Vibrancy All Around

This has been one of those incredible weeks to experience the vibrancy of our Jewish community. What you realize is that our Jewish community is a “mish mash” of people with all different backgrounds, ideas, and interests. But beyond that, we do have a shared Jewish memory and a common desire for connection. 

The week began with two teams from the Jewish Federation’s Portland Mitzvah Network volunteering with United Way/HandsOn Greater Portland’s MLK weekend of service. Over 40 people participated in activities to help feed 600 people at Potluck in the Park and make over 200 blankets for the Binky Patrol (blankets for vulnerable children). 

Service to others is a wonderful entry point for many into Jewish communal involvement. The deeply ingrained Jewish values of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and gemilut chasidim (acts of loving kindness) can inspire individuals and families with children of all ages to come together in service of others, representing our Jewish community’s values to the broader Greater Portland community.

Tuesday night, David Forman, Federation’s Chairman of the Board, and his wife, Julie, hosted an event at their home. They invited Jared Goodman of Morgan St Theater, a dessert pop-up that tells stories through decadent and unique ice cream sundaes. Over twenty people were in attendance, most of whom I did not know. In between the three ice cream courses Jared would tell a personal story, relating several of them to the upcoming Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shevat. It was one of those evenings where you are unsure what you are going to, but when you leave, you are happy you were there. 

This event was part of our ongoing efforts to reach Jews across the Greater Portland area wherever they live, whatever their interests. We are always seeking new and innovative ways to connect people – not just to the Jewish Federation, but to the community as a whole.

Wednesday I had the pleasure of visiting Jewish student leaders at the University of Oregon Hillel. Seventeen student leaders came to hear me talk about Jewish communal life, while I came to listen to them about Jewish life on campus.

First, here are some interesting statistics about the 17 student leaders in attendance:

  • 14 were from California, two from Oregon, and one from Illinois
  • 10 attended Jewish day school
  • 9 had a bar/bat mitzvah
  • 7 attended Jewish overnight camp
  • 10 participated in a Jewish youth organization
  • 7 visited Israel before attending college – 6 have participated on Birthright Israel
  • 12 of the students leaders are currently sophomores
  • Students represented Jewish groups including: Hillel, AEPi Fraternity, Sigma Mu Omega Sorority, Jewish Student Union, Ducks for Israel, and Keshet (LGBTQ group)

The students were quite impressive! The shared with me their challenges on campus. Here is what they said:

  • Overall engagement of Jewish students is difficult. Some come to campus seeking Jewish life while others are looking to “expand their horizons.”
  • It takes an extraordinary amount of time and energy to engage students and to get them involved in Jewish activities.
  • Programs and activities will not please everyone nor be of interest to everyone.
  • Israel continues to be a difficult discussion topic.
  • Too many people want to be “a chief” but they also need people to just be involved.
  • Finding a “comfortable Jewish outlet” that allows people to be Jewish in ways they wish to be is important.
  • Engaging Birthright Israel participants in Jewish campus activities once they return is a priority.
  • It’s challenging to have conversations with peers about the difference between being a Jew “by religion” and a “cultural Jew.”

Hmm…is any of this different than the challenges of the greater Jewish community? Engaging people…discussions about Israel…comfortable Jewish outlets…time and energy to connect people…What these students said sounded very similar to the discussion at Federation weekly professional team meetings.

Moreover, they shared their thoughts of what could make their Jewish life on campus even better:

  • More affordable Jewish experiences like Israel trips, “alternative” spring breaks to do Jewish volunteerism, and other similar activities
  • Shaliach/Shlicha (Israel emissary) on each campus to enhance Israel education (currently we have a Shlicha almost exclusively for Greater Portland Hillel serving our Portland-area campuses)
  • Closer working relationship between various Jewish organizations on campus to program together, combine social media activity, etc.
  • Create “networking groups” with leaders in the community to help prepare people for graduation and the job market

All are wonderful ideas and each could be implemented with the proper amount of human and financial resources.

Thank you to Andy Gitelson, Executive Director of Oregon Hillel, for inviting me, and moreover, I am grateful to the students for making time out of their busy schedules. And, I know, that we also have other incredible students leaders and campus professionals at Portland State University, Reed College, Lewis and Clark, and Oregon State University working with students on a daily basis. These young people are not future leaders – they are today’s leaders!

Finally, I had the opportunity to visit the powerful new exhibit, Anne Frank: A History for Today, at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. 

While I was there a docent was taking around a group of adults. But I also learned that over 1,300 school children have already made reservations to come and see the exhibit. With the “ugliness” in our world today (including this week a violent stabbing attack on a bus in Tel Aviv and ten Israeli tourists beaten, robbed and three burned at a hostel in Argentina), I believe that these children (as well as any visitor) will better understand the values of human rights and tolerance. As the exhibit says, this “a way to educate the viewer about our individual and collective responsibilities to understand and respect diversity in our contemporary society.”

And I would be remiss if I did not note that the United Nations General Assembly has designated January 27—the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau—as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this annual day of commemoration, the UN urges every member state to honor the victims of the Nazi era and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides. The Anne Frank exhibit certainly meets that criteria – I encourage you to visit the Museum.

Shabbat shalom.



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