A new Federation census doubled the Jewish population of Portland, Ore., overnight. Now the question is who they are and how to connect with them.
In April, something odd happened to the Jewish population of Portland, Ore.: It nearly doubled.
Where once everyone in town had long believed in a rough estimate of 25,000 Portland Jews, suddenly a new, far more accurate count was on people’s lips: 47,500. “The Federation did this census,” said University of Oregon historian William Toll, referring to the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland—which, to help serve this proudly weird, exceedingly non-religious city, decided two years ago that it needed a better count of its target audience. This survey was the first serious census of Portland Jews in decades, Toll said, and when the final results came out in the spring, “lo and behold, there were twice as many Jews in Portland as they thought were there.”
“People were stunned,” Marc Blattner, president and CEO of the Federation, told me. And a mystery was born. Toll mimicked the reaction of Federation leaders: “Who are they? Where did they come from?” The answer? “They don’t know.”
So, one day late in the summer, I pumped up the tires on my bike, told my Seattle friends I was off to look for the Lost Tribe of Portland, and boarded an Amtrak train heading south.
“Bridgetown” is one of Portland’s best-earned nicknames—there are eight major bridges in the central business district—but another way of looking at things is that Portland is a city sliced in half by a river. This particular geography is key to understanding the lay of the Jewish land in Portland. The cold, snow-melt-fed waters of the Willamette River run through the middle of the city, flowing northward toward the bigger Columbia River and then out into the Pacific. It’s picturesque, but it cuts Bridgetown into its distinct western and eastern sides, and it divides the Jewish community, too.
The Jewish establishment in Portland—the oldest synagogues, the Federation headquarters, the Federation’s best donors, the more buttoned-up crowd—can be found in west Portland. The “Lost Tribe”—a mass of younger, less affluent, largely unaffiliated Jews who turned up in the Federation’s new census—can be found mainly in the city’s eastern half. Hence, one major conclusion of the Federation’s census: Jewish leaders in the city need to begin more outreach, “especially on the east side,” the survey states, to engage this previously unknown, presently underserved mass of Jews.
“We know that they’re people,” the Federation’s Blattner told me. “They’re regular people. But what they want and what they’re interested in is the question.” Another study, this one focused exclusively on the east side, is in the works. In the meantime, the Federation is putting about $300,000—or 10 percent of its annual campaign—behind events like the one I’d come to Portland to see.
It was a Friday evening in late July. As the sun was going down I left the Amtrak station in west Portland and headed east, pedaling up a ramp onto the red steel-trussed Broadway Bridge, then over the Willamette River, and finally up a steep hill to Overlook Park. Under a giant ash tree: a pile of bikes laid down by locals who, like me, had ridden rather than driven to “Shabbat in the Park.”
About 150 Portland Jews were there, picnicking in golden light filtering down through the leaves of the big tree and creating a beautiful, classically Northwest scene—one that also made for easy allusions to the Tree of Life and the Garden of Eden. The rabbis presiding over the event did not miss the opportunity and made those exact allusions as participants flipped through a three-page, stapled prayer service that included English translations (and transliterations) for the Hebrew prayers.
“You may not know this, but it’s the Jews who invented TGIF,” Rabbi Ariel Stone told the crowd. She leads Shir Tikvah, the cosponsoring synagogue for the event. Founded in 2002, it’s the only synagogue on the east side of Portland and currently shares sanctuary space with a United Church of Christ. “We daven in our Birkenstocks and our jeans,” Stone told me, speaking of her congregation. “We do yoga. We’re vegans.”
Stone told the crowd that night: “It’s not important where you belong. All that’s important is that you belong. No one ever has to be alone in this world.” Amid drum- and guitar-playing, there was talk of mindfulness and intentionality and suggestions that Judaism could be freer of guilt and neurosis. Rabbi Brad Greenstein, of the west side’s Congregation Neveh Shalom, which helped organize the event and is the oldest Conservative synagogue on the west coast, explained the purpose of the evening as “outreach toward unaffiliated Jews.” He spoke to the crowd about abandoning iPods and other technology, at least for a moment, and “tuning our souls to the frequency of meaning.”
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