“Hey Zalmy! So like where do you guys live?”
“Aren’t you guys up in Berkeley?”
“What are you doing these days?”
So many good questions that for the most part I had no answer to.
Until now. Behold the glorious now, ever-undulating between the ancient peddle-stones of the past and the hyperbolic vidiums of the future.
Exactly. That’s what people thought I said after I was through mumbling whatever answer I came up with at the time.
Let’s backtrack a bit.
Exactly 633 days ago at 7:03.15 AM we received notice (out of the blue mind you) that our landlord was retiring from the Federal Government and was moving back to sunny Long Beach. We had 90 days to get all 7 of our tushes into some sort of new residence.
At this time we were living on a 1/2 acre property in Long Beach, CA (which is HUGE for the area), and we really loved our house, but we had long realized that Long Beach was but a stop on our journey. Estee and I saw the email from our landlord separately and we had the same exact reaction: “yes!!” This was the kick in the pants we needed to move on with our lives, huge estate notwithstanding.
We had been tentatively looking into the Bay Area for some time (after considering Pittsburgh, Miami, Houston, Seattle, Australia, blah blah blah). It was close enough to family, we really liked the vibe (theoretically, neither of us had spent any real time up there), and we wouldn’t be considered the weirdos for homeschooling and brewing kombucha.
I think at some level we always knew it would be Berkeley, but we wanted to give the rest of the area a fair shake. We did some hefty google and wikipedia work, followed up with some phone calls to some unsavory fellows who are in the know, finalized with a weekend trip (just me) to Berkeley to see if it’s anything like I thought it would be. It wasn’t, not at all. For some reason I thought it would be much more spread out, big houses, big yards. Which doesn’t really make much sense seeing how close it was to San Francisco and how expensive land was. But I loved the vibe, loved all the Jews, and loved the Chabad.
At this point we were planning on continuing my photography business and, on the side, to help out with the local Chabad . We had spoken to the Ferrises before considering moving and they said they would love another Chabad family up there and that they wanted us to help with the Sunday school and Summer camp.
For some reason my wife trusts me too much. So without even setting foot in the place (besides for a quick tour half her life ago) we packed up our house in a truck, put most of it in storage, and made our way up to Berkeley.
We thought we’d find a house to rent or even buy, and, maybe a tad too optimistically, we thought my photography business would pick up enough to pay for the extra cost of living up there (not too mention the fact that I quit my day job before moving).
Meanwhile the Ferrises (in their infinite kindness and maybe a bit of craziness) offered us to stay in their place until we found a place. We moved in and felt right at home, both in their house and in Berkeley. We loved it, the kids loved it, and I’d like to think that many of the locals liked us there as well. We were still homeschooling in our crazy unschooling way, and a few of the younger families loved it.
“Gosh we love what you guys are doing, you should start a school!”
Which is a weird thing to say to passionate homeschoolers, and we thought of it as such as well.
But we heard it quite a few times, still didn’t pay it any attention. Even if we were into school, starting a school isn’t something you do in your off-hours. We wanted to be involved inn communal work, but in a low-key way. At the end of the day we wanted our bills to be paid and to be comfortable. Photography was getting there. Starting and running a school? Not so simple.
Well, turns out real-estate in Berkeley is a bit more challenging than we bargained on. Many landlords are picky about large families, and anything affordable gets snatched up within a day or two, sometimes hours.
We went from looking to buy a house, to looking to rent one, to looking at apartments. Nothing. Nada.
Besides for one house that popped up in the most curious way. But I think we’ll have to leave that for another post.
Anyways, after 5 blissful and exhausting months, we packed up all our stuff (not too much because most was still on that truck), and headed back down to Southern California to my in-laws to regroup. What we thought would be a two week stay turned into a bit over a year (and counting, and Estee's parents have been amazing allowing us to basically take over the house)). A small part of us felt like a failure, but a much larger part felt exhilaration. We had spent years looking for where we wanted to live and raise our family and we had found it. Definitely found it. There are people that never find that and we were, and are, tremendously grateful for that.
Berkeley is pretty famous, and most think they know what is, or what it stands for. I thought I did as well. For a large part of my life I was into politics and pretty darn hardcore conservative. I still am fairly conservative, but cross the line fairly often. Eight years ago I would have laughed if you would have told me that we were to live in Berkeley. I would have been arguing all day. Fast forward a few years and we have more in common with your average Berkeleyite than any city I can think of. Besides maybe Tsfat.
Just a few things we love about the place.
- For one it’s over 20% Jewish. That’s right. More Jewish than Brooklyn. More Jewish than Miami.
