Shaarie Torah’s sanctuary on a recent Sunday morning meeting of Jews and Christians
Image: Leah Nash
Shaarie Torah’s sanctuary on a recent Sunday morning meeting of Jews and Christians

Overthrowing the mother ship was the last thing on Frieda Gass Cohen’s mind when she decided to change seats during service at the Orthodox Shaarie Torah in 1942. She just wanted to be near her husband. They were newlyweds, he knew no one in the congregation, and there she was up in the women-only balcony looking down at him all by himself. “I said, ‘This is not going to be,’ so I moved down and sat next to him.”

Just the kind of chutzpah you’d expect from a woman whose parents had crawled through forests of darkness to escape czarist Russia. 

“None of the men objected,” says the synagogue’s diminutive doyenne, “not even the rabbi. And when the other young men came back from the war, the women said, ‘We want to sit by our husbands, too,’ and that was that.” Nevertheless, Frieda Gass Cohen would be 91 before her congregation shed the last garments of its traditional orthodoxy and made women full partners in prayer. That happened under Rabbi Zucky in 2011. 

Today, Cohen’s shul is fully egalitarian; women and girls can read publicly from the Torah and, unusual given its Orthodox roots, have bat mitzvahs. Such was the mandate from the congregation’s former president and beloved benefactor, the late Harold Schnitzer, who sat down with Rabbi Zuckerman upon his arrival and tasked him with leading his congregation into the future. “And when he told me all the types of things he’d like to see,” remembers Zuckerman, “my response was, ‘Mr. Schnitzer, I’ve been here two weeks! Give me a chance! I’ll get something done!’”

In the five and a half years since the rabbi took the helm, one thing hasn’t changed. Organized religion in this town is a tough sell, whether you’re a rabbi, a priest, or a minister. Portland’s overall Jewish population may be growing, but only a fraction—10 percent and shrinking, according to the Jewish Federation—belong to any kind of synagogue, in or out of the box. The other 90 percent, if they’re involved culturally at all, don’t need a synagogue membership to participate in Jewish life. They can belong to the Oregon Jewish Museum, take classes at Portland Kollel or the Mittleman Jewish Community Center, send their children to the Portland Jewish Academy, distribute organic produce with the organization Tuv Ha’Aretz, or swing hammers and build affordable housing with Tivnu: Building Justice. Lectures, book clubs, concerts, and film offerings have never been more robust.

So where does that leave nonprofit synagogues that specialize in old-time religion? In Yiddish, the term is shvitzing—sweating—over the bottom line. Add a big building or three, assistant rabbis, cantors, plus education and membership directors, divide the cost among too few people, and the burden becomes untenable.  

 “Are synagogues even attractive or meaningful?” asks provocateur Marc Blattner, head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. Blattner came to town two years ago, an animated, amiable guy from Philly who is no friend of the status quo. He thinks affiliation limits participation. He hears it all the time. “People who don’t belong to temples, they tell me, ‘I’m Jewish. Isn’t that good enough?’”  

Synagogue services are too long, he believes. “The chair was the worst thing to happen to Jewish practice.” Services are unvarying, and membership’s too expensive. “It hurts my ears to hear people say they can’t afford to be Jewish,” he laments.  

Blattner simply doesn’t see the numbers needed to sustain Portland’s Jewish institutions. “Everyone wants to tell you they’re holding their own,” he says, suspecting otherwise. Then he pops the big one: “Can synagogues afford themselves?”

When they’re light on their feet, yes. “You’re mostly vulnerable,” says Shir Tikvah’s Rabbi Stone, “if you have a large mortgage and fewer people committed to paying it.” She considers herself lucky; her east-side shul rents its space. But Blattner has a more radical solution: open all the synagogue doors and share the wealth.

To that end, he’s proposing a “Chai Life” pass to Portland’s Jewish community, from the Hebrew word for “life”: one fee to attend synagogues, Hebrew schools, day schools, summer camps. The cost would be $1,800 annually, a fraction of what it costs a Jewish family of four to avail themselves of these same services, though similar to what most singles pay for synagogue memberships. 

