Bierbaum brings wealth of experience to Eastside Jewish Commons

PHOTOS: Right: Howie Bierbaum is the new Executive Director of Eastside Jewish Commons.Left: EJC summer intern Alyssa Knudsen hangs out with one of the snakes that visited for snake day at BB Day Camp at the Commons. (See stories on Alyssa and on fall events at bottom of this post.) 

EJC has new executive director

Howie Bierbaum has a new gig, and the eastside Jewish community is applauding. 
After more than 30 years promoting the arts and local culture in Portland, Bierbaum has stepped into his next leading role as executive director of the Eastside Jewish Commons, the year-old community space on Sandy Boulevard long envisioned by some eastside Jews.
“The job involves all my skill sets,” says the New Jersey native, whose resume reads like a directory to Portland arts and culture. “I am fearless with fundraising, fearless with publicity. That will be an asset to the EJC. Someone who is not afraid to be out there publicly is a good thing for a beginning nonprofit.” 
Mia Birk could not agree more. “We are very fortunate to have such a seasoned professional,” says Birk, who helped create the vision and reality of the EJC. Birk served on the EJC’s original steering committee and was the first chair of the board of directors, from 2018 to 2021. Birk also filled in as interim executive director during the four-month search for a permanent leader. Now she has returned to the board again and serves as treasurer.
“I’m happy to pull back from the minutiae and let Howie take the reins,” she says. “I’m really thrilled to turn it over to someone who knows what they are doing and is ready to do the job.”
Alysa Rose, a founding EJC board member who led the national candidate search, says she was surprised to find the right person here in Portland – particularly in a challenging job market.
“It was a difficult position to hire for because what EJC is doing is unique,” she says. “We were looking for someone to execute our vision – to help us create an inclusive, collaborative space on the eastside.”
Bierbaum’s background spoke volumes to the board members and community partners who interviewed him. He ran the Portland Saturday Market (including during Covid), Wonder Ballroom and Oregon Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. He managed tours for the local, multilingual musical ensemble Pink Martini. He brought outside acts to Portland through his company Circa Now Presents. He has also helped direct Do Jump Extremely Physical Theater, Portland Symphonic Choir and Portland Area Theatre Alliance.
“The very first thing that was impressive about him was the resonance of his experience with our needs,” Birk says. “He has run multiple venues and knows the nuts and bolts of operations of venues and arts organizations. That’s a lot of the job, as we’ve learned over the last year.”
Bierbaum agreed that his experience with fundraising, budgeting, marketing and hosting events makes him a good fit for the EJC. He said that growing the young nonprofit will take improvements to the physical space, expanded programming and money – perhaps the biggest challenge. 
“Fundraising is always a challenge – but a challenge I welcome,” he says, adding that he learned by running the Portland Saturday Market that “budgeting is the road map to what is possible.”
Bierbaum acknowledges that a little schmoozing may help, too.
“I’m going to meet other leaders (of Jewish organizations) and see how we can fit into the ecosystem of Jewish life in Portland,” he says.
Rose says she is eager to see what impact Bierbaum will have on the young organization. “I’m looking forward to what he will bring. I want to see what he observes and recommends.”
Although Bierbaum isn’t an Oregon native, he got here as soon as he could. He fell in love with the weather while visiting Eugene as a Rutgers University student and adopted Portland as home in 1981. Raised Conservative in a largely Jewish neighborhood, Bierbaum says his bar mitzvah was his last involvement with organized Judaism. “None of us ever went back,” he says of himself and his friends. “It’s a common story from my generation.”
However, Bierbaum did not dissociate himself from his Jewish roots. “I consider myself a ‘cultural Jew.’ It’s the core Jewish values that drive me,” particularly the ideals of tikkun olam, tzedakah and social justice.
Bierbaum points to his volunteerism as a reflection of these values in action. Among his extensive community work is his fight against the AIDS crisis as a founding member of Portland ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) and his successful efforts to preserve accessibility – especially for the elderly and disabled – to public transportation at the Skidmore MAX stop. 
Professionally, he has supported Jewish performers representing gay culture. He also has collaborated in the past with Congregation Neveh Shalom Cantor Emeritus Linda Shivers, Do Jump Artistic Director Robin Lane and Third Angle New Music to bring Jewish themes to the stage. 
“Jewishness has been interwoven into all the work I do,” Bierbaum says.
Bierbaum also has remained tied to the Jewish community through Jewish friends. In fact, it was one of these friends who brought the executive director position to his attention and encouraged him to apply. But it was the interview with EJC board members that sealed the deal in Bierbaum’s mind.
“The quality of the leadership and the vision of the board is not seen on other boards,” Bierbaum says. “Once I realized I’d be working with a lot of smart, progressive Jews, I knew it was perfect.”
Not only was Bierbaum impressed by the EJC board but also by the organization’s collaboration with Congregation Shir Tikvah, which shares the venue with the EJC. He is also excited by the unique programming some EJC partners have offered. He cites events by TischPDX and Co/Lab’s recent Judaism and Psychedelics program as examples.
“The partners and organizations who use the space regularly are progressive, out-of-the-box thinkers,” he says. “Nobody else will do (the events they do).”
Bierbaum has watched the evolution of the Sandy Boulevard property over the years. He remembers when it was a car dealership and the Hatch co-working space. He admires the building’s bright, open space and inclusive mission.
“I want it to be a viable space for Jews and non-Jews, a space to experience cultural, intellectual and spiritual events,” Bierbaum says. “The space should be grown organically and deliberately. I want to be thoughtful about what we present and co-present.” 
In addition to arts and cultural activities, Bierbaum envisions a place for social justice work.
“I think Portland is going through a really rough spot right now – houselessness, inconsistent political leadership at the local level, transportation issues,” he says. “I hope the EJC is a positive addition to the community. It might be a place to discuss these issues, and some positive actions can come out of it.”

