Just a Small Town

If you have not seen it, do not miss Oregon Public Broadcasting’s (OPB) new documentary, Oregon Experience: The Jewish Frontier (see the trailer). The show’s broadcast premiere will be on January 25 at 9:00 p.m. on OPB. Enjoy the opportunity to learn more about Oregon’s Jewish pioneers who came to small towns across the state to start their new lives.

The history of Jews in America has always been about small towns. In many cases, Jews did not settle in large cities – instead they found work as peddlers and shop owners in smaller communities. It was not until the second half of the 20th century that large numbers of Jews moved to metropolitan areas. In fact, it is estimated today that 85% of American Jews live in 35 metropolitan areas. Yet, we cannot forget that our roots were in smaller areas, and many Jews still live in them.

Last weekend, my son and I traveled to an ice hockey tournament in Trail, British Columbia in Canada’s West Kootenay area. Trail is on the Columbia River near the American border (three hours north of Spokane), halfway between Vancouver and Calgary. Before this tournament I had never been to Trail, much less heard about it. But, as I often do when going to a new place, I wanted to learn more about the area’s Jewish history – if any.

Trail is home to one of Canada’s largest metallurgical and mining complex. Around 1890, prospectors found gold, silver, copper, and other minerals in the area. A Montana copper tycoon, Frederick Augustus Heinze, who had a Jewish father, constructed a smelter in Trail and built a railway to link it with mines in nearby Rossland. Currently, the center of the town has a giant smelting factory with smoke billowing in the air 24 hours a day (the local hockey team is named the Smokeaters). During the Depression, several Jewish families moved to Trail, continuing to arrive during the 1940s and 1950s (at that time some 50 Jewish people formed the local Jewish community). Eventually, the Jews left for more vibrant Jewish life in bigger cities.

In nearby Nelson, a town that is described as “populated by a mix of ex-hippied, mystics, bohemians, rainbow children, artists, ski bums, and just ordinary folks” there's an interesting Jewish community. Many Jews living in the Kootenays were Californians who settled in the area in the 1960s to avoid serving in the Vietnam War. The region has the Kootenay Jewish Community Association. It serves approximately 100 Jewish families in the region as the focal point for Jewish life, including hosting monthly Shabbat potluck dinners, holiday observances, and shared Jewish cultural experiences. Most of these families are interfaith, yet continue to maintain a link with Jewish traditions. A few families keep kosher with meat being shipped in from Vancouver.

There is also the Tree of Life School of Kabbalistic Astrology and Healing, which is housed in a geodesic dome in the woods north of Nelson.

In these small towns, support for Jewish life is often about three things – remaining Jewishly connected, educating Jews and others about Jewish traditions and culture, and combating anti-Semitism.

In a JTA article years ago, a Jewish area resident said, “There is a certain Kootenay spirit out there, which is explorative, which is daring, which is questioning, which is sometimes removed from Judaism.” In many ways, the region sounds quite Portlandesque.

After watching OPB's Jewish Frontier, and thinking back to a documentary called Shalom Y’all about small southern Jewish communities, it just seemed fitting I traveled to Trail and the surrounding area. We must realize that Portland’s Jewish community may not have the size and breadth of New York or Los Angeles, yet at the same time people can find their own personal and communal connections to Jewish life. And the same holds true for even smaller Jewish communities.

Three quick notes of happenings:


  • On Monday, in observance of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, the Jewish Federation sponsored a PJ Library Preschool Day of Service with 137 preschoolers, parents and grandparents (50 families). Families created blankets with Project Linus, collected items for the Goose Hollow Family Shelter, created tzedakah boxes, listened to Jewish stories and sang songs. Thank you to Rabbi Joshua Rose for reading, the various song leaders, and representatives from our 16 PJ Library community partners.


  • On Wednesday, our Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), in partnership with the San Francisco-based Institute for Curriculum Services (ICS), sponsored two workshops on “Recognizing and Responding to Anti-Israel Bias in the Classroom.” The workshops, conducted by ICS Senior Curriculum Developer Jacqueline Regev, were attended by Jewish educators, teens and their parents. Participants were shown various ways in which social studies textbooks and supplemental materials demonstrate bias when covering topics such as Judaism, Jewish history and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Students and parents also learned the steps that should be taken with the teacher or principal to achieve a positive outcome when encountering bias. We plan to repeat the workshops in the fall of 2016. 


  • The community is invited to nominate Jewish communal professionals for the Laurie Rogoway Outstanding Jewish Professional Award.  Established last year to honor our esteemed colleague and friend Laurie Rogoway, a pillar of Jewish professional leadership for over 30 years in Portland. The purpose of this award is to recognize an individual currently working in a professional capacity at a Jewish communal organization in Greater Portland. The nominee must demonstrate outstanding professional work and a commitment to the field of Jewish professional leadership.  The award will be presented at Federation’s Annual Meeting on June 8 and the recipient will receive up to $1000 to participate in a professional development experience. 

Shabbat shalom and enjoy the Tu b'Shevat holiday.




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