Jews Flock to Hip Portland Seeking Culture and Laid-Back Lifestyle

Community of 50,000 Growing Fast — Engagement Still Lags

La Vida Portland: Young Jews are flocking to Portland, lured by a hip lifestyle and laid-back culture.
La Vida Portland: Young Jews are flocking to Portland, lured by a hip lifestyle and laid-back culture.

By JTA

Published April 30, 2013.
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Jessica Bettleheim, a business ethics lecturer at Portland State University and a young Jewish mother, has little time to spare on weekends. Like other professionals her age, she’s busy bonding with her husband and 4-year-old daughter, meeting friends at one of Portland’s many fine restaurants or gardening, a favorite pastime in this verdant metropolis known as the City of Roses.

So when Bettleheim received an email from the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland last month advertising Food for Thought, a festival that included a tour of the Portland Art Museum, she put it on her maybe list.

“The only event that was appealing was the art walk,” she said over coffee during an interview jammed between dropping off her daughter at day care and delivering a lecture at the university. “I might check it out.”

Things came up, however, and she didn’t.

It was a near miss for the local Jewish federation, which has been trying to engage unaffiliated Jews like the Bettleheims ever since a demographic study came out in 2010 showing Portland with about 47,000 Jews – twice as many as previously thought.

The profile of these mysterious Jewish arrivals is murky, as the study provided few details about them. It is widely hypothesized, however, that they are young, secular, liberal transplants from the coasts lured by professional opportunities at major multinationals such as Nike and Intel, or by the city’s casual lifestyle and famed weirdness. Portland, as the joke has it, is where young people go to retire.

The Bettleheims moved from New York in 2009, drawn by the promise of a less pressured lifestyle. The couple routinely hold Shabbat dinners and observe the High Holidays, but they haven’t taken part in any organized religious activities.

“We get home around 5 or 6 on Friday,” Bettleheim said. “The last thing I want to do is drive to the west side and go to shul.”

Jodi Berris, who works at Nike’s sprawling headquarters in nearby Beaverton and organizes gatherings for young Jewish adults, says she’s been trying to involve an unaffiliated colleague of hers for years, thus far unsuccessfully.

“It’s not part of her life,” Berris said. “Still, the survey counts her, her non-Jewish husband and all three kids as Jewish.”


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