Different Strokes for Different Folks

I love my job! I had finished my weekly email late last night, but just had to share my beautiful experience from this morning.

Just 45 minutes ago, I joined students and parents at Portland Jewish Academy’s Kabbalat Shabbat. Beyond the ruach (spirit) there were two moments that touched me deeply. First, two young boys and their mother (new to PJA this year) were called to the front and a special proclamation from Secretary of State John Kerry was read. You see, the father of this family is currently stationed in Iraq since he works for the U.S. State Department. The proclamation thanked their father for his service to our country and acknowledged the challenges families face when separated. I was deeply moved.

In addition, PJA honored Lisa Horowitz, who for the past 6 ½ years has served as the Executive Director of the MJCC and PJA. Lisa will be leaving to move to Seattle later this month. For over 21 years Lisa has been connected with PJA – starting when her three girls enrolled in pre-school. Lisa was presented with a beautiful mezuzah and handmade card by the Kindergarten class. Lisa, thank you for all you have accomplished and for your involvement and leadership for so many years. Our community will miss you!


Apropos to my recent emails about the Pew Study, I received an email earlier this week from a community leader, “I read the latest Oregon Jewish Life from cover to cover and was incredibly frustrated when I finished. The ‘other Portland Jewish community’ has some incredibly fascinating people doing incredibly fascinating things. But why don’t we know about these people or what they are doing Jewishly? I think it would be interesting to talk to these people to find out if they feel part of the Jewish community and if not, why not.”

Well, in that vein, I had a special experience with a Portland couple earlier this week.

Several weeks ago I received the following Facebook posting – Welcome to Beit Shlomo, a Jewish intentional community in Tabor/Sunnyside, southeast Portland, Oregon. We are four families sharing a large Victorian.

We have one house Shabbat dinner each month and one Havdallah. We have recently acquired 1.5 acres of forested land on Lake Morton, Washington, just outside of Seattle. Sukkat Shalom Spiritual Retreat will host its first guests in the spring of 2014 ~ we are welcoming to all.

We have big dreams for Beit Shlomo. If you're interested, please drop us a line ~ we'd love to meet you.

I must be honest, I had never heard of Beit Shlomo.So, I responded to the post to learn more. And this week I had lunch with the two founders. One grew up in Virginia at the end of the Appalachian Trail in a geodesic dome with no running water until he was five years old. The other grew up in the Seattle area. Both are professionals, one a lawyer and the other the Executive Director of a local non-profit, are members of synagogues and read this weekly email. Together, they created Beit Shlomo, an intentional community (umbrella term for groups where people share living space and share a social, political, or spiritual set of values or goals) that focuses on home-based Jewish practice, such as Shabbat dinners, Havdallah observances, and Passover seders.

Beit Shlomo became official this past July, yet over the past several years has hosted dinners for 10-30 people on a regular basis and have had at least 50 to 100 different people on their rotating guest list. Participants include people who self-identify as Jewish, may be culturally Jewish, interfaith families, and several “JewBu’s” (Jewish Buddhists). They also recently purchased land outside of Seattle for Sukkat Shalom Spiritual Retreat. They hope the location will offer mikveh rituals and retreat opportunities as early as next fall.

After my lunch, I was thinking about what makes Beit Shlomo distinct from other outreach organizations? Is their mission any different than the groundbreaking work of Gesher (Rabbis Laurie Rutenberg and Gary Schoenberg) where their focus is on the “home” and experiencing Jewish rituals, culture, and history? We have Moishe House which uses their permanent space to host programs and Shabbat dinners for the young adult community. And Beit Shlomo’s welcoming ways outside of a Jewish institution also seem in step with that of Chabad. What felt different was that this was very Portlandia-like – home grown…started by Jewish laymen…unconventional…and a true model of “do-it-yourself” Judaism.

Another group creating multiple avenues for Judaism "on your terms" are the Hillel programs on campuses across the country, including Greater Portland Hillel and the Hillel at the University of Oregon.

This past week, Michael Weiner, Federation’s Chairman of the Board, joined 25 Jewish student leaders at the University of Oregon in Eugene. What he experienced was an incredible cadre of student leaders, under the terrific direction of Hillel Director Andy Gitelson and Board President Sharon Rudnick. The student leaders crowded into Hillel’s living room/dining room/sanctuary to enjoy dinner and hear from Sharon and Michael about their experiences in Jewish communal and other volunteer roles.  The students from all over the country (albeit mostly from the Northwest), freshmen to senior, represented AEPi, Sigma Sorority, Jewish Student Union, Oregon Hillel, QuackPac, and Ducks For Israel. They gathered that night because of their commitment to Jewish life on campus, creating experiences with others, and because being Jewish is a significant part of who they are.

The students listened to Sharon and Michael and asked important questions – how do you organize a new venture; how do you work with a Board; how do you raise funds effectively; how do you motivate your classmates; what are the greatest pitfalls; what makes an institution “Jewish”? The questions, beyond the thoughts and answers, were the key to the evening. It showed that this generation of young Jews, at least on this campus, on that night, still has more than just a passing interest in Jewish community. 

One of the themes of the evening was the necessity to “think big” and to think “outside of ourselves.” For example, this group discussed how to provide programs and services to other campus communities (i.e. Oregon State University) where there are hundreds of Jewish students without the benefit of Hillel.

Michael’s final comment to me was, “During the drive home I reflected on the evening and had just a tremendous positive feeling that if we continue to reach students such as those I met in Eugene, all will be well in the Jewish community.”

May we continue to inspire people to create their own Jewish journeys and dedicate themselves to a meaningful Jewish life – whether through traditional outlets like Jewish day schools (we have three wonderful ones in our community) or Hillel (and our two Hillels do incredible work) or new initiatives like Beit Shlomo. Let’s be open-minded that there are different (Jewish) strokes for different folks.

Shabbat shalom.



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