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Bridgetown

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.

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Shabbat in the Pool in Portland, Ore., July 30, 2011. (Cheyenne Montgomery)

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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Rorkesdrift says:

This article left me feeling both sad and confused.

Confused since the only thing that made any of these people jewish is that they were born to jewish parents. They say they would like to be more jewish if they didn’t have to follow any rules, could do whatever they wanted and were surrounded by people who think and act like them. They sound like spoiled children rather than the adults they claim to be. So this also makes me sad.

But then on a political spectrum they would fit right in with many jews. The left wing – liberal american jewish ideas are alive and well in this group. They would like to participate but only if someone else pays the expenses and they believe in “economic justice” which translates as take money from other people to spend how I see fit.

I have been hearing this “jewish cultural” line of bs for my whole life. This usually means nothing as a definition doesn’t exist. It appears that this group already has a religion, it is based on what makes me feel good (be it vegan, ecology or just whatever my current emotion tells me feels right). But just because they eat challh or wear a witty tshirt doesn’t make them any more jewish then my playing basketball in my driveway make me a nba player.

Jason M says:

Rorkesdrift – Thank you for illustrating exactly the type of attitude that’s driving young Jews away from greater Jewish involvement. I was particularly amused by your casual tossing in of right-wing talking points… might explain why most younger Jews are more likely to listen to Jon Stewart than to people like you.

P. Sydney Herbert says:

I don’t think this “problem” is very different from what the Christian churches face: people who say they are not religious, but “spiritual” whatever that is. They don’t want any rules, worship inclusiveness, and expect others to pick up the tab.

Ira Sheskin says:

I think you are making too much of this. This was, first of all a survey, not a census. In a census, everyone gets counted. In a survey, we interview a smaller sample and infer to a population.

Second, did you notice the amount of time that went by between when the survey was done and when the results were released. Did you look at the Report where they acknowledge that the results do not seem to reflect the community.

While I have no evidence to categorically state that the 47,500 is wrong, I do have my doubts.

I should tell you that I have completed 42 such studies around the country and was involved in the last two National Jewish Population Surveys. I was also called for advice by the Federation exec in Portland.

It is obvious that Eli Sanders Bridgetown is a total putdown of a people who do not meet his standards to be called a Jew. You say the Federation spent $300.000
to hunt down the Jews who do yoga and are vegans ?
Since your Jews are
“the more buttoned-up crowd”, the picture showing Jews swimming,and being entertained by a hip guitar player, you would show a picture of a Mikvah ? If Portland is as you say, “proudly weird, exceedingly non-religious city,” sounds like
“Shabbat in the Park.”
is the place to be.
I think “Jason M” got it RIGHT !
Sy Fort Lee NJ

Jeffrey Tobias says:

I for 5 years knew there were more Jews then they said.Many live in the Hawthorne District,where many wernt counted,as OSHU,area ansd SW Portland area. Hillsborougfh has many,and not anyone can be exact.I believe 47,000 Jews do live here in Portland,OR. BH,Jeffrey

This article could have been written twenty years ago.

Portland is understandably even less Jewishly connected. But the essence is the same all over the country. Intermarriage, beer pong, no desire for institutional affiliation.

Can you tell us something new?

I currently live in Portland, OR, I was born and raised in Israel and lived in NYC for ten years. I was rarely went to synagouge nor sought the company of other Jews (while living in NYC) until I moved to Portland. There is a thriving Jewish community here that certainly reaches out to it’s people without being “religious” which suits my atheistic beliefs but still allows me to be around my people.

Howard says:

I live in East Portland. There were some annoying features of the article, such as relying on one “Michaelis” to represent all of East Side Jewry. But the big picture… town doubles its understanding of how many Jews exist… is on target.

East and West Portland represent competing Jewish pathologies. Stodgy institutionalism to the West, incoherent disconnected almost nothing-ism in the East. But I could point to good things happening on both sides of the river… organized communities (like Neveh Shalom and Shir Tikvah) wanting to reach out to people whose first question in choosing a place to live was not “is there a synagogue nearby”… but who might still want a Jewish connection or might come to discover that want after they have made their initial residential location choice.

East Portland isn’t just where young people go to retire. Metaphorically it’s where lots of young Jews go to live, and where lots of young Americans who aren’t Jewish go to live. It’s a cultural space in which Jews and others have a hard time feeling that different from other similarly educated people who are not Jewish. It’s an open, accepting space. It’s yoga and natural foods and inexpensive housing (sort of… it’s all relative).

There are some cool things that could work for Jewish community on the East side. It’s laid out in an older style, with walkable streets and bikable paths. It’s not hilly like the West. It’s possible to use cars less. It’s where young Jews actually choose to move. It’s frankly more hamish and less moneyed. It might even be the future of Jewish Portland.

