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.
Jonathan Sarna, a professor at Brandeis and a leading scholar of Jewish history, agrees. He says that intermarriage, the general decline of Judaism’s Conservative movement, and a rise in more complex notions of identity have all contributed nationwide to “this large, less visible, maybe invisible group of Jews that, unless something is done about it, are going to disappear.”
Sarna is not surprised that Portland Jews may have been undercounted for years. “We don’t have good national data anymore,” he said, explaining that national Jewish groups abandoned conducting similar censuses, due in part to cost and arguments over methodology. What surprises him is the Portland Federation’s reaction: pouring money into learning more about, and reaching out to, these unaffiliated Jews. “A lot of Federations have had trouble justifying this kind of investment,” Sarna said. “After all, these young unaffiliateds are not giving much to the Federation and profess not to care very much about the Federation.”
Blattner, the president of the Portland Federation, sees it as an investment in people who will, if all goes well, become future donors—“a short-term loss for what we hope is a long-term gain,” as he put it to me.
Sarna called Blattner’s strategy refreshing. “It may be that Portland could be a place that will test out new models of what a Federation could be, that Portland could be something of a laboratory for new efforts to engage these less-affiliated young Jews.”
Blattner, for his part, is already there, talking passionately about “Jewish life without walls,” speaking of “changing the language in Jewish life to one that normal people understand,” and saying that, above all, “what we want to do is recognize that to be Jewish does not have a single definition.”
The morning after Shabbat in the Park, I woke up early in west Portland, put an iced coffee in my bike’s water-bottle cage, and rode over the Willamette River again, this time across the green-beamed Hawthorne Bridge, headed for Sellwood Park in southeast Portland. The event: Shabbat in the Pool.
Again, a lot of people at the event had, just like me, commuted over from the west side. There were about 100 of them, mostly families with kids, gathered on a slowly warming Saturday morning to jump in the pool, listen to guitar music, and be led in song by a megaphone-holding Deborah Eisenbach-Budner of the Reconstructionist community Havurah Shalom. When the splashing and singing was done, she led them to a picnic area for lunch and storytelling. (“Gluten-free challah!” she shouted into a megaphone.)
Again, it was easy to spot the very few young east-siders at this event, which was partly geared toward young east-siders. Joshua Fingert, 29, a barista and espresso-machine mechanic, was there with his wife, Michelle Lamanet, a stay-at-home mom; their son, Uzi, 3; and all the supplies a young Portland family might need on a morning like this one: swimsuits, sunscreen, carrot and cucumber slices, snap peas, hummus, fresh berries. Joshua was raised Conservative but doesn’t belong to a synagogue and told me he sees himself as culturally Jewish. (From the survey: “Unlike highly and moderately involved Jews, most Jews with low levels of involvement define their Jewish identity as cultural.”) Michelle isn’t Jewish, but she went to a Jewish mother’s circle while pregnant with Uzi, and their family observes High Holidays, keeps Shabbat most weeks, and even makes their own challah. “We’re still kind of finding our niche,” Michelle told me, speaking of their place in the Portland Jewish community. “The main barrier, for us, is money in joining a synagogue. If it was free, totally.” But it’s not, and they weren’t aware of the programs that do exist that could subsidize or waive their membership fees.
Josh and Michelle appeared to be the youngest parents at the event. They didn’t know any other families there, and that didn’t surprise them. Though they have a lot of Jewish friends, those friends generally don’t have kids, which means there’s not much reason for those friends to show up for an early Saturday morning kids’ pool party.
This, said Caron Rothstein, community engagement director for the Federation, is a vexing challenge. We were standing poolside as Rothstein, wearing a shirt that read “Happy Challah Day,” talked about the growing gap in time between a person’s bar or bat mitzvah and his or her decision to raise a family—part of a general social trend of Americans getting married later, having kids later, delaying all the things that used to cause many of them to naturally connect with Jewish institutions in their 20s or early 30s. Now those life events often don’t happen until a person is in his or her mid to late 30s, or even 40s.
Young, single, unaffiliated, 20-to-30-something-year-old Jews living on Portland’s east side are doing what young, single, unaffiliated, Jews of that age do—and they remain, essentially, lost to the Federation. “The challenge is finding things that resonate for them and that speak to where they are in their life mentally and physically,” Rothstein said.
To Sarna, this is very familiar. “A new development stage has come about,” he told me. “Some people have called them ‘the Odyssey years.’ But it’s a totally new phase. Which is why we have so few Jewish institutions to deal with it.” He suggested one answer may be to encourage young unaffiliated people who feel only partly Jewish—or identify as just culturally Jewish—to at least feel that “their Jewishness is the most precious part of their identity.”
Toll, the historian, had a similar suggestion, saying people like Rothstein and those running the Portland Federation should cultivate new outreach efforts by asking a simple question: “What is Jewish about the young people they’re trying to reach?”
It may not be that easy. When I got back to Seattle, I called Michaelis, the 31-year-old east-sider who I met at Shabbat in the Park, and asked him: What’s Jewish about you?
His answers contained a lot of the familiar, complicated sentiments that tend to confound establishment Jews who are used to a simpler version of Jewish identity. Michaelis said his connection to his Jewish family makes him Jewish, though he doesn’t want to practice the way his Jewish family does. He also said his Judaism is more about being part of a culture than being a member of a religion. Finally, he suggested that Portland’s Jewish establishment try getting involved in promoting “Portland scene stuff—going to a bar, having drinks” if they want to reach him and other members of his particular tribe.
Michaelis does, however, know the answer to the question of what, exactly, he wants from Jewish life. It’s just that it’s still more of a vague notion than the kind of roadmap the Federation is seeking. “For me,” he said, “it’s all about being around people who are Jewish.”
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