When Ari and Erin Witkin decided to send their son, Maddox, to preschool, they looked at a number of local schools in Northeast Portland, Ore. Many seemed good, but none “fit the bill” of what the couple was looking for. Then they heard about The Gan: Portland Jewish Preschool run by Chabad of Southwest Portland and found the perfect spot for their son, as they both had fond memories of attending Jewish preschool.

“Judaism has helped form us into the people and parents we are today and want to be moving forward,” said Ari Witkin, who received his Ph.D. in physical therapy just before the couple moved to Portland in 2019.

Like many Jews in Portland, the Witkins are not members of a congregation or official community organization, yet they are proudly Jewish and regularly host Shabbat dinners for friends and colleagues. “We host more Shabbat dinners than I can count. It’s integral to our lives,” said Witkin.

While Southwest Portland—the longstanding home of the majority of the city’s Jews—remains the focal point of Jewish life in Portland, many new arrivals like the Witkins are moving to outlying suburbs that are up to an hour away.

Chabad is also on the move, spreading throughout the region, establishing synagogues, mikvahs, camps and schools in neighborhoods that once had virtually no Jewish presence. According to leading voices in the Portland Jewish community, Chabad’s initiative in this regard is essential to the city’s Jewish future as distance is the No. 1 reason parents give for not enrolling their children in a Jewish preschool and remains the second-greatest barrier to participation in the Jewish community, according to the 2022-23 Greater Portland Jewish Community Study, a major new survey conducted recently on behalf of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.

“We look forward to partnering with Chabad and other community groups in using this information to strengthen and enrich Jewish life for generations to come,” Marc Blattner, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, told Chabad.org

Rabbi Motti Wilhelm who directs Chabad of Southwest Portland and the Gan Preschool with his wife, Mimi expressed Chabad’s gratitude to the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland for commissioning this study and “gifting the community with its treasure trove of data.”

“Having an unprecedented amount of geographic and demographic data along with the interests and engagement levels of our community allows all of those serving Jewish Portland to make more informed and thoughtful decisions,” said Wilhelm.

Public menorah-lightings around Portland attract people from all walks of Jewish life.
Public menorah-lightings around Portland attract people from all walks of Jewish life.

Low Affiliation, High Engagement

According to the study, 56,000 Jews live in the region, which includes Vancouver, Wash., to the north, including more than 11,000 children. It is a young community with the median age being 46. While much of the organized Jewish life is still in the southwest portion of the city, 24 percent of Jews now live in the northeast, and nearly 20 percent in the western suburbs. More than half of the region’s Jews do not identify with any denomination, and only 17 percent are actively involved in communal endeavors through affiliation with a synagogue or other Jewish organization.

Yet the study found that there is growing Jewish engagement: 75 percent of respondents light Chanukah candles; 58 percent attend a Passover Seder; 48 percent have a mezuzah affixed to their home; and 25 percent keep kosher to some degree. The Jews of Portland, most of whom identify as politically and socially liberal, also connect with the principle of tzedakah with 78 percent making charitable gifts in the previous year.

The study cited the extraordinary impact of Chabad on Portland’s Jews, regardless of affiliation or Jewish practice. According to the survey, more than one out of every four Jewish adults who participated in a Jewish program in the years studied did so with Chabad. That doesn’t mean they didn’t also participate with other organizations, but it does mean that Chabad is an excellent model for reaching the people who participate anywhere in the Jewish community.

“The community must develop or expand programs that will allow those who wish to acquire foundational Jewish content knowledge to do so in a no-pressure, supportive environment,” the study concluded. “ … the growth of Chabad suggest(s) there are multiple models that can successfully meet these needs in the Greater Portland Jewish community.”

Brandeis University Professor Leonard Saxe, director of the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and a co-author of the study, spoke about the relatively low level of institutional engagement at the annual meeting of the Portland Jewish Federation.

“You can think about it if you so desire as a negative, a problem or an issue,” said Saxe. “I am going to characterize it as an opportunity. You have a relatively young population—people who are geographically dispersed, recent arrivals who are now creating their own families. That is an enormous, enormous opportunity.”

‘It’s a Huge Shift’

Currently, there are 11 Chabad Houses spread throughout the greater Portland area, along with a mikvah, seven Hebrew schools, a day school and full-time programs on the Reed College and Lewis & Clark campuses.

Chabad also offers programs for children, teens, young professionals and the elderly, along with services for people who are homebound, hospitalized or even in prison.

Not surprisingly, Chabad draws many of the unaffiliated with four public Chanukah menorahs around the city, and the festive Purim parties at every Chabad House and Sukkot in the city square are a big annual draw for children and their parents.