“With the pass, instead of me belonging to A, B, or C, I am now a member of every synagogue,” he says, “and I can go to any one I wish, wherever I feel comfortable. I think this will bring more people walking in the door.”

Families he’s pitched it to love the plan, but community leaders doubt the math. 

“From a business perspective it’s a loser,” says Jeff Nudelman, a former president of several local Jewish institutions and a member of Neveh Shalom. “When I crunch the numbers, I don’t see how it would work. For engaging the maximum amount of people into our Jewish agencies and building something bigger than we have now, it’s outstanding. But he hasn’t convinced me. That doesn’t mean I’m not willing to be convinced.” 

Rabbi Cahana of Congregation Beth Israel is less equivocal. He doesn’t like it. “To create a system where you jump from one synagogue to the other is to encourage the idea of fee for service,” he says, describing what some argue is the very definition of membership. “I’m going to take what I want from you, and you, and you. That leaves us with no sense of shared purpose or community.” 

A close friend and colleague of the rabbi’s doesn’t share his worry.  

“Anything that’s going to help bring people in,” says Rabbi Zucky, who thinks the Chai Life pass has potential but needs to be fine-tuned. “We have to consolidate what we’re doing. But it’s not the rabbis or even the families who are going to be the final word. It’s the boards of all the organizations and synagogues involved that have to buy in. They’re the ones doing the fundraising.”

 

The two men guiding Shaarie Torah’s 18-person board are all about opening doors. For each of them, embracing change is not simply a strategy, it’s a personal imperative, a means to honor their parents’ dynamic commitment to the congregation. One is Rick Cohen, son of the shul’s beloved instigator, Frieda Gass Cohen. (“Shaarie Torah’s in my DNA,” he says. “I can’t separate myself from it.”) The other is Harold Schnitzer’s son, Jordan. 

“My involvement with Shaarie Torah is more about my relationship with my father than with the institution itself,” Schnitzer says. “The synagogue was a huge building block in who Harold Schnitzer was. When I would sit there next to him in synagogue with my little tallis on, playing with the tzittzit (the fringes on the prayer shawl), there’d be a peace about him, an inner glow. He was comfortable with his relationship with God.” 

Unlike his late father, Jordan Schnitzer, 61, is more at peace with Judaism’s traditions and ethics than its prayer books. (“When I read the translation of what I’m saying in Hebrew,” he says, “I have huge issues.”) Fitting to his generation and the Jewish community at large today, his own commitment is to a more culturally Jewish way of life. Though he hedged about Blattner’s Chai Life pass in particular, he knows for a fact synagogues cannot afford themselves.

“Everybody’s broke. All the synagogues, all the churches. There’s a vast decrease in membership. We don’t need a demographic study to understand that sea change.”

Yet here is Schnitzer, throwing both his expertise and considerable philanthropic weight behind Shaarie Torah, an institution desperate for reinvigoration. Despite cuts that balanced the current books, by Schnitzer’s accounting, the shul still needs a hefty 30 percent increase in membership—that’s 110 more hard-to-find families—in order to be self-sustaining in the long term. Schnitzer knows a wholesale bailout such as his father often bestowed on his cherished shul makes no sense. For the synagogue to have a future, the community must vote with its feet.   

So here’s the Schnitzer idea, approved by the synagogue’s board: two years free Sunday school, membership optional; emphasizing philanthropy, rather than membership alone; and most notably, Shaarie Torah has officially laid to rest its Orthodox past and affiliated with the Conservative branch. 

The latter is a bid to shore up its identity. It’s a calculated risk. Congregation Neveh Shalom is already the go-to Conservative shul in town, boasting the largest Jewish congregation in the city. It could end up swallowing Shaarie Torah; synagogues merge all the time. But Shaarie Torah congregant and mother of three Melissa Mills-Koffel suggests the two synagogues have little in common.

“We did a lot of shul hopping before joining Shaarie Torah,” she says. “Neveh Shalom has great programs, but you get lost in the shuffle. It wasn’t for us. Shaarie Torah is smaller, warm, and welcoming. And oh my gosh, we love Rabbi Zucky.” 

Anecdotal evidence suggests it’s hard to resist a rabbi who throws out candy during services and sets his iPhone to bark. 

