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.
There were a few yarmulkes in the crowd, but mostly it was uncovered heads. A man in a Utilikilt held a young girl in a pink dress. A woman danced with her daughter, who was shaking a steel reusable coffee mug like a rattle. I spotted one lonely bucket of fried chicken, but mostly, the picnic blankets were laden with salads—bean salads, fruit salads, bagged salads, orzo salads—in pots and bowls brought from home so as not to waste Tupperware. And, of course, challah.
Everyone looked great, the picture of relaxed, locavore health, a reminder of the well-known joke from the television series Portlandia—starring Carrie Brownstein, perhaps one of the city’s best-known Jews—about how progressive, affordable Portland is “the city where young people go to retire.” Except there was just one problem: This was not a crowd filled with young people, retired or otherwise.
In fact, it was overwhelmingly made up of middle-aged west-siders. Rabbi Greenstein thanked people for making the “schlep” over from the west side of the Willamette, and a woman I was seated with told me she saw mostly familiar faces from that side of the river. This made it very easy to spot the few young east-siders—three of them: a young man, his wife, and their 4-month-old daughter—because they looked so out of place.
David Michaelis, 31, who lives in Northeast Portland, works at a financial services firm where he specializes in Internet technology. For “Shabbat in the Park” he was wearing a “Jews Kick Ass” T-shirt featuring pictures of Albert Einstein, William Shatner, Jesus, the Fonz, and Sammy Davis Jr. “I’m not too involved,” he told me, munching on Bing cherries and snap peas toward the back of the crowd beneath the ash tree. His wife, Kerry, who was with him, was raised Catholic, not Jewish, making Michaelis a prime example of one of the Federation’s census findings: Less-involved Jews in Portland are “more apt” to be living with non-Jews. In a twist that shows just how confounding the young Portland east-siders can be to the west-side establishment that wants to reel them in, it was Michaelis’ non-Jewish wife who brought the family to Shabbat in the Park. “She likes the open-minded thing,” Michaelis told me. Also on his wife’s list of likes: the music, that the service is mostly in English, that the whole thing is outside. (From the census preparers: “Given the fact that this audience is most likely to be living with non-Jews, consider development of more secular events or programs that are welcoming and accepting of non-Jews.”)
Michaelis goes to synagogue only on high holidays—“And my grandmother would be pissed if she read that, so put that in,” he said—and while he told me that Shabbat in the Park was “pretty cool,” he quickly added: “If there were more people my age here, I’d be able to socialize more.” Gesturing to the crowd, he continued: “These people are older than us—way older than us.” He then pointed at a nearby woman. “I mean, this lady could be my grandma,” he said. Because Michaelis works, has a young family, and plays on a basketball team, he lamented, “I can’t go play beer pong on Wednesday at the Moishe House.” (A Moishe House, sensing opportunity, just opened in east Portland.)
So, the question remains: What, exactly, would Portland Jews like Michaelis rather have offered to them? “We just wanna get together and hang out,” Michaelis said.
That may sound perplexingly vague, but it’s very much in keeping with present national trends, as well as historical attitudes in this particular region. There is a long tradition—and not just in Portland—of Pacific Northwest Jews being a bit unusual in their disposition and practices, a bit harder to pin down than Jews from other parts of the country. University of Oregon’s Toll co-wrote a book on the subject in 2009, titled Jews of the Pacific Coast, which chronicles the rich history of Jews in the area and describes their migration as “a process of self-selection that favored the less insular and the more daring.”
Jewish merchants, for example, were a part of the early growth of major Western cities like San Francisco and Seattle, especially after the Gold Rush kicked off in 1849. “They tended to be a different kind of person,” Toll told me. Independent-minded, ready to leave the community they knew, more connected to natural beauty than, say, the Jews who declined to leave urban centers of Philadelphia and New York for an unknown life among the evergreens and people who at the time were called Indians. In the tiny Oregon Jewish Museum (located on the west side of the Willamette, of course, not far from the fortress-like Temple Beth Israel, founded in 1858) one can find pictures of these early Oregon Jews, riding horseback and walking the rugged beaches of the Pacific Coast.
Today, said Blattner, of the Federation, Portland is seeing a new wave of migration by adventurous and independent-minded Jews. “It’s a hot city,” he told me. “A hidden jewel.” He’s heard the joke, of course, about Portland being the place where young people go to retire—or, put in less jokey terms, the place where young people go to ride out the Great Recession in cheap, comfortable style, with the thought that they’ll also be involved in building a new, less materialistic, more do-it-yourself kind of urban American culture. But Blattner also sees a fundamentally different philosophy prevailing in Portland than on east coast, one that’s very alluring.
“There is a mindset that people do their jobs, and at the end of the day they want to go hike, bike, or enjoy the outdoors,” Blattner said. “And that’s a beautiful thing.” Plus, he added, “We live in this very open, progressive society where everything is all, ‘Be what you want to be,’ ‘Live your life.’ ”
For the unaffiliated Jews identified in the Federation’s census, however, the strong embrace of this nice Portland ethos is helping to create a disconnect. They’re not the previous generation’s Jews, and this rings out in the census findings. For example, unaffiliated Jews in Portland see Israel as a much lower priority than the city’s older establishment Jews, the survey found. The unaffiliateds are more interested in “promotion of civil rights and tolerance” than the Jewish establishment is; they’re also more interested than their older counterparts in “economic justice” and “protection of the environment.”
Even if these unaffiliated Jews had money for a membership at a synagogue—which many don’t—they are far less interested in institutions, or even institutional-feeling things, than the established core of Portland Jews.
Toll sees all of this as part of a trend that’s much bigger than just Portland, part of an ongoing breaking-apart of old norms for what it means to be Jewish. “Jews don’t identify as Jews in the way they used to,” Toll said. “We’ve become Americanized. And our concept of being Jewish is largely through religion, and religion seems to mean a way of finding spiritual meaning in our lives, and that seems to mean being on some spiritual quest, rather than being affiliated with some institution.”
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