Founded in 2007 and inspired by other local cohousing arrangements as much as the socialist Israeli collective farms of old, the Ravenna Kibbutz helps young Jewish adults who have just moved to Seattle connect and feel at home.
When she moved to Seattle from northern New Jersey earlier this year, Dane Kuttler wondered how to find other young adult Jews. The 22-year-old wasn’t into attending synagogue. Then she found the Ravenna Kibbutz, more than a dozen young Jews sharing three houses on a quiet residential street near Bagel Oasis and Tree of Life Judaica.
Less than 24 hours after her plane landed, she was sitting down to Friday night Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner at one of the Kibbutz residences.
“I knew if I could find my Jews, I’d be OK,” she recalls. “And it was joyous, and the food was great, and I went, ‘I found them! I found my people.'”
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Founded in 2007 and inspired by other local cohousing arrangements as much as the socialist Israeli collective farms of old, the kibbutz has rapidly become a magnet for Jewish young adults moving to Seattle. Of the founders, Joel Rothschild, 30, is from Olympia; Masha Shtern, 25, from Moscow; Tamar Libicki, 24, from Columbus, Ohio; and Azura Newman, 31, is from southern Michigan.
The kibbutz recently expanded, opening its third house in late June and annexing the basement floor in one existing house when the renters moved out. Planned for the new home: chickens and more room for kitchen gardens.
The kibbutz is strategically situated near a cluster of North End Seattle synagogues representing nearly every denomination, including the New Orthodox Emanuel Congregation and the unaffiliated Jewish community Kavana.
To keep the house welcoming to all, the homes have kosher-dairy sections in their kitchens so that those observing Jewish dietary laws can participate. Residents share chores and pay rent based on the size of their room and event-planning commitments.
Kibbutzniks describe their living situation in many ways — Jewish cohousing, a neo-shtetl, an intentional community, a nondenominational gathering place. Where the original Jewish kibbutz movement of communal farms helped build the state of Israel, modern urban kibbutzim — there are others in Israel, Toronto and Brooklyn — help young city Jews both live cheaper and stay involved in Judaism. The cheaper living also frees residents to devote time to civic projects; several residents work for local nonprofits.
The Ravenna Kibbutz receives some funding through Moishe House — a national network of homes for Jewish young people funded by Jewish philanthropists — to create events that appeal to 20-something Jews. Synagogues tend to engage children through bar or bat mitzvah, Rothschild notes, but then often lose congregants until they have school-age children of their own.
This didn’t used to be a big problem, as Jews traditionally married very young. Now that many delay marriage and children well into their thirties, the kibbutz aims to keep young adults connected to their traditions.
Resident Neal Schindler, who hails from Detroit, says, “We’re about having fun — not having babies.”
Some kibbutz events celebrate Jewish holy days while others are secular or culturally Jewish, such as a recent bagel bake and a Tuesday coffeehouse night that saw residents and a steady stream of visitors playing instruments, singing and schmoozing over pizza and pastries at one of the kibbutz’s vintage Craftsman-style residences.
Toronto transplant Ilana Mantell first lived in Wallingford, which she found “Jewishly lonely.” She also wanted to become more observant and find a place where she could walk to synagogue. She found both at the kibbutz, which puts her in walking distance of Congregation Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue.
“The kibbutz is wonderful because people come to us,” she says. “It’s like a hub.”
The group is currently wrestling with how to continue its success as a neighborhood gathering spot for young Jews. The kibbutz has over 200 Facebook friends, and 40 people recently showed up for a Shabbat dinner, jamming one home’s family-size dining room. Rothschild worries that big crowds may ruin the intimacy and inhibit connections. Residents are weighing whether to have more dinners or more specialized events to keep each event smaller, or maybe just buy bigger tables.
In just two years, Rothschild says, the kibbutz has gained landlords’ trust and established its credibility as a good steward of the property.
“Economics have put pressure on landlords to accept groups, so this has become an increasingly common situation,” he says. “We always meet our landlords in person right away, as a group, and try to present ourselves well. We respond promptly and we’re considerate — so far, this has been sufficient.”
The kibbutz’s newest landlords, Tom Engel and Esther Neeser, formerly lived on the street, so they had a chance to see the kibbutz in action. “We’re cautious because we want to make sure our home is not abused,” Engel says. “We know the other landlords, and knew their experience with the [kibbutz] renters was good.”
Currently, each kibbutznik must sign an individual lease agreement with the landlord, but the kibbutz has applied for nonprofit status. Once that’s in place, the kibbutz will be the only entity dealing with landlords and leasing property, and kibbutz managers will vet and approve individual tenants.
Rothschild says the long-term goal is to buy the houses with help from outside investors. And residents are always checking the neighborhood to see if other homes come up for rent.
Rothschild knows one California cohousing community that took only five years to colonize a couple of blocks. He’s optimistic something like that could happen with the kibbutz, too.
“It can happen fast,” he says.