“I see positive things,” says the characteristically unworried Zuckerman. “If people are talking about doomsday for Shaarie Torah, they’re not at my party.”

But they are in his sanctuary, where they see empty seats and a congregation quite literally in a steady, inevitable decline.   

“Yes, we have seniors who are passing away,” Zuckerman concedes, “but the fact is people are going to pass on and people are going to join. And when they move to Portland, they’ll go, ‘Oh! Where is that rabbi with the pool table?’”

Not long ago, Jordan Schnitzer addressed members of the Oregon Board of Rabbis, whose monthly meetings take place around that pool table—albeit covered with a three-piece folding wood top. As board president, Zuckerman presided. Schnitzer told the rabbis that if the demographics didn’t change, some of their synagogues would be gone in 10 years, perhaps even in five. Rabbi Zucky agrees, but he’s betting the house Shaarie Torah will be around.  

“My father, he should rest in peace, went to three shtiebel, little synagogues, in our Brooklyn neighborhood. He’d be here until there was a disagreement with somebody. Then he’d be over there. Another disagreement and he’d be at the third. Then he’d come back to the original place.”

A picture of the legendary Jewish baseball player Sandy Koufax looks over the rabbi’s shoulder as he leans in to deliver the rabbinic pitch. 

 “Point is, you always have to have the shul you don’t go to in order to find out where you belong.” 

 

SYNAGOGUE SAMPLER

A Shabbat tour of Portland-area congregations isn’t quite a pub crawl, but in the right frame of mind, it can be intoxicating—or certainly enlightening—since no two brews are alike. 

Here are a few on tap: 

Synagogue collage
Image: Leah Nash

NOTE: Organized “left to right” (i.e., liberal to conservative)

 

1

Kol Shalom

Check your Deity at the door when you visit this community for Humanistic Judaism. No “supernatural authority” here, so no need for prayer books or rabbis. But first-Friday film nights are a good time to connect with Kol Shalom’s culturally vibrant members as well as the Jewish values you might not even know you had. kolshalom.org

2

P’nai Or

“We pray with our feet,” says this politically active, two-decade-old Jewish Renewal congregation, where members dance whenever the spirit moves them. This small, learned group, led by the charismatic Rabbi Debra Kolodny, revels in spontaneity. pnaiorpdx.org

Havurah Shalom

This once-renegade Reconstructionist congregation has grown midsize and established, with more muscle to shake up the political and religious status quo. Rabbi Joey’s intellectually vigorous and searching community likes to keep the questions coming. Except during guided meditation.
havurahshalom.org

3

Shir Tikvah

Until the Willamette River parts for Portland’s Jewish community to cross the divide, the liberal, Independent Shir Tikvah remains the east side’s only full-time shul. Rabbi Ariel Stone’s casual congregation is serious about social justice and Torah study complete with fresh bagels and heated banter.  shir-tikvah.net

4

Beth Israel

In the summer you can bring the dog to Shabbat on the Plaza with Rabbi Michael Cahana. Until then, there’s not a more august space than this Reform synagogue’s main sanctuary, where prayers come wrapped in the voluptuous silk voice of Cantor Ida Rae Cahana. (Yes, they’re husband and wife.)  bethisrael-pdx.org

Neveh Shalom

Gussy up a bit before braving the bright lights and big gates of Rabbi Daniel Isaak’s titanic Conservative shul. Close your eyes and nourish your soul at monthly Keva services; time it right and catch the cantor and the band Klezmocracy usher in a high-stepping Shabbat bride. nevehshalom.org

Kesser Israel

A remodeled brewpub is the cozy new home of the city’s nearly century-old Orthodox congregation, the fastest-growing Jewish denomination in the country, distinguished by its separate seating for women and men. The congregation is committed to family values, charitable works, and traditional practice. kesserisrael.org

5

Bais Menachem

Expect to be showered with attention by black-hatted Rabbi Motti Wilhelm at this tiny, ultra-
Orthodox Chabad shul. The Shabbat service in the yellow house on SW Vermont Street will fly over your head if you can’t speed-read Hebrew, but the dance steps are easy: all you gotta do is sway. 503-977-9947