The Alberta Shul: Building Kehilla Through the Lens of Tzedek
In his thesis, Rabbi Sid Schwarz offers that the downturn in Jewish communal affiliation does not “suggest that Jews are no longer seeking each other out. It simply means that Jews are turning their backs on larger, mainstream organizations that are experienced as top-down institutions in an era when Jews want to do it themselves.”
The Alberta Shul is a model for this thesis. We are a group of Jews who have all experienced marginalization from mainstream Jewish communities, mostly because we belong to groups that have experienced targeting or oppression, not just in the Jewish community, but in the world at large. We are also a group that feels empowered in our Jewish identities and know that we can make a home for other Jews like ourselves. In our first two years, we have been able to do this. Much of our success has been based on the fact that our core team members are of the very constituencies we hope to serve.
Within our small core team one will find many marginalized groups represented. We are queer Jews; we are Jews of color; we are young Jews (20’s and 30’s); female Jews; Jews of mixed parentage; single Jews; childless (by choice) Jews; Jewish elders; working class and poor Jews; secular Jews; Jews with disabilities; Jews raised outside Jewish communities; Jews by choice; and unaffiliated Jews. A majority of us are under 40. A majority of us are from mixed parentage, with one parent who is Jewish and one who is not (both matrilineal and patrilineal.) A majority of us were not raised in practicing Jewish homes. A majority of us are not currently affiliated with a synagogue.
We all passionately love being Jewish. We all love Jewish practices and Jewish traditions. We all love Jewish music and Jewish celebration. A few of us love Jewish prayer, a few do not. A few of us love Jewish learning. A majority of us have a background in activism. We see that building an alternative Jewish community, a home for Jews who feel themselves to be at the margins, is an act of tzedekah.
Infusing Tzedek in our Daily Work
When we think of tzedek in many of our Jewish organizations we often look outside our communities. We raise money for and volunteer at food banks; we send money and supplies to impoverished countries.
The Alberta Shul is focused on social justice. Many of our core team and volunteers come from an activist background. One of the inspirations behind our initial vision of preserving a small building in northeast Portland that was once used as a synagogue, was the way the building was passed gracefully and with much integrity by the Jews who had used it to an African-American Christian congregation, to the dismay of the neighborhood.
One way that we thought about tzedek infusing our work was to build our leadership team slowly and thoughtfully so as to insure proper access and representation to a broad cross-section of the Jews we hoped to serve. One of the advantages of going slowly is that you are less likely to have “blind spots” in your organizational culture. One of our initial intentions has been to start by addressing issues of social justice and injustice at home– to explore the issues of oppression that we see within ourselves and within our small group, in order to gain the experience and skills to act together in the world and to lead our community in that work.
This means that we take 20-25 min at each meeting to read and discuss articles about anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish oppression, sexism, racism, classism and the internalization of these oppressions. It also means that we try to make decisions collaboratively, mindful of the privilege and power that we have within our small group and listening to each other’s voices. It also means that we have moved away from hierarchy. As the Havurah movement modeled in its formative years in the 1970’s, one of the goals of our shul is to avoid building a Jewish community around a central leader. Instead we see ourselves as a leadership team. We take turns facilitating meetings and building agendas.
We meet bi-monthly, intentionally building in plenty of communal time. In addition to our event planning, administrative tasks, and fundraising efforts, we take time in each meeting to offer kavod to one another, to check in, share personal stories, sing, joke, watch a video and we always, always eat together! This builds resilience. Resilience enough so that when we realized after 15 months of intense fundraising together to buy the crumbling “Alberta Shul,” that we would not have enough money to pursue this original dream and that it would be impractical to do so, we knew and trusted one another enough to figure out how to change course dramatically and keep our group intact.
Results of this Work
We have seen that moving slowly and deliberately has brought us success. We have hosted 10 events since June 2017–our largest being a raucous neighborhood Purim parade with a local brass band, a wild Hannukah Party with local Klezmer band and a perfect Portland-style “Bike Through Sukkah,” event and Kabbalat Shabbat gathering. With these and a few more small outreach events and almost no advertising we have convened over 400 people and now have over 500 people who follow our work via Facebook. We have received over 120 unique donations. We have gathered over 1000 volunteer hours. I believe that our ability to easily attract this large following (most of which fall into categories listed above) demonstrates that we are doing is resonating with a significant cross-section of young Portland Jews.
Our next step is to slowly grow our leadership team, incorporating more voices, creating steady programming that is grassroots, DIY, and that supports our community to build Jewish programs that speak to their needs, abilities, and desires. I believe that we have laid the groundwork to now propel ourselves forward in our goal to build a healthy, thriving and equitable community for Jews on Portland’s east side.
Eleyna Fugman is a full-time Jewish community organizer, based in Portland. She works both within and outside the organized Jewish community to create spaces for marginalized Jews: young Jews; unaffiliated Jews; Jews of mixed parentage/heritage; radical Jews; Jews of color; and Jews finding their way towards Jewish ritual and community.