BALTIMORE — Yishai and Rachael Copp Cohen were searching for an alternative to the isolation they felt living in suburbia. So when Yishai was offered a job as program director for the Teva Learning Alliance — housed at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center — they moved with their two daughters, 17 months and six years old, to the center in Connecticut.
At the “intentional Jewish community,” they are among about 50 people living and participating on-site at any given time, most of them single and between the ages of 20 and 30.
There, the two are learning sustainable agriculture. They take part in communal meals, a setting, Rachael said, that provides “powerful relationship-building opportunities.” However, because most people stay for only three or four months, it is not a permanent solution for the Cohens. They are hoping eventually to establish a Jewish intentional community, what they think of as the first American moshav.
At over 1,000 intentional communities nationwide, people live together and work cooperatively in a way that reflects their core values. They can be rural, urban, or suburban, a single residence or a cluster of homes. Nearly all owe something to the moshavim, the cooperative villages of Israel.
But what the Cohens are seeking is a permanent intentional community that reflects Jewish traditions, values, and rituals. What they want, said Yishai, who grew up in East Brunswick, is the “type of community belonging” he experienced through Ramah overnight camp and on a high school program in Israel.
On Nov. 14-17, the Cohens were among the 170 people who gathered at the Jewish-oriented Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center in Baltimore for the first conference on Jewish intentional communities; it was sponsored by Pearlstone, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Hazon, and the Isabella Freedman center.
Organizers said they hoped the conference would launch a movement that will take root within three to 10 years.
“It’s an idea whose time has come,” said Nigel Savage, founder of the environmental group Hazon. He pointed to the growing interest, in the Jewish and secular communities, in healthy and sustainable living that led to the creation of the three stateside conference sponsors.
And, he said, such interest is growing naturally out of people’s experiences living at the Isabella Freedman and Pearlstone centers, which offer internships in Jewish farming and Jewish environmental education programs.
Leemor Ellman, director of engagement for families and young children at the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life — the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s “Jewish identity-building agency” — was among the attendees. The notion of intentional communities is “just another way for young families to engage deeply with Judaism,” she said.
Also there was Steven Welzer, who grew up in Maplewood as a member of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange. He said his aim is to create an eco-village on 180 acres in Warren County. His vision for “Mount Eden” includes 35 “green” residences and an organic farm. The property already has a retreat center, which he thinks would attract groups and could provide revenue. He came to the conference to pitch his plan.
“At Mount Eden, our goal will be to build a Jewish community that prioritizes supportive social structures and a healthy relationship with nature,” proclaims his publicity material.
Many attendees were shocked at the number of those in attendance. “I expected 35 people,” said Diane Sobel, who runs an organic farm in Costa Rica. Jakir Manela, Pearlstone’s executive director, said it was one of the largest groups the center has hosted.
The appeal is not limited to liberal Jews with progressive politics. Conference-goers included men with payes and those wearing knitted kipot and women in long skirts and headscarves. There were people in their 20s looking for their next adventure, and older people considering how and where they’d like to spend their senior years.
Mostly, there were young families like the Cohens, ranging in affiliation from Renewal to Orthodox, looking for a different way to live and raise their children.
Some have already taken steps toward creating Jewish intentional communities — like members of an intentional community in New Hampshire who are looking to start Living Tree Alliance, Jewish agricultural community, near Montpelier, Vt., and those affiliated with Beit Shlomo, started by Katherine Woods-Morse last summer with four families in a Victorian home in Portland, Ore.
Some of the attendees were people like Larry Schwartz and Shelley Levine, who raised their family in Montclair but now live in New York.
Levine, who headed the Jewish Education Association, the Partnership’s predecessor, continues to serve as president of the Grotta Fund for Senior Care, affiliated with the GMW federation, and teaches yoga at the Jewish Wellness Center in Montclair. Schwartz was among the founders of the Jewish Meditation Center of Montclair. They had been thinking of starting a community, but not after they learned about the enormous scope of such an undertaking from veterans of non-Jewish communities, like conference presenter Arjuna da Silva, a founder of a community in the mountains of North Carolina.
The conference led Levine to “question the pervasive values of our society. I have to ask what is important as I go into the next stage of my life,” she said. She and her husband have always been interested in living in a community “where things are shared more” but, she realized, “it doesn’t just happen. You have to make it happen.” And that made Levine realize that she might be more successful helping to fulfill someone else’s vision rather than starting something on her own.
Conference attendees discussed financing options, land-use and legal issues, and the benefits of rural versus urban communities.
In a panel discussion, Rachael Copp Cohen described the life her family has found at Isabella Freedman. “The friendships we grow and nurture with members of our community serve to strengthen and enhance our identities, interests, and independence as individuals and ultimately improve our relationships with each other as family members,” she said. “Our children…have many ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ who love them, teach them, discipline them, and watch over them. The depth and meaning in the relationships they are creating is…the single most important reason we live in the community.”
Yishai Cohen attended graduate school in Florida under a scholarship from the Jewish Federations of North America; he subsequently worked for the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks.
He described the family’s life in Florida, where both he and Rachael were working part-time so they could be home with their children. “We had no family around to help us,” he said, “no one else to turn to…. We were isolated and often lonely.”
Rachael showed him websites for eco-villages, cohousing groups, and other intentional communities, and they knew it was the right move for them, if they could find something Jewish.
They are now at the forefront of this phenomenon, and have started a Facebook page, New Jewish Communities, that serves as a virtual gathering place for people with similar ideas. The page was buzzing during and after the conference, giving organizers hope that theirs is a movement, not a fad.
There are already plans afoot for a second conference in November 2014, at Isabella Freedman.