- The Jewish life there is wonderfully diverse.
- It has a remarkably well educated populace.
- People think for themselves. They really do.
- They are generally much more open to G-d and spirituality than most places I've been to.
- It has amazing parks and resources for homeschoolers.
- It’s close to nature and the city.
- It’s beautiful.
- The architecture is diverse and interesting.
- People care. Maybe sometimes about ridiculous (to me) things, but just the fact that they care, that’s something real.
- I could go on, but I’m not trying to convince anyone to move :)
A few months after our (temporary) departure from Berkeley we got a phone call from one of the Rabbis there, it went something like this:
“Hey Zalmy! So remember we jokingly talked about starting a school? Some families here have approached me, and well, do you want to start one?”
I fumbled some answer, to the tune of “I’ll talk to Estee, but I doubt it.”
Well as we talked and thought about it over the next few months “I doubt it” turned into “hmmmm maybe” to “this might work” to “heck yes, this is what we were meant to do!”
We spent this time researching, studying, visiting various alternative schools, speaking to people who have started similar schools, and of course, changing diapers.
Meanwhile, ever since we got in our van and packed out of Long Beach, we have been on our own spiritual voyage. It's amazing (and ironic) how often G-d can be missing from the everyday life of a religious Jew. We pray, we learn, but when it comes to day-to-day life, from paying the bills, to taking care of kids, there is often very little talk or thought of G-d. If you'd look someone in the eye and say" I'm not sure where the money will come from but I trust that Hashem will make it happen." or "I need some time to talk to Hashem", they'd roll their eyes and think you're crazy. We often preach about a loving and personal G-d but we choose to live with a punctilious and exotic one.
We felt this the second we got off the plane coming from Israel 9 years back, but the feeling faded and faded. We knew that there was something wrong, but we didn't feel it as much anymore. It's why we had to do something. Once in Berkeley and spending some time with the Ferrises, who are truly one of the most remarkable, kind, loving, thankful, and G-dly people, we started to shift.
Something I recently heard from Tzvi Freeman, is that when the Chazzan (prayer leader) repeats the Amidah, there's a special prayer the congregation says which ends of with the words: "We thank you for letting us give thanks..."
Being grateful for the everyday happenings and miracles is not something we do for Hashem. We do it for ourselves. Working on personalizing the myriads of thanks we give in prayer every day has completely changed the way I approach life. Every morning we thank Hashem for directing our steps. And we mean it. At least now I do. We think we know where we want to be and what we want to do, but sometimes we get so thrown off that path, and if instead of scrambling to get back on the path we stopped to look around, we might find that we are exactly where we are supposed to be.
The first thing we say in the morning is "Modeh Ani", I am thankful. The first words of morning prayers is "Hodu La'Hashem", "Give thanks to Hashem". Closely followed by "bakshu fanav tamid", "Always look for His presence." Actively looking for Hashem in the day to day and the everyday has opened up our eyes to how much He is taking care of us. Things might not be happening on our timetable, but they always happen, and the timing always turns out to be perfect.
Along the way we saw something the Lubavitcher Rebbe said that really spoke to us:
“If G-d gave you these talents you must utilize them all in fulfilling your personal role and mission. This is not your personal matter, which you may treat as you wish. These talents, opportunities… if they are left unused, they are in vain.”
Estee and I are not untalented (no one is) and it would be a darn shame to limit our life to taking photos and fermenting tea. And we want to make a school that allows individuals to be individual, and to change the world as only they could.
So we started a proposal to work through our ideas of what an awesome school would look like, which turned into a website which just went live last week.
The name of the school is Chanoch LaNa’ar, which comes from a verse in Proverbs, “Educate a child according to his way, so that when he grows old it will not leave him”. We really want to cater to the individual learning types and levels of children, instill a meaningful connection to Hashem, and foster a lifelong love of learning.
If you are at all interested in alternative education please check out our site, you’ll find it fascinating. (And if you have feedback feed it back to us!)
I’ll still be shooting professionally, at least for foreseeable future. But the goal is to do this 100%.
The past two years have been crazy for us. We completely jumped out of our old lives, not knowing what would be. When we left Long Beach we never ever envisioned ourselves where we are today, and while in a way our lives are more up in the air then they have ever been, we know more with what we want to do with our lives than ever before. And we never would have found that out without this journey of ours.
Now we just have to raise some funds and get back to Berkeley. Yeehaw!
As a thank you for getting this far, here are a few family photos from 2015. Some from Berkeley, some from SoCal.