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Portlands Jewish community expanding

First local survey in 40 years surprises some religious leaders
by: Christopher Onstott Orthodox Jews Rachel House (left) and Rebecca Cigan prepare a kosher dinner at the Moishe House in Southwest Portland, which hosts and organizes social, cultural and educational activities for 20-something Jews. A new Moishe House is opening next month in Southeast Portland. It will target a broader segment of young Jews.

There are far more Jews in Portland than anyone realized, according to a new study, and the bulk of them are not involved in congregations or other Jewish activities.

The demographic analysis, commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, concluded there are 47,500 Jews in the Portland area, the bulk of them living in the city, not the suburbs. It was the first such study done in Portland since the 1970s.

'We're now one of the 30 largest Jewish communities in all of North America,' says Marc Blattner, chief executive of the Jewish federation. The local Jewish community is growing, he says, while some others around the country are shrinking.

The 47,500 population figure is 'quite remarkable,' says Rabbi Michael Cahana, senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Northwest Portland. 'The community had been operating for many years on the assumption that there was somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 Jews.'

Jews tend to be highly educated and urban, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that Portland's continuing influx of college grads and young professionals includes a large chunk of Jews.

Yet the study highlights what some see as a failure of traditional Jewish institutions to connect to those newcomers.

Jewish organizations assembled their mailing lists for the study, and found 11,000 households that included people who are members of Jewish congregations, attend events at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center, subscribe to the Jewish Review, or attend lectures, Jewish day camps, etc.

But the study determined there are 27,700 households in the Portland area with Jewish members.

'What we don't know is who are these Jewish people, where are they and what are they interested in,' says Cahana, the immediate past president of the Oregon Board of Rabbis. 'It tells me the Jewish community here has not done a good enough job of reaching out to these individuals.'

Study methodology

The Jewish Federation of Greater Portland hired Yacoubian Research of Memphis to conduct the $70,000 study, which used random phone-dialing to come up with the population estimate. The U.S. Census no longer asks people about their religion, so that's considered the best way to do such population surveys.

Some Jewish federation leaders questioned the preliminary population estimate released last spring, so the nonprofit asked Discovery Collaborative of Portland to review the numbers and get a second opinion, says Josh Stein, campaign director of the federation. Community leaders are confident the revised population figure is reasonably accurate.

The results show that Jews account for 2.3 percent of the population of Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington and Clark counties - almost exactly the percentage of Jewish representation in the U.S. population. Since most of the Jews reside in Portland, their proportion in the city is higher.

To glean more insights about the local Jewish community and how to serve it, the federation commissioned some 900 in-depth interviews. Nearly all those came from among the 11,000 households already connected somehow on Jewish mailing lists.

While not a random sample of Portland Jews, the interviews were revealing. One-third of the participants were 65 or older, more than double the proportion of senior citizens among Oregon's population as a whole. That suggests the Portland Jews most connected to Jewish institutions are older than the population at large.

Community leaders concluded that many of the newcomers not on the radar screen of traditional Jewish community groups are 20-somethings, who are less connected to Judaism and often live in Southeast and Northeast Portland.

Of the Portland area's 15 or so organized Jewish congregations, only two are on the east side.

'Oftentimes we've kind of hunkered down in the Southwest community,' Blattner says.

Another large segment of Jewish newcomers are parents of Portland baby boomers, who come here to live near their children and grandchildren.

The interviews also showed that many Jews are practicing their religion outside of congregations - at home Passover seders or Hanukkah parties. One reason could be that synagogue dues, which run as high as $1,000 to $2,000 a year, are keeping many Jews away, even for high holiday services: Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. Jews flock to synagogues on those dates and nonmembers often aren't accommodated.

Based on the new population figures, only about 11 percent of Portland-area Jews are members of congregations, Stein says, though that number may be low.

Changes needed?

Rabbi Cahana and Blattner say the study shows an opportunity for the Jewish community to reach out to those who are outside the community's orbit.

'They need to be given a sense of what's joyful and wonderful about being Jewish,' Rabbi Cahana says. In previous generations, he says, 'it was a little bit of a burden.'

Bill Toll, a University of Oregon history professor who wrote a book about Portland Jewry and teaches a class on American Jewish history, sees a generation gap between the older Jews who sit on boards and donate money to Jewish federations, and the 20-something Jews he sees in his classrooms.

'Younger Jews don't identify with (Jewish) denominations,' he says. 'They're not raised in an ethnically divided world.'

Older Jews often grew up in Jewish neighborhoods and associated mostly with fellow Jews at synagogues and other institutions. They were excluded from golf clubs and civic organizations. That world is largely gone, Toll says.

If Jewish organizations like the federation hope to retain a base of support in the future, they'll need to adapt to meet the needs of the younger generation, according to Toll. 'They don't need social work and philanthropy,' he says. 'They need a reason to be Jewish.'

Rabbi Cahana, who presides over a Reform Jewish congregation, has tried to make services more relevant and welcoming by offering twice-monthly outdoor programs, where congregants picnic on the lawn outside the synagogue and listen to guitar music. He says other changes are essential for Judaism to stay relevant, including offering more activities on Portland's east side.

On Monday night, the federation awarded $300,000 in grants -almost 10 percent of its annual fund drive proceeds -to innovative projects that better serve the community. One of those grants will fund a $35,000 marketing study to analyze the needs of Jews on the east side.


Moishe House connects with young Jews

Starting next month, there'll be lots more Jewish activities for 20-somethings on Portland's east side.

It's all happening at the Moishe House.

'My mission is to bring Jewish Portland to the young adult,' says Jonathan Morgan, 24.

He lives in the Moishe House near the Mittleman Jewish Community Center, the hub of the Jewish community in Southwest Portland. Next month, he's moving the program to a house in Southeast Portland near 33rd Avenue and Brooklyn Street.

The concept, funded by foundations, assembles groups of four or five young adult Jews, who offer to turn their home into centers of social and educational activities for young Jews.

The residents get reduced rent in exchange for planning and hosting outreach programs. They might offer free tickets to comedy clubs or concerts, host a Jewish holiday party, offer a lecture, or plan community service projects.

Morgan organizes basketball games, and last weekend led a hike in Forest Park.

'We do seven events a month,' he says, 'in an attempt to get the 20-something Jew involved in the Jewish community.'

A lot of young Jews are intimidated by synagogues and the high-powered Jewish lobby that advocates for Israel, Morgan says, but the Moishe House is just about connecting young adult Jews to other Jews, he says.

The last location primarily served the Orthodox Jewish community, who represent a narrow spectrum of Portland Jewry. A second house will be established on the west side to cater to Orthodox Jews, Morgan says, while the new eastside house will appeal to a broad mix of Jews.

The Moishe House movement began in 2006, and Portland was among the initial cities to host the program. There are now 36 houses across the United States.

Eventually, the house will be funded by local donations, Morgan says.