I mean seriously, what is the future of liberal educated Jews in America? Is it really all about suburban car culture (West Portland)? Is it really only in neighborhoods that require high paying jobs (West Portland)?

Sure the Jews of east Portland are sometimes a little hippy dippy like the people of East Portland, but maybe that’s the emerging Jewish reality of the world.

Trudi Gardner says:

Considering the desire to reach out to nonaffiliated Jews, it was disheartening to read the most recent edition of the Portland Jewish Review, the sole Jewish newspaper in Portland for 52 years and Jewish Federation product, has announced it will cease publication.

While apparently a monthly magazine of Jewish lifestyles may show up in January, the Jewish Review with its news of local Jewish community events and people (including weddings, obits, professional achievements)will be missed. As one who’s been living out of state for years, the Review was also a connection to the Jewish community of my hometown.

Rorkesdrift says:

Sorry Jason but I do not get into discussions with people who think that “attack the messenger” is an intelligent way to get your point across. Is calling someone names the way to discuss a topic?

I noticed that you never address the coments in the article or the ideas that these people express. It is easier to ignore the reality and just attack someone who you disagree with.

It may not be PC to say so, but Judaism is based on following rules (Sabbath observance, Kashruth etc), not eating bagels and reducing your carbon footprint. This is one of the big differences between Judaism and Protestantism. Let’s be honest being only culturally Jewish means that either your children or grandchildren will probably not be Jewish. Whether this is important to you or not is a different question.

Shlomo says:

People that cant afford Shul memberships should attend House of Seven Beggars Synagogue online at Ustream ..with torah Study and Shul and a children’s story time as well.

At least they would be observing Shabbat as we all should.

Thank you to Sy, I haven’t been called “hip” in a long time. I am the guitar player in the photo.

While I appreciate this article, I think that the writer has a very cursory experience and gets a lot of things incorrect.

I was at both of the events mentioned. The picnic did have a lot of westsiders, BUT many of these were in leadership positions and interested in seeing what was happening. There were still many eastsiders there.

At the Shabbat in the Pool event, almost everyone lived on the eastside. Even looking in the picture, I recognize 8 families and 7 of them live on the eastside. Also, in the writer’s mind, people in their 30s with young kids are no longer young or important to reach out to?? I can show the writer some Jewish events in Portland where everyone is over 60!

I grew up on the westside and have lived on the eastside for the 9 years. I also felt for years that 25,000 was WAY TOO LOW. The eastsiders I know fall in three catagories:
1. Involved
2. Informal
3. Disconnected

The question is how to further engage the “informal” and hope to reach some of the disconnected.

Mainly, they want to stay informal! To engage them more, Hillel International figured this out 10 years ago. They called it “Universally Human, Distinctively Jewish”. The idea was to plan events that were fun enough that anyone would want to attend. Once Hillel becomes “cool” use this as the hook to get students to more distinctively Jewish events.

Btw, there are a lot of organizations already working on this type of work – Jewish Theatre Collaborative, Hazon, Moishe House, an idea floating out there for a Jewish Habitat for Humanity.

Will $30,000 answer that question?? I hope so, but even more I hope the Federation will provide funds that will sustain successful new organizations instead of giving dollars to one-time programs – i.e. $7,500 to put on three picnics. The Shabbat in the Pool has been going on for years without outside funding.

You missed the Humanistic Jewish group in Portland http://www.kolshalom.org/

Masortiman says:

todah to howard and aaron for correcting some misconceptions. It sounds like East Portland has SOME things in common with “independent minyan country” in the east (and in LA) but OTOH, its still far more hippy dippy spiritual rule averse etc than the communities that have created the indie minyanim.

also missing from the article – how many young people are living in west portland? From my experience the existence of jews who dont fit the “mainstream” suburban world either because they are too distant from Judaism (and back east lots of marginally jewish intermarried folks live in very uncool suburbs) or their Judaism is too intense (any of those in Portland?) does not exclude folks who just want the same suburban shuls their parents had.

Masortiman says:

“The left wing – liberal american jewish ideas are alive and well in this group. They would like to participate but only if someone else pays the expenses”

The funding of american synagogues, and other mainstream institutions is to a very large extent done with the dues and donations of people who consider themselves to be liberals.

” and they believe in “economic justice” which translates as take money from other people to spend how I see fit.”

To be more traditionally Jewish, they should believe in taking money from other people and spending it as a kehilla with rabbinic leadership sees fit – though that would INCLUDE helping widows, orphans, and the poor.

We yidden were practicing PRACTICAL social democracy centuries before Marx was a gleam in his fathers eye.

Masortiman says:

“It may not be PC to say so, but Judaism is based on following rules (Sabbath observance, Kashruth etc), not eating bagels and reducing your carbon footprint. This is one of the big differences between Judaism and Protestantism. Let’s be honest being only culturally Jewish means that either your children or grandchildren will probably not be Jewish. Whether this is important to you or not is a different question.”

