Chabad of Northeast Portland celebrates High Holy Days and a new home – Here is Oregon

Posted By on October 1, 2022

Rabbi Chaim Wilhelm displays blowing of the shofar outside of the Chabad Hebrew School in Northeast Portland on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. (Sean Meagher/The Oregonian)

Celebrations of the High Holy Days have new meaning this year for a Jewish organization that was, in effect, homeless because of the pandemic.

Chabad of Northeast Portland now owns a building on Northeast Ninth Avenue that allowed the community to hold in-person services earlier this week for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. Similar services are planned Tuesday for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

We never dreamed any of this was possible, said Rabbi Chaim Wilhelm, executive director of Chabad of Northeast Portland. I believe it was driven by a higher power. I am a rabbi and of course that sounds religious. But thats the reality.

Chabad, a worldwide organization, is not affiliated with a particular synagogue. Instead, leaders work to create a community that gives people the chance to engage with Judaism on their terms.

Wilhem, 36, grew up in Southwest Portland. His grandfather started a Chabad program in California, and his parents started one in Oregon. His wife, Mushka Wilhelm, 33, is a co-director of Chabad of Northeast Portland. Her grandfather started a Chabad in Vermont, where she was raised.

We are a bit of an anomaly, he said. This is part of our DNA.

After high school, Wilhelm attended and graduated from the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University, a private Orthodox Jewish university in New York City. He met his wife in Brooklyn. The couple married and then moved to Portland. They have six boys, ranging in age from 11 to 1. There are 10 Chabad sites in the Portland area, but the couple saw a need for one serving inner Northeast Portland.

Traditionally much of Jewish community has been in Southwest Portland, Chaim Wilhelm said. There are a lot of Jewish people and families in Northeast Portland, and theyre looking to connect where they live.

They started 10 years ago in a 1,400-square-foot building in the 2800 block of Northeast Sandy Boulevard. A variety of programs from toddlers to adults were offered. Then the pandemic hit.

We are all about gathering and that was impossible, said Wilhelm. In March of 2020 everything fell off the cliff.

The group gave up the Sandy Boulevard space and met outside, in backyards and under tents.

We did the best we could, he said. We eventually began looking for a new space we could use when things opened again. We wanted something bigger. You could say that COVID drove all of this. Looking back, it is amazing things happened the way they did.

Wilhelm said he learned about a building for sale at 4635 N.E. Ninth Ave. Once a church, it had been used as a preschool and then a daycare. It featured 9,000 square feet of space, all the room Chabad needed to grow and serve in coming years.

We had to raise money, $1.8 million, to buy it, he said. It was the first time wed held a capital campaign. I cant tell you if it was easy or hard, but we did it.

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The Chabad Hebrew School in Northeast Portland on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. (Sean Meagher/The Oregonian)

A shofar and Machzor prayer book at Chabad Hebrew School in Northeast Portland on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. (Sean Meagher/The Oregonian)

The deal closed Aug. 12 and by Labor Day, Chabad was up and running. He said the building will house a Hebrew School, as well as the only Jewish preschool and Jewish day care center in Northeast Portland. The building will also be a hub for clubs, activities and volunteer opportunities for families and people of all ages. Offerings include summer camps, studying the Torah, shabbat dinners and even a ski trip.

This is a great building, Wilhelm said. We have volunteers coming in at night painting it. We dont have membership. Thats not a prerequisite to engage what already belongs to people, and that is their Jewish heritage. If we reach out, they will come.

The first official event in the new building was a Rosh Hashana service.

Then, Monday evening, Wilhelm, focusing on community outreach, went to Wilshire Park on Northeast 33rd Avenue, to offer up Rosh Hashana prayers, chants called Hassidic melodies, before blowing the shofar, the horns plaintive sound filling the park.

More than 40 people attended, including Jonathan Potkin, 75.

Growing up on New York States Long Island, Potkin was raised in the Jewish faith. As a boy he said he found the traditional services interminable, and he eventually drifted away from the synagogue and organized religion.

He had no interest in attending any traditional High Holy Days services in local synagogues, but he said he found Mondays event in the park unexpectedly meaningful and emotional.

I saw young people and kids there, he said. The next generation. My mother, who passed 30 years ago, felt strongly that the Jewish tradition and culture was worth pursuing. She had an expression dont break the chain to remind me to not completely abandon my upbringing.

The random event in a park just a mile or so from his home, he said, turned out to be bit of a flame within his soul. While he has no plans to join a synagogue, he said Monday reminded him of a great truth in life.

I am touched by things greater than myself, he said. The universe pushed me into a Jewish home at birth. I am grateful for that.

When the low-key ceremony ended, Rabbi Wilhelm circulated through the crowd to greet all who attended. He shook Potkins hand and thanked him for being there.

No, said Potkin, thank you.

During the prayers, Wilhelm said Rosh Hashana is a time to look at the past, to reflect on emotion and love, and contemplate successes, struggles, disappointments and challenges.

And then, he said, it is important to focus on the future and the coming year in the Jewish faith. For Wilhelm, the past year and what he expects to happen in the coming New Year, have been profound.

Our trajectory has been crazy, he said. In so many ways where we are at this moment is because of the pandemic.

Sharon Benedict, 75 and living in Southeast Portland, by chance learned about Chabad of Northeast Portland years ago when she went to Des Moines, Iowa, to visit her mother.

My mother is Jewish, but she did not raise me in the faith, said Benedict. My father was Catholic. In those days, after the war, people wanted to blend in, and I never learned a thing about Judaism.

One day, Benedict craved a pastrami sandwich and found it in a Des Moines deli run by a rabbi affiliated with a Des Moines Chabad.

Id never heard of Chabad, she said. We talked and he filled me with such Jewish pride. I told him if there was a rabbi like him in Portland I would go to a Chabad. He told me there was a rabbi there who was better than he was.

It turned out to be Rabbi Wilhelm.

Benedict became involved at Chabad of Northeast Portland. She attends events, volunteers and learned how to make challah bread. Within the Jewish faith, she said, the bread is considered part of the mitzvah, or good deed, when it is offered to others.

I now make 32 loaves a week that we give away to people, she said, adding it is all part of the outreach mission to connect with the Jewish community.

She doesnt consider Chabad and the new building a house of worship, describing it as a learning center to reconnect her, through other people who are exploring their faith, to her past.

My faith was very flat for a long time, she said. This has put a spark back in my heart.

Tom Hallman Jr.

503-221-8224;; @thallmanjr

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Chabad of Northeast Portland celebrates High Holy Days and a new home - Here is Oregon

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