Elly Valas: A Visionary for Communal Jewish Living
Guest post by Barbara Brooks
Barbara Brooks is a communications consultant and writer based in Denver. While helping universities, companies, and individuals tell their stories of generosity and impact, she plays at improv and pickleball, practices the ukulele, and navigates van life. She blogs about searching for creativity, aging, and being brave at HackingAwayAtHappiness.com.
As a Jew, a volunteer leader, a retail consultant, and a member of Denver’s iconic Valas TV family, Elly Valas has always been part of something bigger than herself. These days, she’s in on the ground floor of the first urban Jewish cohousing community in the country.
“Though Americans haven’t fully embraced it yet, cohousing is the wave of the future,” says Valas, “And communal living is nothing new to Jews. We lived in shtetels, we lived in kibbutzim, we lived in moshavim, and we lived in neighborhoods. You can’t have a Purim party alone. It takes a minyan of 10 people to pray. Even JEWISHcolorado is an umbrella for Jewish organizations. We don’t do anything alone, so why should we live that way?”
Valas loves sharing space and time with other people. After earning her BS in sociology at CU Boulder in 1970, she lived with three other women in an old house in Denver. To this day, those roommates are her best friends. Some 30 years ago, about the time the first American cohousing project opened in Davis, Calif., they began talking about ways they might live together again—when their nests would be empty, and they would have each other for company and support. But they didn’t yet have a name for their vision.
Building a dream
“None of us wanted to grow old alone,” says Valas. “The women dreamed of buying a fourplex with a caretaker space, but the husbands just rolled their eyes. We couldn’t quite figure it out.”
So Valas did what she does best. She explored the market and connected with like-minded people. She discovered the global cohousing movement which began in Denmark in the 1960s and met up with Roger Studley, the founder of Urban Moshav, a non-profit development partner for Jewish cohousing. His first project happened to be slated for Berkeley, Calif., where Valas has two sisters and other close family. Though joining the project meant taking a financial leap of faith—and eventually leaving Denver—Valas cast her lot. She now serves on the marketing committee, the design and development committee, and writes the newsletter. The project, and Valas’s role in it, was covered in the Forward in January of this year. Excitement is building.
Today, according to Cohousing Association of America, there are 160 cohousing projects in the country with nearly that many in development. Only a few are faith-based. There are 51 in California alone, and Valas has studied those as well Colorado’s 22 projects, including the four in Denver and Golden. Meanwhile, she lives alone in a townhouse community in East Denver, where she has served on the board of her homeowners’ association. She knows from experience how hard the decision-making process can be. At the Berkeley Moshav, everyone goes through sociocracy training.
Valas says, “In a moshav, like in a townhouse, everybody owns their individual piece and there also are communal spaces. Decisions are made for the good of the whole. Sociocracy isn’t a democracy and isn’t a consensus—so no one person can hold everything up. A team is assigned to every project. They make recommendations, everyone has a voice and input, and then decisions are made based on what’s good enough for now.”
A Denver legend rolls up her sleeves
Beginning in 1974, when Elly joined the Valas TV business, she has been bringing people together—especially family—to collaborate and resolve differences of opinion. “My father always said, ‘Family business can be hard on the business and on the family,’ but those were the best 20 years of my life,” she recalls. Her father, Harry, was a Denver legend, delivering the first live television ads to promote his electronic products. Though the company resisted growing beyond two stores, Elly was able to computerize the operation and introduce other efficiencies. Together, Elly, her brother David, and her father worked hard to create a productive work-family environment. After the main store burned down in 1992, Elly left the business to become CEO of the National Retail Dealers Association. David rebuilt the building, Harry died in 1995, and few years later, David closed up shop.
As her parents had been, Elly was always involved in the Jewish community. Over the past 55 years, she has served as a youth group chairman, a volunteer leader with the Allied Jewish Federation (which became JEWISHcolorado), on the Young Women’s Leadership Cabinet, and on the board of Rodef Shalom. She raises puppies that will become assistance dogs to adults, children, and veterans with disabilities, and for professionals working in healthcare, criminal justice, and educational settings. To this day, she says “I need physical therapy to keep my hand from going up when the call goes out for help. Somehow, I always say yes.”
With Valas’s help, the Berkeley Moshav will no doubt succeed—despite significant hurdles. If all goes well, the city of Berkeley will approve plans for the four-story structure by the end of the year. By mid 2023, 18 more investors will join the nine current members, and they’ll secure their construction loan. By the beginning of 2025, all 36 units will be occupied. But the project is expensive. The cost of building in Berkeley is nearly twice what it is in Denver, so the minimum buy in is nearly $1 million for an 800-square-foot unit with one bedroom. But the communal resources including 8,700 square feet of shared space and promise of living a more connected and sustainable lifestyle is compelling.
Starting over, but not from scratch
According to the Berkeley Moshav website, the goal is “to create a vibrant community where everyone who wants to can participate in the rhythms of Jewish life in a context inclusive of both secular and religious Jews and welcoming of people from other religions.” While the communal kitchen will be kept vegetarian kosher, families can cook however they like in their own units. There will be a grill outside for cooking meat, along with a playground for the kids. Through communal activities and personal interactions, shared responsibilities, and celebration of Shabbat and Jewish holidays, residents will have a built-in support system. So far, investors include several retirees, a family with teenagers, a young couple planning to have children, and a single mom. Berkeley Moshav is the multi-generational, Jewish community that Valas—and many others—long for.
Valas is convinced that cohousing is an idea whose time has come, and that more communities will inevitably crop up in Denver and Colorado—just not soon enough for Valas to create her next home. “Moving to a new place when you’re 75 years old is hard,” she says. “I’m heartbroken about leaving my community here. I can hardly talk to my friends about it. So one of the things I’m working on is building my new community, so I’m plugged in when I get there. I don’t want to have to start from scratch.”
Valas says, “I love the idea of living Jewishly and not having it compartmentalized in my life. Although I’ve started to sow some seeds in Berkeley, I’m very rooted in Denver and the Denver Jewish community. My real hope is to keep my home here and continue to play an active role both in Denver and Berkeley.”