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Israel’s first senior co-housing initiative

CM 19/09/2021 4

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The Festival of Sukkot focuses on living in the temporary, life on the go; makeshift walls, flimsy roof, no address; a 40-year sojourn for several generations of Israelites in the desert, every step a statement of hope or despair on the way to the Promised Land.
For eight years now, Co-Housing Israel (CHI), an NGO registered by the Registrar of Cooperatives in the Trade Ministry, has wondered and wandered – from Haifa to Jerusalem, from Pardess Hanna to Kfar Saba to Tel Aviv – simultaneously growing the membership, creating community and searching the hills and dales for an affordable site on which to build Israel’s first permanent affordable, senior, co-housing project.
Co-housing means private homes or apartments clustered around a public space. It’s downsizing around shared amenities: a salon big enough for group meals, kitchen, activity room, laundry room and garden. It promises a healthier, more active and sustainable life in the retirement years, staving off the loneliness that comes with aging.

Our journey begins
Eight years ago, as four American-Israeli couples watched their own parents age without a plan, they started looking for an affordable cooperative housing model for themselves and friends who want to grow old together.
They discovered the Senior Co-Housing Handbook by architect Charles Durrett, who is credited with popularizing the 1970s Scandinavian co-housing model in the US. In the last three decades, the number of these private homes with shared public space communities has grown in Europe and North America. According to CoHousing.Org, there are some 290 intentional communities in the US, many of them started by baby boomers who are now 55 and older.
Many of us in CHI also belong to the generation of baby boomers. We are social and community workers, health policy experts, urban planners, yoga teachers, economists, psychologists, professors, teachers, writers and more; we live in the north, west and east of the country. We also employ an urban architect who has been critical in helping us understand land use regulations and identifying development opportunities.
I was invited by longtime friends to join CHI during its “second wave” of recruitment. It made perfect sense to me and I wanted to grow old with these folks, many of whom I have known since my first years in Jerusalem. I signed the membership agreement, took a deep breath and paid the dues. I joined the site search and design committee in Jerusalem.
I have also done two stints on the Board as well as regularly cohosting Zoom parlor meetings. Once a month, we hold these open orientation meetings where people from all over Israel and many from abroad planning to make aliyah or return to Israel, hear a brief summary of the history and current status of Co-Housing in Israel. We then open up the discussion to their questions and concerns like “Is it a problem that I don’t speak Hebrew/English well? Is there anyone in the group without an American accent in Hebrew? I still have a son/daughter at home. Can they live with me in co-housing?”
Looking for a location
Our site search has taken some bizarre turns and twists. We have checked out abandoned buildings in the Jerusalem corridor; in Abu Ghosh (Where the heck are we? Isn’t this a construction site?) to a cooperative renting housing project for students in Haifa (One of the young but sage developers tells us “If you ever want it to happen, find private funding. Rely on the government and you won’t get anywhere.”), to derelict hotels crying out for repurposing and TLC, to fancy retirement homes willing to give us a whole wing and even let us grow marijuana if we want.
Our site search took us to the offices of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem’s Old City where we sipped Greek coffee and discussed real estate under the watchful eyes of Byzantine icons on the walls and ceilings.
We’ve become savvy in navigating municipal GIS (geographic information system) maps, checking land ownership and property deeds.
Our unique chicken and egg dilemma: community building and finding a building at the same time. Typically, an economically workable co-housing project needs 20-30 “units.” Potential members (units) often expect the keys to their apartments tomorrow. Contractors need three to five years to complete a project and won’t talk to us unless we can promise those 20-30 units. So what indeed comes first?
Despite our best efforts, financing, affordable land and partners have not been found. As one member likes to say “we have not yet found the ‘secret sauce’ enabling CHI to increase membership parallel with finding an affordable, timely and permanent co-housing solution that will attract new people.”
Over the years, our site search team has met with municipal and national authorities. Officials have been enthusiastic about alternative housing for seniors but have not committed resources to help facilitate a pilot project. They wish us success and tell us to close the door on our way out.
We persevere, trekking through our own desert but the oasis is often a mirage.
CHI times they are a-changin’
CHI is often invited to speak at academic and economic conferences on healthy aging, on senior housing options and other issues facing the elderly population. Both the Hebrew and English-language media are devoting more time to the subject of cooperative and co-housing ventures for senior citizens.
Earlier this year, CHI was awarded the $10,000 first-place Glickman Prize for work on developing affordable housing solutions for healthy aging in Israel. The Aging Ecosystems Drivers conference, which had some 300 participants on Zoom, was organized by Aging IL and jointly sponsored by the Joint/Eshel (of the American Joint Distribution Committee), Kaveret (literally beehive, a fund manager), Kranot Habituah Leumi (National Insurance pension funds), and Ashoka, a nonprofit for social entrepreneurship.
This retired voice of Israel Radio became the face and voice of CHI, delivering a 3-minute Zoom pitch in Hebrew to an audience of judges and hundreds of viewers that opened with these words “… Alo, shmi Idel v’ani ahad m’millyon. (Hello, my name is Idele and I am one of a million.)”
And we won.

