By Mordechai Lightstone – Chabad.org
In the month of September, children across the country begin the new school year, excitedly meeting new teachers and classmates. The children at Maimonides Jewish Day School and The Gan–Portland Jewish Preschool in Portland, Ore., however, returned to something quite different: a new school.
Dubbed the Campus of Jewish Life, the new school imbues the youthful energy and ethos of Portland, says Rabbi Motti Wilhelm—co-director of Portland’s Westside Chabad House with his wife, Mimi. “We wanted to create something that would truly represent the Portland Jewish community today.”
To that effect, the new campus, which redesigned elements of the original school building, was constructed to minimize the school’s carbon footprint. According to Wilhelm, it’s also the first Jewish Preschool in Portland that was certified as eco-friendly.
Other features include a natural playscape—eschewing metal and plastic playground equipment in favor of outdoor gardens—and a sound station designed by local Eagle Scout Philip Weiss, an alumnus of the school, that allows children to experiment with natural sounds. Classes are inspired by the Reggio teaching style, an educational philosophy that focuses on the interests of the child in early education.
In 1984, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—sent Rabbi Moshe and Devorah Wilhelm to Oregon, the Jewish community was estimated at less than 12,000 people.
In recent years, however, Portland has experienced a boom in popularity.
The 2010 census discovered that there were some 47,000 Jews in the city, twice as many as had previously been estimated. Since then, the Jewish community in Portland has scrambled to engage this influx of young, largely unaffiliated crowd drawn by the city’s unique quality of life, summed up by the now-famous slogan, “Keep Portland Weird.”
”The nine Chabad Centers and 11 families of emissaries together with the school are poised to engage this young and growing Jewish population,” says Rabbi Moshe Wilhelm, director of Chabad of Oregon.
The new campus, which includes a preschool, day school, classrooms for adult education and a mikvah, sits in the heart of Portland’s Jewish community.
“What we’ve created with this project,” Rabbi Motti Wilhelm explains, “is a true center for Jewish life in Portland. It’s holistic in its approach to lifelong learning, and it’s accessible to people of all backgrounds.”
A Community Endeavor
Barry Greenberg is one such Portland transplant attracted by the school. A New York native who describes his Jewish background as “eclectic,” he moved to Portland with no expectations that he would be involved in Jewish life.
But when it came time to place their triplets in school, Greenberg and his wife began the search for one that would provide a sound Jewish education.
“I was surprised when my wife found the school,” Greenberg says. “But we fell in love with Preschool director Mimi Wilhelm. She’s a phenomenal educator.”
While initially Greenberg’s interest in Chabad was largely limited to the school, he eventually found a budding friendship with the Wilhelms and with community members.
It was at a Chabad fundraiser where Greenberg met Neil Benaroya.
“Neither of us fit into the mold of what I considered a typical Chabad member,” Greenberg recalls. “We hit it off immediately.”
Benaroya has had a long interest in Jewish education, both in his native Seattle and in Portland. In that capacity, he already established himself as the principal patron of Chabad of Oregon’s Benaroya Jewish Learning Academy in Portland.
“I got involved with adult education so that parents would be able to communicate Jewish values to their children, to engage them in conversation about what they were learning in school,” he explains.
When Benaroya learned that the school’s student body would be expanding beyond the capacity of the current space, he decided to “step up to the plate” and ensure the project would be completed in time for the new school year.
“There was a need,” says Benaroya. “And when that happens, you get involved.”
With less than five months to the start of the new school year, Benaroya stepped into action. Approaching friends at architecture and construction firms, he helped complete the construction.
The local Jewish Federation came forward with a generous loan to ensure on time completion of the project, ensuring that construction on the campus could began in earnest.
“This building was completed because of a communal vision of people helping other people,” he emphasizes.
Video Went Viral
In a further testament of community reciprocity, Greenberg leveraged support from some of his celebrity friends, including well-known Jewish actor Elliott Gould who joined in, voicing his personal support for the school in a video. “When you have the vision, the commitment and the sheer chutzpah to lift an old house from its foundation and build a new school around it,” Gould said, “then it’s obvious that quality Jewish education can be found right here, right now, and for many generations to come.”
When Greenberg played the video for another famous persona, William Shatner, the actor, quickly filmed a response, teasing his friend Gould, especially on the latter’s pronunciation of the state’s name, which sounded like “Ahregon.”
A video combining the full repartee between the two actors was posted online, and after Shatner tweeted a link to the video, it quickly went viral, racking up thousands of views over the course of a day.
“The response to the video has been exhilarating,” says Wilhelm. “It’s just a part of the community involvement and dedication that has made the Campus of Jewish Life so great.”