1. Reform does not require following the rules of kashrut and shabbat. Yet these folks arent streaming to mainstream Reform shuls. I think the alienation is somewhat different, and perhaps more profound than that

2. social justice, and enviromental activism, have jewish textual justifications, as not only Reform but Conservative/Masorti and even some Orthodox have recognized. Its not at all impossible to combine traditional halacha with “liberal” social activism, and some of the most successful new kehillot in NYC and LA and elsewhere do PRECISELY that.

Deb Moon says:

Hi Deb: Good meeting today.

Here is the article about Portland and the website”Tablet” that I mentioned to you.

Cindy

Visitor says:

Shir Tikvah is not the only Synagogue on the East Side. The Chabad House near Reed College has a full time shul for a few years now.

“social justice, and enviromental activism, have jewish textual justifications”

Yes if you are ignorant and work hard to distort the facts.

I can more easily prove to you that Judaism support free-market anti-State policies – because, welle that’s exactly what it does in fact – and personal responsabilities by the mean of Tsedaka (that individuals must do, not the State).

Anyway, this article just illustrates the slow death of US Jewry. You can double the population of Portland Jews but I doubt many of them are even Halakhically Jews.

I grew up in France and saw how the Catholic Church was dying by trying to be always PC and nice. On the same time, I saw Imams and Rabbis becoming more and more hardline and giving a strong identity message to youth – and what happened ? Youth were flocking to these Rabbis and Imams – even non-Jews and non-Muslims – while the Churches are now completely empty.

Same thing in Israel – maybe the rabbis alienated the alreasy alienated seculars but the result is that today the majority of Israeli Jewish kids are in religious (“orthodox”) schools while it was 25% a generation ago.

So this New Age PC outreach Judaism really has not even a chance.

Having lived in Portland off and on since 1992, I thought the article was actually a little too mild. And i fit the age group no one can figure out. “The Portland Jewish” Community” is actually several. What I refer to as the ghetto is the west side only as far as Beaverton. The ghetto dictates what is considered Jewish, who is considered Jewish, all the events happen there, everyone wants to live there, etc. For those of us who can’t afford to live in the ghetto, and that is most people in their 20′s 30′s and more, there is “the rest of Portland”. Intel-land is taken care of by Chabad, with occasional trips in to the ghetto as needed. the east side is sort of a black hole where people either like the buffet line approach to Judaism or really don’t want to participate because it’s just too much work. Then there is Vancouver, which actually serves Vancouver and those of us who live in N Portland. A classic Portland attitude is to advertise Melton classes in “Portland” but not bother to mention Vancouver also. As one classmate found out after 1 1/2 years of shlepping 45 minutes over to the ghetto, there was a much more fun Melton group 10 minutes from her house. That encapsulates part of the Portland Jewish community. I too wonder what “participation” means. As someone who started a Jewish book group in Portland, I noticed that the only people who made an effort to attend were those who were mildly already involved in their synagogue or community. the group was specifically for the under 40 crowd. In other words, those to whom some flavor of Judaism was very important in their life. this group was open to anyone who was ok with the fact that the readings were Jewish oriented. None of the “culturally Jewish” east siders could be bothered. There always seemed to be something more important like doge ball to do. No one from the ghetto could be bothered. This is the other side of Portland.

I commend the Federation or not hiding their heads in the sand and making an effort to find all the lazy Jews in Portland. And I’m not at all surprised at the numbers since it includes Vancouver. however, for more inclusion to happen, there has to be some major changes. One is to create another community center on the east side. When I live in Vancouver, I’m really not interested in shlepping to the ghetto for an event where I’m the only non-west sider. I don’t feel welcome. I can’t remember the last time I actually went to the JCC. Years ago would be my guess.
Remember that Vancouver & N Portland are actually part of the metropolitan area. we are just as Jewish, sometimes more so, than anyone from the ghetto.
To illustrate the attitude, one particular rebbettzin who I will not name, continuously whines about why can’t the synagogue be moved to the ghetto. “There are more Jews there” is her point of view.
That highlights the elitism. I chose the synagogue partly because I can get there in 15 minutes max and it fits my philosophy. If it was in the ghetto, I wouldn’t belong to the synagogue.
As far as attracting those that I call the “lazy Jews”, much of that is the problem and reason why people choose to live in Portland. At every street protest, invariably the poor Palestinians are front and center. does this cause the lazy Jews to hide even further or are they actually participating? Portland is all about “rooting for the underdog” especially if it means crying anti-semitic slogans. PSU stands for Palestinian State U, not Portland State U. So, where are the “cultural Jews” who would rather play dodge ball than come to a purim party? Wish I knew. They magically appear when there is a major party organized by Jodie Berris but never seem to be around for Yom Ha’tzmaot. This is the challenge that Federation has and I’m glad they are tackling it.

