The sounds of voices resonate off the tall, sloped roof of the Beth Israel Synagogue in SW Portland. Hundreds of voices run together in prayer to celebrate Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year. On one of Judaism’s most important holidays, Portland’s Jewish community is out in full force. What the community lacks in size, it makes up for in dedication.
Jews have a long history in Oregon, having arrived alongside the first settlers on the Oregon Trail. They set up stores and sold supplies to other travellers. Stores established early on grew and the Jewish population grew along with them. However, this isn’t to say that you’ll find all that many Jews in Oregon today. They make up only a miniscule fraction of the population, 95 percent of which resides in the Portland area; especially Southwest Portland, where the majority of Synagogues and Jewish businesses can be found. For those who have always lived in Portland, a small Jewish presence isn’t at all odd. But for those who have moved here, especially from places with a larger population, seeing so few Jewish people may be strange.
Karen Stavis moved to Portland from the Bronx in New York City, which has a massive Jewish population and numerous all-Jewish neighborhoods. She grew up in a conservative and reformed neighborhood. “It’s not just my religion that was Jewish, but all the social norms were things that were indicative of the Jewish community. I remember around the holidays, the entire neighborhood shut down. People in New York were also just aware of everyone else’s holidays and religions. They all knew when they were happening and would say something. In Portland that just doesn’t happen.” Here, it can be difficult to find equivalent communities.
“What brought me out here was my daughter and grandchildren. I really wanted to find a Jewish community here, not so much a temple, but to find other Jewish people so that the typical norms were there. My children and grandchildren are Jewish and they had Jewish friends, so initially a lot of my friendships were their friend’s parents who had [moved to Portland],” said Stavis.
Stavis has since found that place at Mittleman Jewish Community Center, located just off SW Capitol Highway. She was able to seek out other people by putting up postings on Nextdoor, a popular online message board. Resources like this make it easier to seek out similar people in a place where it often feels like they can’t be found.
For some, moving to Portland has been easier. Barbara Ginsberg moved from New York and now lives in Southeast. “In Portland there are very strong Jewish communities. In New York there were enclaves of [Jewish People]. I lived in a mixed neighborhood; an entirely Jewish neighborhood wasn’t what I wanted.” Ginsberg said that she didn’t feel that being Jewish was the most fundamental part of her identity, but she still values that part of herself. She’s been able to live a life that isn’t defined by her religion. “At work I traveled between the UK, Canada, and the US and there was never a discussion who I was outside of work. I was noted for what I could do.”
Ginsberg did note that there’s a “general lack of knowledge about Judaism in Portland.” This was similar to what Stavis noticed upon moving here. “It took me a long time to find hamantaschen (a triangular Jewish cookie, similar to a thumbprint).” Food was something that both Stavis and Ginsberg mentioned during their interviews. Whether it’s people not recognizing Jewish foods, or those foods not being accessible, it is an aspect of Jewish life not immediately available in Portland. Despite all the difficulties of living in a place with so few Jewish people, those devoted to that way of life find ways to thrive. Ginsberg pointed out that there are “different ways to be Jewish.” This flexibility and the acceptance of the Jewish people keeps the community strong and connected no matter where they may be.