Model Mothers

Ever receive one of those emails “out of the blue” that just makes you smile? You look at the subject line…you know what the topic is, yet have no clue what the email is about. Well, late last week, I received a report from the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) about The Mothers Circle program here in Portland. The Mothers Circle was created to provide Jewish parenting skills and knowledge to women of other religious backgrounds who are committed to raising Jewish children. JOI offers education, resources, and support to these dedicated women through local partnering organizations and facilitators that implement The Mothers Circle curriculum.

I am proud to say that Portland is THE model community in North America.

Started in 2008 (via an Innovation Impact Grant from the Jewish Federation) by a coalition of Jewish organizations, our local Mothers Circle has one of the highest enrollments of any North American community. Since its inception, the community has hosted four Mothers Circles, which have served over 80 women who were not born Jewish. Upon completing The Mothers Circle program, many of these women serve in leadership positions at Jewish communal organizations, send their children to local Jewish schools, and generally involve themselves deeply in the Portland Jewish community.

The program is implemented by two primary individuals, the program director of Congregation Neveh Shalom, formerly Caron Blau Rothstein and now Jennifer Greenberg, and group facilitator/educator/role model, Lois Shenker. You should hear the passion of these women talk about the program and the participants!

Congregation Neveh Shalom coordinates the program, and they are held at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center (MJCC). Other community partners include: the Oregon Board of Rabbis, B’nai B’rith Camp, Beit Midrash Eitz Chaim, Congregations Beth Israel, Havurah Shalom, Kol Ami, Shaarie Torah, and Shir Tikvah.

The course is funded locally through a Community Impact Grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, as well as grants from the Oregon Jewish Community Foundation, the Oregon Jewish Community Youth Foundation, the Holzman Foundation, and other community partners. Communal funding enables the course and the concurrent childcare to be offered to participants free of charge, adhering to a core JOI principle to “lower the barriers” to participation in Jewish life.

Beyond the learning and sharing within the group, guest speakers from the partner organizations are brought in to meet with the group. This serves to familiarize the women with the Jewish community and to help them understand the role community plays in Jewish life. The course also includes a tour of important Jewish locations in Portland including the community mikveh, the Holocaust memorial, synagogues, and the Robison Home. With exposure to the resources available to them in the Jewish community, these women (and therefore their families) have greater insights as they continue their Jewish journey.

Outreach to The Mothers Circle target population (non-Jewish spouses in interfaith families) can be a challenge, especially because potential participants are often unaffiliated with institutions in the Jewish community. What we recognize is that for our community to grow we must reach these women (and their families) and provide them the tools necessary to raise Jewish children. The success of the program, the involvement of so many communal partners, and word of mouth are helping the program's continue to grow and prosper.

Programs like The Mothers Circle provide positive engagement activities for the non-Jewish mother in an interfaith family, as well as for the family as a whole. We need to expand these opportunities so we can develop greater connections with these families and welcome them into the Jewish community. One spin-off of The Mothers Circle is the very successful “Dads’ Night Out” program, sponsored by Congregation Neveh Shalom and funded partially by the Jewish Federation. This informal gathering of dads (one was held this past Wednesday in Laurelhurst Park) with a local rabbi have been very
well received.

In addition, Mothers Circle and PJ Library are co-hosting a parents’ High Holiday Workshop on September 12th on the East Side - another opportunity for parents without substantive Jewish backgrounds to delve deeper. Click here for more information.

If you are interested in participating in The Mothers Circle or Dad’s Night Out (or know of someone who may be), please contact Jennifer Greenberg at

I should also note that Congregation Shaarie Torah and the MJCC are once again co-hosting Empowering Ruth, another JOI program, for women who are Jews-by-choice this fall.

Kudos to the Jewish Outreach Institute for developing these initiatives and I am delighted the Jewish Federation provided the initial funding to launch the program four years ago; we should be very proud of our successes here in Portland.


Let me end with a quick wrap-up of things I have written about recently…

• Last Friday night, the Jewish Federation sponsored a TGIF program in Laurelhurst Park. We are grateful to the hundreds of people who attended (many more reserved a spot but the heat kept some away) and enjoyed a warm, relaxing, friendly evening of music and connection. Thank you to the leadership of Shir Tikvah, Camp Seed, and Ma’ayan HaTorah for coordinating the activities for the evening, along with Rich Meyer (aka The Challahman) for the delicious challot.

• One month ago I wrote about the multiple floods in Vernonia and the community’s request for support from the Jewish community. Thank you to those who made a donation to help rebuild the community. Please click here to learn more about the new school as it opens.

• Good luck to Federation’s Hood to Coast Relay team who begin their journey later today. Thank you to our runners: Mike Leveton, Rich Meyer, Eric Stone, Kat Stone, Glen Coblens (who spearheaded the effort), Ben Drucker, Aaron Freedman, Joshua Hornick, Lauren Goldstein, Leeza Maron, Matt Emlen, and Steven Kahn. And a special thank you to our volunteers: Stephanie Freedman, Lisa Finerow, and Sean Rosenthal.

Shabbat shalom.



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