While I appreciate the article, I think it’s a bit mild as well.

East side Judaism looks different from west side Judaism in Portland because the east side is where people who earn less money can afford to live. And they’re not all 20-somethings, either.
Some of us are childless forty-somethings. Some of us are fifty-something singles dealing with the aftermath of failed marraiges and the resulting loneliness. Some of us are retirees scraping by on Social Security and pop bottle deposits, in subsidized housing very far away from any Jewish institution (Eli, next time you come to Portland, look for the Jews Of St. Johns. They’re out there.)
Some of us are families whose kids cannot afford to move out after high school or college because there are no living-wage jobs available.
Granted, there may not be as many of who identity as “Jewish” as our west side counterparts; certainly far fewer of us are afilliated with an institution. Chalk it up not only to the high cost of being Jewishly affiliated — and thoses costs go far beyond synagogue dues. When you struggle to make rent each month, it’s difficult to care very much about a tiny country on the other side of the world that you’ll never be able to afford to travel to. So instead, we either abandon Jewish communal life, or we re-fashion it into something far more relevant to the lives we are living. If that leaves traditional Jewish institutions behind — and under-populated, and under-funded — they have only themselves to blame.

george says:

pathetic.

This article is very stunning to me. In all my research of America, i never knew that Portland had this much jews. My fathers side of my family is jewish and I’ve know them for a long time. I wonder to my self , what does this mean for Portland. More anti-semitism or a time of peace and prosperity.

tantelaeh says:

We just went back to being Jewish after years of hiding.

Beth – great points about the affordability and hence exclusivity of being involved!!

Maia – PSU is a the largest university in Oregon. It has a huge 30,000 student population with a dizzying array of opinions. There are incidents on campus that make Jewish students uncomfortable and a strong presence of students form middle-east countries. BUT, we now also have one of the best Judaic Studies programs this side of the Rockies (with soon to be 4 professors) thanks to the generosity of Harold Schintzer and Lorry Lokey. Portland Hillel also helps to get Jewish students who mainly come from pretty disenfranchised backgrounds engaged with their Jewish identity. So, your definition of PSU is a bit outdated.

ick. someone should throw a toaster in that pool……

Great, so PSU is joining the modern world. Old attitudes die slowly ( see the moronic comment by adolf) and Portland is no exception. I think you missed the point of my article, which is that Jewish life in Portland does not revolve around the shtel of the Multnomah village area/West Hills. Until Portland JCC realizes that, you can have all the fancy Jewish programs you want, but they will still be catered to those who live in the shtetl and not the rest of us that live in N Portland, Vancouver, Eastside and out in to the Gorge or further south towards Salem.

Masortiman says:

“I can more easily prove to you that Judaism support free-market anti-State policies – because, welle that’s exactly what it does in fact – and personal responsabilities by the mean of Tsedaka (that individuals must do, not the State).”

1. supporting markets is not incompatible with advocating for redistributionist social justice.
2. Of course Judaism was skeptical of the STATE, controlled by gentiles, often by antisemites. But in the kehillas that the Jews controlled, they usually practiced a welfare state.

3. That getting a particular result involves selective, out of context reading of texts is not uncommon in our tradition.

4. Similarly the fact that you can find textual basis for two competing POV’s is not at all uncommon in our mesorah.

You dont have to agree with the folks who base their social activism on the Torah. You just can’t use their social activism to “prove” that they are not committed to texts and halacha. In fact there are many new and vibrant (though still small) kehillot that ARE committed to an halachic approach to Judaism AND to a progressive approach to Tikkun Olam

Baruch Atta says:

I want to belong to a shul that has “Tikva” in its name. Sounds so cool.

wonder if author PHILIP MARGOLIES is part of the tribe

We stumbled more than here coming from a different internet page and thought I may possibly check items out. I like what I see so now i

Barry NewDelman says:

Relativley new to Portland, originally from Chicago–Looking fpr Jewish Motorcyclists to form a Jewish club.

Need 5 members to become of a global Jewish Motorcyclist alliance.

more info at http://www.jewishbikersworldwide.com

contact by email or at 888.859.1480

Kill all the Jews

The holocaust never happened. You murdered Palestinians because you are worms.

Decline of the West says:

I’ve lived in Portland for nearly a decade now and the Jew infestation can’t be stopped. To be more specific, loads of money-grubbing Jewish realtors are moving into Portland, buying up as much historic property as they can, then tearing it down to build up new expensive complexes. Their inhumane greed is a plague to humanity, which is what Hitler rallied against in the first place. If this sounds “racist,” realize that nearly the entire nation of Germany understood how toxic these people were to their society. And here they are now in Portland, contributing absolutely nothing artistically that doesn’t involve hooking in quick a buck.

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Bridgetown

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.