—by Charles Schiffman, Executive Director, Jewish Federation of Portland, now retired
Today’s enlightened Jewish community leadership have many issues on their plate, but the one that is perhaps the most vexing, the most risk-laden, and yet the one with the most remarkable potential rewards, is this:
How do you engage Jews who may be very distant from their people’s traditions and roots, to take the first, tentative steps on the long road home? How do you make a lasting and beneficial Jewish impact on individuals and on the entire Jewish community? Where do you find your constituency? How do you teach a living Judaism without becoming pedantic or preachy? How do you jump-start the historic Jewish family? How do you combine quality and quantity in doing all of the above? And how do you do it all with limited staff and financial resources?
Throughout the United States and elsewhere, Jewish leaders and institutions are either grappling with this issue unsuccessfully, or (occasionally) wisely and successfully, or, for the most part, not addressing the issue at all, either through lack of creativity, or fear. Wisdom and vision are part of the answer, but so is courage. How many dare to put their credibility, their livelihood, or their friendships on the line? How many dare to "cold call", to invite people into their homes, to create curricula that will attract? How many dare to trust themselves to guide others into the treasure-house of Judaism and the Jewish people?
Two who dare are the husband and wife team Rabbi Gary Schoenberg and Rabbi Laurie Rutenberg, founders of "Gesher – A Bridge of Outreach to Unaffiliated Jews", in Portland, Oregon. Gesher is not a synagogue, not a community center, not a family service, not a school, but a remarkable combination of all of these and more. To their spacious home on a large tract of land in Southwest Portland, the Gesher Rabbis have invited literally thousands of Jews – born Jews, Jews by choice, Jews from every position on the religious spectrum, from every possible kind of lifestyle and family configuration, Jews of every age. Then they apply their unique kind of hachnassat Orchim (hospitality) – festive meals, singing, prayer, Torah study, counseling, mentoring, referrals, psychology, match-making, and just plain unconditional love. Much of their program is explained in this book.
The testimonials of those who have participated are heart-warming to read. Many go on to join synagogues or even to become community leaders, not to mention the hundreds and thousands whose loyalty to a new-found Jewish identity and family-life is firmly cemented. Rabbis Schoenberg and Rutenberg have had the kind of positive impact on individuals and community that most people can just dream of. They and Gesher are held in the highest esteem by friends, Gesher participants, fellow Rabbis, and leaders of community agencies and institutions. Gesher has received national recognition for its accomplishments. To their credit, and to our great benefit, the Rabbis have prepared plans, courses, and curricula that can be replicated elsewhere. They are a strong and motivational example for those who are engaged in this struggle. Their work is effective. It is to be praised and emulated. Read the materials and see for yourself.
Charles R. Schiffman
Executive Vice-President, Jewish Federation of Portland, now retired