Synagogue
Image: Leah Nash

His iPhone rings on a Friday afternoon. It’s perilously close to Shabbat, but the rabbi answers.

“Rabbi Zucky,” says a sergeant from the Portland Police Bureau, “one of the horses is very sick. The vet says there’s nothing to be done. Can you come?”

Rabbi Zuckerman checks the Harley-Davidson clock on his office wall, with its pictures of vintage bikes in place of numbers. It revs on the hour. 

“It’s nearly Shabbat,” he says. “I won’t drive. Can you pick me up?”

“On our way.”

Once, while living on an Israeli kibbutz, a young Arthur “Zucky” Zuckerman watched a traumatized cow and calf die needlessly because those in charge wouldn’t break the laws of the Sabbath and call for veterinary help. The sound of that cow mooing tears at him still. The young Jew swore he’d never let something like that happen again. Today, he would be there for his officers as they faced this heartbreaking loss.

Rabbi Zuckerman is one of the Portland Police Bureau’s chaplains, the first rabbi to hold the post in the history of the bureau, not to mention its one and only former Israeli soldier. He’s also a pescetarian, a pool shark, and, in case you need one, an instructor in WMD preparedness as certified by the Department of Homeland Security. He’s observed a mock sarin gas attack on the Israeli Parliament and helped strategize Los Angeles County’s distribution of cipro during an anthrax attack exercise.

Prepared for anything, Rabbi Zucky never frets.

“Worry is like a rocking chair,” he says, a lot. “I don’t worry. I do.”

Synagogue Shaarie Torah’s Rabbi Arthur Zuckerman in his office
Image: Leah Nash
Synagogue Shaarie Torah’s Rabbi Arthur Zuckerman in his office

This mix of true grit and Talmudic smarts is about to come in mighty handy. Like the police bureau, his congregation needs a rabbi who can do more than pray. The century-old Congregation Shaarie Torah is facing a problem likely to demand all the mettle Zuckerman can muster: obsolescence.

For 108 years, the synagogue has survived more than occasional rumors of its own demise. Now they are back with a vengeance, and some worry Shaarie Torah has too much stacked against it to survive. Cash is not the problem, at least in the short term. The challenges are more complex. While some Portland synagogues brag that they’re not your grandparents’ synagogue, that’s exactly what Shaarie Torah is—your bubbe’s shul. The once-proud modernist building on NW 25th Avenue feels ponderous and uninspiring, its interior a tired study in dark hallways, dropped ceilings, and cold light. The intimate sanctuary often has many vacant seats; the balcony’s empty. A little more than a 15 years ago, Shaarie Torah was home to 457 families; today, that number is 259. Two-thirds of its members are older than 65, arguably the oldest demographic among the city’s temples. 

“I think Shaarie Torah could go in one of several directions,” predicts Marshal Spector, a devoted congregant and well-known leader in Portland’s Jewish community. “It could thrive with Zucky and continue to provide an option as a smaller, warm, and flexible traditional synagogue. A lot of families desire that. But I also think it’s possible that Shaarie Torah may not be around in five years, and that would be heartbreaking.” 

 “It would be devastating for us,” says congregant Melissa Mills-Koffel, whose oldest child, Aedan, just celebrated his bar mitzvah. “We have a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old, and we’re hoping they’ll come up the ranks, too. All the things we get there, we’d never get anywhere else. Shaarie Torah is an extension of our family.” 

For the rabbi in the purple prayer shawl, it’s time to rev up and do.

 

Until the brothers Blumauer arrived in Portland by stagecoach in 1851, nobody worried much about synagogues. Other Jewish pioneers had come and gone, but the Blumauers were the first to stay. The five Haas brothers followed, then Mrs. Weinshank, who ran the boardinghouse near the river for nice Jewish men. (To her, they would always be boys.) In a handful of years, the growing community started Congregation Beth Israel; Shabbat services in 1858 were held above a stable and blacksmith shop.

These first synagogue members were irrepressible. An 1880 argument about doctrine escalated into a showdown when black-bearded Rabbi May pulled a pistol on a congregant, shot twice, and missed. (Make that two Jews, three opinions and one mercifully bad shot.)

Oregon’s second synagogue accused Beth Israel of “nihilism and gentilism.” Worse yet, Beth Israel was Americanized. New European immigrants created a third synagogue; by 1900 there was a fourth. Three and four combined names and members, but some congregants resented the merger. They found their home in 1902 and called it Shaarie Torah.