Chabad of Oregon was founded in 1984 when Rabbi Moshe and Devora Wilhelm moved to the city with two of their young children to establish Chabad-Lubavitch of Oregon. The rabbi has seen the growth of the Jewish community—and the larger population as well, as the U.S. Census from 2020 recorded some 2.4 million people living in the greater Portland area an 8 percent increase since 2010—and the impact it is all having on communal and area resources.

“If you had told us years ago that we would have three different preschools, and are now talking about adding one or two more, or that there would be a mikvah in Salem and multiple day camps, I’m not sure we would have believed it,” Rabbi Wilhelm told Chabad.org. “It’s a huge shift.”

Caron Blau Rothstein, chief allocations and engagement officer for the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, said that her organization and Chabad “amplify each other’s work.”

“Because they are geographically dispersed, they might be the first eyes and ears on the ground and can call attention to needs and opportunities,” she said, offering an example: “In Northeast Portland, Chabad has delivered food kits to socially isolated people who might benefit from our Jewish Family and Child Service or our Jewish Free Loan program.”

Similarly, she says, “I recently spoke to someone and the only physical Jewish presence where they are is a Chabad House, and I recommended they contact them. We can all supplement and complement each other.”

Chabad’s growing impact in Greater Portland is by no means isolated. According to the 2020 Metropolitan Chicago Jewish Population Study, Chabad had the highest levels of engagement of any single Jewish community in Chicago with particularly high engagement in the in-person category. In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, more than one-in-four Jewish households—some 26 percent—engage with Chabad programming each year, including 42 percent of Jewish households with children at home, according to “The 2014 Greater Miami Jewish Federation Population Study: A Portrait of the Miami Jewish Community.”

Students at the tefillin table at Reed College.
Students at the tefillin table at Reed College.

A Focus on Early-Childhood Education

If there’s one thing that just about everyone in Portland’s Jewish community can agree on, it’s that providing educational opportunities for Jewish children and their families to learn about Judaism is a vital element in ensuring long-term Jewish continuity.

It is also something that parents say they want, yet there are challenges in how to make that happen. As noted in the survey, 56 percent of parents surveyed said that location and transportation were key factors in their decision not to enroll their child in a Jewish preschool, and more than a third of parents of k-12 students identified it as a barrier for Jewish day-school enrollment as well.

To address that concern, Chabad of Northeast Portland, directed by Rabbi Chaim and Mushka Wilhelm, recently purchased a school building where it is running the Gan Yeladim preschool—the only Jewish preschool on the city’s east side. Chabad also has preschools in Southwest Portland and nearby Vancouver, Wash., which have become recognized as centers of educational excellence.

“If the leading reason that people don’t send to Jewish preschools is because of location, that to me is a very actionable item,” said Rabbi Motti Wilhelm.

As a result, Chabad is looking at expanding offerings even more. “I’ve called on other Jewish leaders and philanthropists to establish a preschool capacity-building grant of $100,000 for three years for the establishment of Jewish preschools,” said Wilhelm.

As an outgrowth of the community survey, Blau Rothstein said the Jewish Federation is going to be creating “priority buckets” and convening different stakeholders, including Chabad, to discuss the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead.

“We will use the data in the survey as a jumping-off point,” she said. “The only way we will move the needle on anything is to work together, with each of us bringing our own unique flavor to the mix.”

Rabbi Motti Wilhelm said he looks forward to being part of those discussions, noting that “the exciting thing to me about the study is that it confirms that Jewish people like doing mitzvahs. They like being Jewish. The problem we get stuck on is Judaism as institutions rather than Judaism as a way of life.”

A Torah-study class for women in Gresham, Ore., just east of Portland.
A Torah-study class for women in Gresham, Ore., just east of Portland.

Impacting Portlanders of Every Age

Chabad’s goal is to bring the Jewish way of life to Portlanders of all ages. Sharon Benedict, 76, has lived in Northeast Portland for 18 years and acknowledges that “if it was not for Chabad, I don’t think I would have learned anything about Judaism. It’s wonderful that they reach out to people like me who have been away from their Jewish roots.”

Benedict, who has the nickname of “The Challah Mama,” was introduced to Chabad by her daughter, Sita, who at the time was living and working in Hawaii. Sita was taking classes at the local Chabad House and invited her mother to join her. “I thought it was great,” Benedict said, “I never thought about studying Judaism.”

As for her nickname, Benedict explains that it’s what Rabbi Chaim and Mushka Wilhelm of Chabad of Northeast Portland—and others—now call her.