Intern helps grow Eastside Jewish Commons events


It’s often said, “Life doesn’t come with a manual. It comes with a mother.” And when you are Alyssa Knudsen and your mother is Jenn Director-Knudsen, you grow up with a strong role model, impactful life lessons about social engagement, respect for others’ differences, unconditional love and support for family, and a love for Judaism and lifelong learning. 
Alyssa has embraced these values, making her own mark locally and beyond. The Brandeis University junior currently serves on the board of the campus’ pro-Israel lobby. She taught the aleph-bet to younger students as a teacher’s assistant for five years at Congregation Neveh Shalom. She volunteered as a docent for an Anne Frank exhibit at Jesuit High School, from which she graduated in 2020.
“I am passionate about being Jewish and working in the Jewish community,” says the Portland native, who pointed to her mother’s professional and volunteer experience and her parents’ interfaith marriage as particularly influential. “I grew up confident of my Jewish identity but receptive to different beliefs, different families.”
Last spring, the 21-year-old followed in her mother’s community-minded footsteps to the Eastside Jewish Commons. There, she approached then-interim Executive Director Mia Birk about a summer internship.
Birk greeted Alyssa’s request with curiosity and enthusiasm. The EJC didn’t have an established internship, but the two women brainstormed to create a position to benefit both partners. 
“Alyssa’s opportunity at the EJC started from relationships,” Birk says. “Knowing her family and her mom’s involvement in the Jewish community, I was intrigued with the idea of having her as an intern.”
But it wasn’t just who she knew. It also was what she knew – music. Alyssa sang in choirs for years, and she currently performs with the Brandeis University chamber chorus.
“Alyssa expressed an interest in leading programming for younger adults and in arts programming,” Birk says, and the nonprofit was looking to expand programming in both of these areas. 
Alyssa partnered with EJC Events Coordinator Eric Stern to develop the venue’s fall and winter calendar. She also completed administrative tasks and researched other nonprofits’ procedures.
“I’ve done a lot more than I thought I would,” Alyssa says. “The best part is that I gained confidence in just going for something, seeing what I can do.”
Family support has been a constant in Alyssa’s life. She is especially proud that her father, who is not Jewish, sat on the bimah with her during her bat mitzvah. She also is “incredibly grateful” for her relationship with her grandparents, all four of whom live in Portland. 
Director-Knudsen says, “My parents and in-laws have been available as a support network for all the good things and all the bad things. Alyssa came to see her grandparents as an extension of her parents. They were always present and nonjudgmental.”
Although Alyssa is uncertain what career she will choose after she earns degrees in political science and French, she has a passion for education and has considered teaching high school or beyond. And, like her mother, family also is a priority. 
“It is important to me to balance my desire for a meaningful, long-lived career with the desire to have a family of my own,” she says.
“I don’t have lofty goals to change the world,” she explains. “I just want to change my little pocket of the universe.” 


EJC fall calendar has music, stories, food, families, more 

The Eastside Jewish Commons will start the fall on a high note. Music, dance, games, stories, puppets and food will highlight a family friendly celebration Sept. 18 at the Sandy Boulevard venue. The free program is the first of several events created to draw families to the eastside space. 
As EJC’s cultural arts ambassador, Eric Stern has been composing the lineup, which includes monthly concerts on Fridays at noon.
“When my own son was a boychik, I wanted to expose him to all sorts of live music,” Stern says, “but most concerts began at his bedtime. I’m hoping that our Friday concerts featuring music from the countries of our Diaspora will be attended by parents with children, elders or anyone with free time during the day.”
“Our focus has been on families and cultural arts, and sometimes those lanes even intersect,” he adds. “As a veteran eastsider myself, I know we’ve got an incredibly diverse community. ... We want to support our Jewish community and shape the next generation.”
Stern now is collaborating with Howie Bierbaum, EJC’s new executive director, to develop programming that fills the bill. 
“I want to fill the space wisely with cultural, educational and entertainment activities,” Bierbaum says. “I’m excited by the stuff he’s bringing, and I’m going to try to complement it with my stuff.”
The two have orchestrated some exciting events for guests of all ages.
“We’ve got lots of other irons in the fire – cooking classes, Yiddish storytelling,” says Stern. “But the thread that binds these events is the same that binds our community – we’re eastside Jews. Heck, we’re close enough to the river to be the lower eastside. We’re warm, we’re eclectic, we revel in making food and music, and we lean on those who came before us to create community that surges forward with simcha.”
Sept. 18: Fall Family Kick-Off Event is especially appropriate for families with children ages 2-9. The free event features writer Alicia Jo Rabins, storyteller-musician Kim Schneiderman, puppeteer Ora Fruchter and yogi Annie Rosen. Sofia Vidalis will offer free massages to parents. Details and registration:
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