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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Portland’s Jewish establishment is eager to bring these elusive newcomers into the fold with events like Food for Thought, which featured a smorgasbord of cultural events including a tour of a historically Jewish neighborhood, a party for Israel’s Independence Day and a latkes-hamentashen debate in which the the merits of sweet and savory Jewish dishes were considered (latkes won).

After the survey was released, the federation allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars for engagement events, applied for outreach grants and brought in a Jewish Agency for Israel youth emissary.

“We don’t want one-shot deals,” Marc Blattner, the federation’s president and CEO, told JTA. ”We want lifelong involvement in the Jewish community however way they want.”

Last week, hundreds of well-dressed party goers attended Food for Thought’s opening ceremony at the Portland Art Museum. Federation donors noshed on mini salmon burgers, drank champagne and mingled at a reception preceding the main event. Later, Jewish comedians David Steinberg and David Javerbaum regaled the audience with stories about working with comedic greats such as Jon Stewart, Larry David and the late Johnny Carson.

The event had a solid turnout – but the crowd was predominantly elderly, not the sought-after newcomer demographic.

“The Jewish youth and Jewish adult communities seem to be two completely separate entities that want nothing to do with each other,” said Justin Chilton, 25, one of the few younger people at the event. “Trying to bridge that gap is really weird and seemingly weirdly impossible.”

One challenge is geographic. Nearly all the community’s institutions are west of the Willamette River, while most of the unaffiliated Jews are believed to be on the city’s hipper east side.

That is beginning to change. Shir Tikvah, a progressive synagogue, was the first Jewish place of worship to open on the east side of Portland. Chabad recently followed suit with a new outreach center in the trendy northeast. Meanwhile, Blattner said the federation is considering opening a Jewish day care center there.

“The river becomes a barrier to people,” Blattner said. “We do not have formalized Jewish institutions on the east side of town, but we’re in discussions about that and the No. 1 thing we’re looking into is a Jewish preschool.”

It’s unclear whether enough east siders are prepared to spend on the funding needed for such an endeavor, but Blattner hopes events like Food for Thought might plant the seeds for change. If not, and the gathering speaks only to the core group of committed Jews in Portland, he’s fine with that, too.

“I hope that [the Jewish newcomers to Portland] know that when they do decide to come to the Jewish community,” Blattner said, “we will be waiting here with our hands open.”


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