“I started making challah regularly for Chabad in 2018. I remember I said to the rabbi, I want to learn to make challah. He and his wife invited me to their home, and she taught me how to make challah. Now I make 32 loaves each week using 10 pounds of flour.

“Chabad will make chicken soup and maybe hummus or a tapenade to go with it, and then give it to people in the community who live alone or are ill. The rabbi calls it the ‘Chesed Connection,’ ” she said.

Benedict, who has three grown children, said she usually makes the challahs on Thursdays using the Chabad House’s kosher kitchen. Another volunteer comes to help her with the braiding of the dough as it can be “very backbreaking,” she said, noting that making the challah is extremely important to her.

“Chabad is a learning center for people like me. They accept you for who you are and where you are,” she said. “It is what you do that matters, and they encourage you and make it joyful.”

The goal of reaching Jews of all ages is something that Sheina Posner and her husband, Rabbi Meir Posner, know all too well. As co-director of the Chabad Young Professionals Portland, Sheina Posner said that she is constantly looking for Jews who haven’t found their local Jewish connection, especially those people who have moved to the region in recent years.

“The first thing people will do when they move is maybe a gym membership; it’s not to go look for a rabbi,” she said. “That’s why we are looking for them. We want to reach them directly. They don’t feel like they need a Jewish community, but once we start talking and build a connection, a genuine friendship, and invite them for Shabbat dinner with our family, things start to change.”

The Posners offers programs that speak to a young professional demographic. One of her more successful events for women is a monthly “moon circle,” where everyone sits on the floor and meditates and breathes. While it may sound very New-Agey and very Portland, it is, in fact, “very spiritual” and quite Jewish, she said. “It’s straight up the real stuff, straight teachings from Chassidut and Kabbalah.”

The Jewish Oasis is designed to be a “living room” with couches for people to come, sit and talk amid the books and Judaica for sale.
The Jewish Oasis is designed to be a “living room” with couches for people to come, sit and talk amid the books and Judaica for sale.

A Jewish Oasis

While branching out to suburban neighborhoods, Chabad has not lost focus on the city’s urban center and business district, and the people from around the region and nation who visit there. Located in a storefront in downtown Portland, The Jewish Oasis: A Portland Chabad House is designed to be a “living room” with couches for people to come and sit and talk amid the books and Judaica for sale.

“The goal of people walking in here is that people should feel like they got a hug,” said Simi Mishulovin, who directs the center with her husband, Rabbi Chayim Mishulovin. “We want someone to walk out with a mitzvah, having put on tefillin or taking a tzedakah box or Shabbat candles home with them. And to feel that someone is there for them.”

David Howitt knows how important that feeling can be. As a child growing up in Grand Rapids, Mich., he was one of only a few Jewish kids in town, and his divorced parents had different ideas of the role Judaism should play in his life, although he has warm memories of attending Camp Gan Israel in the summer.

Now settled in Portland and with a family of his own, Howitt “had a desire to connect a little deeper with my Jewishness. I started to check congregations around Portland. I went where my friends went. I met with rabbis. I was trying to figure out where I would feel connected, but nothing was clicking for me,” said the CEO of the Meriwether Group, a strategic advisory and business acceleration firm.

“It wasn’t that there was anything wrong,” he continues, “I just didn’t feel a connection. Then I was introduced to Rabbi Chayim and Simi, and eventually, it rekindled the experience I had when I attended Gan Israel camp as a child, and that special Chabad love and acceptance. It led me to study more. I spent time in Tzfat, Israel, learning and deepening my understanding, which led to my locking arms with Chayim and Simi, and working with them to create the Jewish Oasis.”

Noting the nationwide trend of people living in city centers with no access to private cars, only mass transit, Howitt said it was important that the Jewish Oasis “be easily accessible by bus or by people walking by, and that they can drop by anytime and there is someone there to talk to.”

A second phase of the Jewish Oasis will include a kosher cafe “because if there’s something Jews all can gather around it is food,” said Howitt. The cafe space has already been purchased, and plans are in the works for its development.

“Any great brand or business learns about their consumer and then tailors their offerings and programs and products to be relevant to the consumer,” said Howitt. “A lot of traditional organizations have not taken the time to learn what people want.”

“That, however, doesn’t mean changing Jewish doctrine,” he stated, “but how you go about packaging and presenting it. People want authenticity; they want depth and real meaning.

“Chabad is real,” concluded Howitt, noting how it is deeply traditional and wrapped in a genuine “Come as you are. You are welcome, seen and embraced.

“That’s what people today are looking for.”

A child at The Gan blows the shofar in preparation for Rosh Hashanah.
A child at The Gan blows the shofar in preparation for Rosh Hashanah.