From Birkenstocks to Baltimore


Betty & Jay Cherniak

First Connection:

Wedding Date:
July 16, 1977

Berkeley Zendo, Oakland Hills, California


Favorite Activity:
being in nature, camping, listening to classical music, traveling, spending time with family

In Berkeley, California, in 1974, a Birkenstock-clad Betty Cherniak worked in an organic natural-foods store called Wholly Foods.

“There were two kinds of people living in Berkeley in 1974,” and both kinds were hippies,” Betty said. One group was the anti-war movement and the other was “into the spiritual stuff. There were all these gurus from India. Everyone was either doing the political thing or the spiritual thing.”

Betty counted herself among the latter, and that’s how she met Jay. “I was running a Gestalt group in a garage,” she said. “I’m not a trained psychotherapist or anything. But this was in Berkeley in 1974. People just did stuff.” One day, Jay showed up at the group.

An older woman in the group “just had this idea that Jay and I belonged together,” Betty said. “Jay was all shy.” Jay said he finally asked out Betty because the woman in their group “was very insistent. She kept saying: ‘You have to strike while the iron is hot.’ She kept drilling it into me until I finally gave in and asked Betty out.”

Betty and Jay’s first date was at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco for a classical music concert.

“But when we got there, it was locked tight as a drum,” Betty said. “There was someone inside playing the organ as in a horror movie. We didn’t stick around to hear the ‘creepy organ music.’ We took a walk on the beach.”

Jay says he told a friend the next day that he and Betty “would probably get married. I felt comfortable around Betty. That was important. To feel comfortable.”

Betty says she and Jay weren’t real hippies because they worked. “We were part-time hippies in the evening, after the workday,” she said. While Betty worked at Wholly Foods, Jay wrote high school biology lessons, a government contracting job. Both practiced meditation. They dated for two years, and after Jay proposed, they looked to get married at a Reform synagogue in Berkeley.

“We didn’t want a justice of the peace,” Betty said. Jay was Jewish and Betty wasn’t Jewish yet (she would later convert), although she had always been drawn to Judaism, she said. The synagogue denied their request to wed.

Because Betty and Jay were “doing Zen” at the time, they got married at the Berkeley zendo in an outdoor ceremony on July 16, 1977. On one side of the aisle sat Jay’s family and friends, and on the other side sat Betty’s sari-clad friends: members of Berkeley’s Kripalu ashram.

They spent their honeymoon in Mendocino, California, and a couple years later, Betty found out she was pregnant.

At this point, Betty said, “we started thinking about how to raise the child. We are both very spiritual.” Betty realized Jay, who hadn’t been in shul since his bar mitzvah two decades before, was “looking for Judaism.” She told him, “You need to be in synagogue.”

Betty and Jay found the shul closest to them, an Orthodox synagogue. It turned out to be a great fit. “I always would have chosen Orthodox,” Betty said. “That’s just my personality.” They attended services regularly, and a few months later, an eight-months- pregnant Betty converted to Judaism.

The couple later had a Jewish wedding at the rabbi’s house in May 1980, and their son Seth was born a few weeks later. The couple moved to Baltimore in 1994, drawn to its Jewish infrastructure and affordability.

Jay and Betty raised five children, Seth, Molly, Ari, Rochel, and Shlomo, and now have 14 grandchildren.

They still share a strong bond with classical music, Betty says. They love camping, and last summer took four of their grandchildren camping with them. They travel a bit as well, and have been to Europe and the American west.

Jay is “very easygoing. And interesting,” Betty said. “And still kind of unpredictable after all these years. He’s extremely honest and reliable.” Jay said, “I still feel comfortable with her. We can talk about anything.” Jay also loves Betty’s joie de vivre, he says. “She’s cute.”

The Cherniaks like that their children are now loving parents are raising their families in a Jewish environment. “It’s part of a chain,” Betty said, “passed down from previous generations.”

Erica Rimlinger is a Towson-based freelance writer.

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