is a leadership training program," says Davis, who lived in the Bayit when he came here from Australia in the mid-1980s. "We hope the residents acquire skills and a level of tolerance and respect that will allow them to go out into the community and become leaders either by joining an organization or by pure example."
Bayit residents say the house is a microcosm of the Jewish community, where they are thrown together with Jews of different nationalities and religious observance and are challenged to create a flourishing environment.
"We are all at different degrees of Judaism, yet we all get along," says Annette Hayum, who lived in the Bayit for two years before she graduated this year. "Even if we do debate, it's always with respect."Students who live in the Bayit tend to be active in other areas of campus Jewish life, and the Bayit serves as something of a Jewish hub in Westwood.
Residents are required to spend two Shabbats a month at the house, and many other students who don't live there stick around as well. On Friday nights and Shabbat afternoons, dozens of young people make themselves comfortable in the newly redecorated lounge playing board games or just talking, Hayum says."It's a good place for people who are observing Shabbat to have a fun place to hang out," Hayum says.That's partly due to the policy prohibiting any public use of electricity on Shabbat, so that anyone who walks into the house will feel comfortable in the Shabbat atmosphere. The newly remodeled kitchen is also held to the highest standards of kashrut.
The kitchen is perhaps one of the best examples of how much work has gone into the house. Once the kind of facility that would have merited a big blue "D" in the window if it were a restaurant, the kitchen is now divided into separate meat and dairy sides, complete with tile floors, granite counters, stainless-steel sinks, dishwashers and refrigerators.
Structural improvements have been made, the bathrooms have been refurbished, and the house's common rooms and mix of double and single bedrooms are painted and carpeted every few years - a big improvement from the decrepit state of the house in the late '80s and early '90s.
Faltering financially several years after it was founded in 1974, the Bayit was rescued by businessman Michael Goland in 1981. Goland created the Bayit Project to develop and run houses around the country, but he himself ran into financial problems in the late '80s, and the Bayit Project began to fall apart.In events that would eventually lead to a five-year legal battle, Chabad obtained ownership of the house in 1989 and turned it into a homeless shelter. But in 1994 a judge ordered Chabad to return the Bayit to the Bayit Project, which rebuilt the board and mounted a huge fundraising campaign to refurbish the decaying, three-story building on a steep hill.
Today, the board has about 30 people from all different walks of Judaism, all of them dedicated to keeping the Bayit a viable, attractive option for young adults.
The board, which has dinners and retreats with the residents to maintain a relationship, decided to hire a resident adviser and program coordinator.
Shiurim, Jewish classes or lectures, are a regular feature at the Bayit, and once a quarter residents are also required to participate in a mitzvah project, such as visiting an old age home or working in a food pantry.While the program coordinator oversees those programs, it is the student board that creates and runs them. Students also pay their own bills, maintain the house, and decide which applicants to accept."Students are adults," Davis says, "We're trying to create a framework in which Jewish values and spiritual development can thrive, and it's very important for us to give them a sense of their own responsibility."
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of UCLA Hillel, sees the Bayit as an important component of student life.
"The Bayit has a lot of potential to develop into an intense Jewish community that could be one setting where Jewish life is vital and impactful upon others," he says.
Davis is hoping with that each year will bring students closer to realizing that potential.
"We really want students to get a sense of community, to understand how vital it is, to understand that interdependence is what Jewish community means," he says.
The Bayit is currently accepting applications. Call Avi Davis for more information at (310)858-3059