Twenty two years ago, we came to Portland with a dream to establish a home-based model of outreach to Jews who had no positive Jewish memories and no deep friendships with other Jews. We called our home and our organization Gesher, so that it would become a "bridge" into the Portland Jewish community. For twenty years, we welcomed Jews that we sometimes call "blank slate Jews' into our home to our family Shabbat and holiday feasts. We welcomed over eight thousand different Jews. And then two years ago, we took a break. We needed one. The cracks on our plates of china reflected our need for a break.
And so, we took an extended sabbatical. Our hiatus took us to Japan, India, Turkey, Egypt and Israel. We encountered new worlds in us, stirred by a visit to a professor's ancestral home in Japan, encounters with nomads in the glacier filled mountains of the Kashmir, a week in a Kurdish village in eastern Turkey, Egypt just before Tahrir Square, and visits with various groups of rabbinic students in Israel. We have been replenished and we have new dreams.
Across continents we’ve learned that the vision of Gesher is not only resonant in Portland, but presents a unique model for outreach around the world.
Across the years we have been humbled by a life's work that finds us celebrating the transformations in so many individuals. One of those individuals, Beth Hamon, put it succinctly:
"Basically, Gesher is radical. It's radical because it's focused in someone's house. Okay, a really BIG house but a place where people really live every day and they really live Jewishly to boot. So someone who's looking to re-connect with their long-forgotten (or never-learned-well) Judaism... and wants a place to start can come over to your house for dinner. It's Jewish home life in action and for a couple of hours on a Friday night they can be part of the action, help make it happen. Then they can take with them what they learned and do some or all of it at home. Because being Jewish at home is small, intimate, easier in some ways than doing it all at the synagogue where you need LOTS more people and this BUILDING (that definitely ISN'T a house). Gesher can help you get dialed into a synagogue, of course, but what it’s really good for is getting you dialed into making Judaism happen in your own house, and in your friends' houses, where it's smaller and easier to start. Less intimidating at first. So when you're ready to check out a synagogue you'll already have some Jewish time and Jewish doings under your belt and not feel quite so out of it. Plus you'll meet other people who are starting small and that's kinda nice."
Beth has become a student at Melton, a religious school teacher, a song leader for teens, a music leader at services at one of Portland’s synagogues, and a member of another. She and her partner make Shabbat special each week, build a sukkah every year and have parties for Sukkot and Hanukah. For more about Beth's music, see her website: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/bethhamon
Many hundreds have become active members of synagogues, students of Judaism in all our community’s settings, organizers of all kinds of community projects, members of the Jewish community center, and the leaders of Jewish Federation agencies and boards. They have opened their own Jewish homes, inspired by Gesher's, and they have made a contribution to the vibrance of the Jewish community of Portland.
We return to Portland replenished and eager to reach the growing number of disconnected and unaffiliated in Portland’s community. We also, however, have a larger vision. Like Portland, Jewish communities around the country and world are struggling with assimilation and the loss of millions of Jews to modernity. Gesher represents a different cultural approach –– a necessary return to the resource of a Jewish home, a warm and welcoming Jewish home. We have built this home, to serve as a model, and also a village that is its natural byproduct.
Recently, we have begun rekindling Gesher's program. We filled our new octagonal tent for seven different Passover events,—each one a uniquely crafted holiday experience that is designed to impart a positive Jewish memory to Jews without memory, and creates opportunities for building friendships. We need you to help us begin again. Help us get out the word about celebrating the summer at Gesher by sending the link to our recently launched website ourjewishhome.net around to anyone whom you think would benefit.
Help us make it possible to serve Portland’s unaffiliated Jews. Help us help other communities around the world by sharing Gesher’s culturally different approach. Help us help train colleagues to do Gesher type outreach work. You may even designate the area that you’d most like to see addressed. A gift of $1080 makes you a “bridge builder,” and helps Gesher share its program with other communities through the web and though conversations with colleagues. A gift of $540 will make you a bridge sustainer and help fund a family through Gesher’s program of outreach. A gift of $360 will make you a villager and cover the cost of a Shabbat extravaganza for singles and couples. Each gift of $118 makes you a member in Gesher and helps welcome a stranger to Portland’s Jewish community with warmth and nourishment.
Of course, we will need much more than this to build on our dream: to present Gesher as a model beyond Portland. We will need more than this to renew our program in Portland. We appreciate any gift that you can make and we hope that you will view your gift to Gesher as an investment in the well-being of the Jewish people.
We are excited and delighted to be wishing you a meaningful Passover journey this year.
Rabbis Laurie Rutenberg and Gary Schoenberg