 SUNSET YOGA on the lawn. (credit: IDELE ROSS) SUNSET YOGA on the lawn. (credit: IDELE ROSS)

CHI living the dream
Almost two years ago, Shikun U’Binui, the veteran infrastructure and real estate company, and Dira L’Haskir (literally, Flat for Rent, with a nod to the classic Hebrew children’s story by Levin Kipnis) began promoting long-term rentals in North Talpiot, a popular Jerusalem neighborhood. The light went on. It met many of our criteria and was affordable for most of us.
I was one of the five units who decided to take the leap of faith and establish a kind of beachhead – a 21st-century tower and stockade – in Halomot Arnona. I own a flat with a lovely balcony, great neighbors, 42 steps and no neighbors. I knew that one wrong step or distraction and oops, I become a burden to my neighbors and family. I need a stair-free solution as I age.
Within the 330-unit Halomot Arnona complex, we co-housing folks live in three adjoining buildings. The rent is stabilized for five years and then renewed with a COL adjustment for another five years. After that, who knows?
Halomot Arnona CHI members share pot luck and holiday meals, often including the larger Jerusalem CHI community; there’s yoga at sunset once a week. I live among people with whom I’ve built a community; there in times of joy and in times of need, especially when the grandkids visit and you don’t have enough toys.
When we moved into the apartments, our daily contacts focused on construction issues: backed-up plumbing, electricity outages, pipes that burst in the middle of Shabbat lunch and why doesn’t the maintenance company answer the emergency line?
Now, we co-housers can go days without seeing one another. We stay in touch through a HA WhatsApp group and a second group for the larger Jerusalem co-housing gang.
Even during this pandemic, we continue to build and strengthen our community; sharing meals outside, playing music and other social activities with the larger Jerusalem group. Prospective new members are invited to events and outdoor events.
A chance sighting from a porch or garden often leads to the impromptu glass of wine or a neighborly catch-up coffee. When we travel, we rely on one another to gather our mail and water our plants. If we are working outside our homes, then we leave the key for the house cleaner or technician with someone who will be around. When our guests are more observant, we may borrow a skillet or pot from a member with a more kosher kitchen. When the oven shorts out during the baking of chocolate cookies, we know we can rely on one another to get the cookies done.
We rallied around one of our couples when M broke his leg. We shopped and made meals for them, and gave them the support they needed during his hospital stay. The Jerusalem Municipality’s Greater Baka neighborhood council recently granted us access to a community room right under my apartment. We have organized a mid-week “Games Time.” (Some serious Scrabble players here.) There’s a biweekly “Neighbors Play Music” that is also drawing some of our Sabra neighbors.
It is the beginning of our commitment to activities that have a social and environmental impact. Our future plans include a community garden and after-school tutoring for children in the new school year.
We are hopeful the CHI Halomot Arnona group will grow as apartments become available. This is an interim solution, giving CHI a place to call home until a planned, permanent dwelling place is created.
CHI West, our Kfar Saba group, has introduced the co-housing concept to the Kfar Saba Development Corporation, the municipality and to local seniors. The forward-thinking Development Corporation is working with CHI to develop an economic model that will prove the feasibility of a pilot project for cooperative, affordable senior housing.

 KFAR SABA’s co-housing group. (credit: Courtesy) KFAR SABA’s co-housing group. (credit: Courtesy)

Pioneers for a third age
During the eight years, CHI has experienced attrition. We’ve seen members leave the group for family or financial reasons. Some became discouraged when they understood that it will take many years until CHI has a permanent address.
However, CHI through its online parlor meetings and buddy outreach has also welcomed new members, including native Hebrew-speakers who want the challenge of creating a new housing model for active, healthy aging in an intentional community of kindred spirits.
Those who are joining us understand that changing the landscape for affordable senior co-housing is as one member likes to say “… not a spectator sport. You have to be ready to get down on the field and get dirty.”
It’s endless meetings, communications with the government and other agencies and offices. It’s organizing Zoom sessions, welcoming potential newcomers, being interviewed. Writing articles. The list goes on.
CHI’s membership has mostly come from person-to-person contact, new friendships through meetings and activities from which the shared vision statement was authored and signed by us all.
We were worried how COVID-19 would impact CHI’s momentum and community that are the connective tissue of co-housing. What we discovered was that by meeting on Zoom we could actually expand our geographic reach and we now have several members from towns and villages in the North. Another advantage was that participating in meetings with government ministries and municipal authorities was easier to organize online. No one has to look for a parking spot.
There are now around 30 activists in national CHI who live all over the country. New groups have formed in Haifa, Pardess Hanna, in Mevaseret Zion and in Safed.
There are more than 1,000 people following CHI on Facebook. Some 35 newly interested people attended the monthly Hebrew-English Zoom meeting in the first week of August.
A very unscientific but revealing survey done among the 35 participants found that most of the people who were 55+ have moved on an average of six times in the last 20 years. Where do they see themselves in five years? In a co-housing community, surrounded by trees.
Our journey to build Israel’s first co-housing project has been as our chairperson says, “… a roller-coaster ride of incredible highs and discouraging lows.”
We are pioneers.
The Israelites wandered the vast desert, living in temporary dwellings for 40 years until they reached the Promised Land. We, the members and supporters of Co-Housing Israel, are confident it won’t take us that long.
For more information visit our website www.cohousing.org.il or Co-Housing Israel on Facebook. With thanks to CHI chair Judy Labensohn and Kfar Saba project coordinator Batya Malichi for their help in writing this article because it takes a CHI village.
Idele Ross had a 35-year career as a broadcast journalist with Israel Radio’s English language service. She also worked with foreign correspondents as a media coordinator and writer for the NGO MediaCentral. Today, she devotes most of her time to co-housing work, family, community and promoting a local Motown cover band.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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