Nothing, it seems, begets a synagogue faster—on desert islands or in relatively remote early Portland—than dissenting Jews. “It keeps us on our toes!” says Rabbi Michael Cahana of Congregation Beth Israel. “We disagree, we struggle. It’s about the passion we have in the way we see the world.” 

By the roaring ’20s, eight synagogues represented three distinct Jewish movements (from left to right, if you will): Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. From the ’60s through the ’90s, three synagogues grew to dominate the city: Beth Israel, Neveh Shalom, and Shaarie Torah. Consider these the basic-flavor years of Portland’s Jewish religious practice.

“When I came here in 1953, the Jewish community was very stable with clearly defined elements,” says Rabbi Joshua Stampfer, rabbi emeritus at Neveh Shalom, the Conservative synagogue founded in 1961 when two older shuls merged. “You knew how people would behave and react.” By no means nostalgic, the 91-year-old rabbi now calls those decades “humdrum and predictable.”

Unlike more sophisticated centers of urban Jewry, with longer histories, larger populations, and numerous institutions of Jewish higher learning, Portland stayed Podunk for a very long time. It wasn’t until 1978 that a nascent group of free-thinking families left Congregation Beth Israel to cultivate more intellectually unexplored ground. It would be a decade before these families found their soulmate rabbi, and a few years still before he packed the pews. By the mid-’90s, though, good luck getting a seat during High Holiday services at Congregation Havurah Shalom, now located on NW 18th Avenue and home to 350 households.

“When I arrived, I was shocked by the energy and involvement of the congregation,” says Rabbi Joey, so well-known by that moniker that some may not know his surname is Wolf. “We were avant-garde.” In terms of religious practice, Havurah Shalom was off the charts, Portland’s first Reconstructionist congregation. Turn left at Reform.

 “I wanted something out of the norm,” Rabbi Joey adds, “but I couldn’t believe the deep seriousness of the members, boldly engaged, not just sitting on a roster. Producers, not consumers. This was a group that discovered itself and defined its principles before any rabbi got into the mix.”

Thus ended the humdrum years of Jewish practice. If you listen carefully, you can almost hear the hierarchy tumbling: The reign of the Three Rabbis was over. Portland was on the verge of a new age in Jewish life, and the Reconstructionist Havurah Shalom was the hip end of the wedge (at least by Northwest standards; the larger Reconstructionist movement itself was already decades old). Increasingly, Jewish groups were demanding more personal and political relevancy from their houses of worship, no more prepackaged goods. 

Behold that most quintessential of PDX movements, DIY, and its heady Talmudic offspring, MicroJewry. 

Today, the city is ebullient with places of worship—the latest count is 21—serving a community estimated by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland at 47,000 (though by others closer to 40,000). The spectrum of choices is vast, from Lake Oswego north to Vancouver, Washington, and from Friday-night film night with the secular humanists all the way to separate-gender seating among the Chabad-Lubavitch, whose rabbis wear iconic big black hats. Reconstructionist, Renewal, Independent, and just about all the big brands are now busily reinventing themselves in more idiosyncratic and Northwest-friendly ways. 

“I love having the dogs,” says Rabbi Cahana, who leads outdoor Friday-night services during the Reform synagogue Beth Israel’s Shabbat on the Plaza, a popular play-and-pray summertime option offered by a number of synagogues at greenspaces throughout the city. To “Dogs Welcome” signs add ecstatic singing, guided meditation, forest retreats, tree-hugging holidays, live-stream services, and spirited praying, whether to ancient melodies, Beatles tunes, or klezmer clarinets. Text your rabbi for Talmudic interpretations. Go to mah-jongg or a meet-up. 

“Labels, Shmabels” proclaims Shir Tikvah’s website, to which its rabbi, Ariel Stone, adds, “There’s less weight of history out here, an attenuation of old bonds.” In short, experimenting is easier.

Unused to such a determinedly inventive community, New York transplant Rabbi Michael Kaplan is often taken aback by PDX ways. Says the young rabbi of the Sephardic shul Ahavath Achim, founded by Jewish immigrants from Turkey and Rhodes in 1916, “Here, you have to work harder to findsomeone who will think inside the box.”