Hillsboro was a city without a Jewish presence. When Carolyn Stearns moved to the town outside Portland, Ore., five years ago with her new husband Daniel, the Brooklyn, N.Y., transplant felt out of place.

“I just felt very alone, very isolated,” she said. “I was not used to this kind of scenario where you walk around and don’t see a synagogue or a store where you know there are people like you.”

Chancing upon Rabbi Menachem and Chaya Rivkin and their Chabad-Lubavitch of Hillsboro, Stearns said, was “a true blessing.”

“It was like seeing a family member that you haven’t seen in years,” she said. “You felt you were with people who were understanding you and welcoming you and had all of this history and everything in common with you.”

The Rivkins arrived in Hillsboro six years ago with little fanfare, not even somebody to meet them at the airport.

“There are Jews here, but there was no community waiting for us,” related the rabbi. “We just arrived.”

The couple quickly went to work opening a Chabad House.

They moved into a house and converted the garage into a synagogue. They opened a Hebrew school that began with four children and now has more than 20 in Bar and Bat Mitzvah classes, and a teen club. On holidays, they rent space in local hotels to accommodate the growing numbers. A Shavuot ice cream party last month drew more than 100 people.

But their small converted garage limits what they can do. That will soon change.

Last year, the organization bought a run-down single-story house in foreclosure with the help of philanthropists Ben and Rachel Federman, and in February it received approval to transform the building into Hillsboro’s first Jewish center.

“We knew we needed to do our part and G‑d would do His part,” the rabbi said. The city, he added, “made a historical decision to give a permit for the first Jewish center in Hillsboro and all of Washington County.”

“We welcome Chabad into our community,” affirmed Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey, “and are pleased that their presence is adding to our city’s rich diverseness.”

The Rivkins, who are in the midst of a capital campaign to fund the rest of the project, hope to begin the first phase of renovations within the next three months, so that the Hebrew school can be operating in the new building come September. They want to have High Holiday services there as well.

Chaya Rivkin described a vision of creating a sense of purpose for the community, and driving up demand for a preschool and summer camp.

“Our purpose is to grow,” she explained. “We eventually wish to outgrow that place too.”

Children at Chabad-Lubavitch of Hillsboro’s Hebrew school prepare a graduation celebration.
Children at Chabad-Lubavitch of Hillsboro’s Hebrew school prepare a graduation celebration.

Fun and Exciting

Hillsboro is home to Intel’s largest base, which hosts a cohort from its Israel office every few years. The Rivkins stand ready to cater to their needs, and have run special Hebrew-only schools and other programs for new arrivals. In between those visits, the rabbi has become a regular fixture at Intel’s offices, sets up sukkahs in the company’s parking lot for Sukkot, held Chanukah menorah lightings there, and teaches a weekly Torah class.

“I rarely miss any of those sessions,” said Intel engineer Arthur Isakharov, noting that the class is not just attended by Jewish personnel. The rabbi “manages to describe Torah in a way [that’s] accepted by most engineers.”

Isakharov has three children, aged 4 to 10, two of whom attend Chabad’s Hebrew school and love it, he said. Thanks to the school, the children are excited about Judaism and the holidays, added Isakharov’s wife, Svetlana, who is originally from the former Soviet Union and didn’t grow up learning about Jewish traditions.

“It’s educational for all of us,” she said. “My children are excited they can learn this and celebrate holidays in the proper way. They keep waiting for Sunday to go to Hebrew school.”

Stearns’ daughter, 14-year-old Sarah, attended the Hebrew school and celebrated her Bat Mitzvah with Chabad. Sarah knew the importance of the commemoration, but she wasn’t prepared for the attention she received when the day came.

“I expected they would mention it was my Bat Mitzvah [during Sabbath services], but they got me a cake and then people brought me presents,” recalled Stearns. “It was really fun and very unexpected.”

She now works at the school, helping 5- and 6-year-olds have the same great experience she had.

It’s easy to get lost in the world and lose your traditions and heritage, stated her mother. The new center will increase the visibility of Hillsboro’s growing Jewish community and open up opportunities for others to explore their heritage.

“All of a sudden,” she said, “you’re looking around and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know there were so many Jewish people here. Maybe I’m not alone.’ ”