Looking Back 47 Years in Jewish Portland

Looking Back 47 Years in Jewish Portland

Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone impacted by Hurricane Florence as we watch the storm. To contribute to our disaster relief fund, where 100% of your donation will go to thelp those in need in the Carolinas and East Coast, please click here.

Every year at Rosh Hashanah, a new estimate of the world’s Jewish population is released. This year, demographers estimate there are 14.7 million Jews in the world, up 100,000 from last year. Of the total Jewish population, approximately 6.6 million live in Israel and 8.1 million live in the Diaspora (with 5.7 million in the United States).

Let’s roll back the clock for a moment to 47 years ago this month when our Portland Jewish community completed its first ever demographic study. I only know this because earlier this summer a community member cleaned out her files and shared a copy. She thought I would enjoy reading it – and she was right. 

In 1971, the Council of Jewish Federations (the then national umbrella group for Jewish Federations) conducted the first ever national Jewish population survey, yet Portland was not included. Under the leadership of then Federation Executive, Morris (Moe) Stein, and the guidance of two Portland State University professors, Jacob Fried and Barry Lebowitz, our community embarked on its own study. The professors charged nothing for their services and volunteers (86 women from the Federation’s “Women’s Committee”) were recruited to conduct the survey interviews. Interestingly, of those women, at least 25 are still alive and hopefully have fond memories of their role in the study.

In those days, there were no online surveys or random-digit dialing phone calls. Instead, they relied on the Jewish Federation’s mailing list that included 2,524 Jewish households. They believed the list included almost every Jewish family in town. Through the study, they “found” 34 more families. In the end, the 1971 survey estimated there were 7,750 Jews living in the Greater Portland area -- compared to the 35,000+ today.

In 1971, Portland’s Jewish community was divided into three communities “consisting of young people born here in Portland, old people who migrated (mostly from Eastern Europe and the USSR), and people in their middle years (30s and 40s) who were relatively recent migrants from other parts of the United States.”

The study focused on a few key issues:

  1. The demographic aspects of the Jewish community
  2. Knowledge and concern for Jewish history and culture
  3. Behavioral and attitudinal questions about Jewish life

Some basic data from 1971:

• 51% female – 49% male
• 90% of those ages 25-64 were married. 
• 3% of adults reported being divorced 
• 56% of those over age 65 were born outside the United States
• 60% of adults had a college education
• 75% of children received some form of Jewish education
• 96% of the Jewish community reported a high interest in and support for Israel 
• 17% of the Jewish community had visited Israel

Here are some of the basic questions that were asked:

• Do you speak, read, write, or understand Yiddish?
• What is your knowledge of Jewish writers and thinkers?
• What is your knowledge of the Zionist movement?
• Does Israel provide you a sense of security?
• Is it important for you to live in a Jewish neighborhood?
• How important is it for you to belong to a synagogue?
• What is the importance of attending High Holiday services to you?
• What percent of your friends are Jewish?
• Did you make a donation to the Jewish Federation in the last two years? (94% of the community responded they had)

Better yet, here are some of the surprising questions:

• Do you think it is alright for a Jewish child to be circumcised by a physician rather than a mohel?
• Do you think it is alright for a Jew to have a Christmas tree? An Easter egg hunt?
• Do you think it is alright for a Jew to marry a non-Jew?
• Do you serve bacon or ham in your own home? 
• Do you kasher you own meat at home?
• Do you smoke in your own home on Shabbat?
• Do you have bread in your home during Passover?
• Do we need a drug information center for Jewish youth?
• Should we offer draft (Vietnam War) counseling for young Jewish men?

I wonder what the reaction to these questions would be today?

The study concluded with four major concerns for our Jewish community in 1971:

  1. The present size of the Jewish community may not sustain our current institutions by birthrate alone, since our community has a low fertility rate.
  2. Members of the Jewish community are not actively seeking to live close to other Jews in specific Jewish neighborhoods. This raises concerns of sufficient cohesive social contacts between members of the community.
  3. Jews have a special and unique history. There is little reason to think that Portland's Jews are well read, knowledgeable, or concerned about such subjects, with a trend towards further disinterest.
  4. In both attitudinal and behavioral categories, religion as a force is weakening among Portland's Jews. Something ancient and potent in the lives of Jews - God and covenant - as the foundation of the community, appears to be an aspect of belief that is not surviving.
Are the conclusions reached and concerns raised in 1971 so different from where we are today?

Speaking of surveys, Jewish Family & Child Service is examining how they can better serve those with mental, physical and intellectual disabilities. A survey for people with disabilities, their families and caregivers and other interested community members, is now available to provide your input. JFCS will have additional surveys in the near future.

The ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah and concluding with Yom Kippur are commonly known as the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim). I hope we all use this time for serious introspection and teshuva before Yom Kippur. 

Shabbat shalom and g’mar chatimah tovah – may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.



Add Comment