By POLINA OLSEN, Jewish Review
Browsing old Jewish Reviews sets the scene for Portland 1984. Like the article about Israel’s 36th Independence Day Celebration, or the ad for Policar’s Passover specials. Or, the Sunday program sponsored by the MJCC “to find out what the future is in computers.”
Then, in February 1984, one article announced “New family arrives here,” with photos of Rabbi Moshe Wilhelm, his wife Devorah and their two young children, Motti and Simi. They’d just spent two years in Australia and came to Portland at the request of the New York Chabad Lubavitch Rebbe.
“When Chabad comes into town,” Wilhelm, explained in the article, “it tries to enhance all the existing organizations. Chabad works along with the community, the rabbis and with existing groups to try to create new ideas.”
And, through services, education, and celebrations that welcome everyone, Chabad Oregon has enhanced thousands of lives. As their 25th anniversary approaches, the Jewish Review of 2009 asked the Wilhelm family and friends to remember when.
“We didn’t know anyone,” Moshe Wilhelm says about his family’s 1984 arrival in Portland. They rented an apartment at the Shadow Hills complex on Vermont Street and quickly turned one room into a shul and office.
“We schlepped in kosher food,” Wilhelm says. “Fortunately, there were no excess baggage charges at that time.” With no room to spare, they crammed the freezer into their bedroom and invited guests for Shabbos every week.
Articles documented that first year’s accomplishments, like the Purim kit for Russian immigrants, the 24-hour Passover hotline, and the kosher seders complete with handmade matzah. The Wilhelms kept copies of the Tanya, the central text of Chabad philosophy, available in their office, and visited hospitals and prisons.
By December, stories of the menorah controversy began and regularly appeared for years. While some Jewish leaders worried about separation of church and state, the Wilhelms celebrated lighting the menorah in the newly built Pioneer Courthouse Square.
“Our hope is to reach not only people who come to shul,” Wilhelm says. “Some are not ready to go to shul. We have to find ways to reach them in non-typical places.”
Rabbi Motti Wilhelm, the eldest son, remembers those early times. “The manager of Shadow Hills helped us construct the first public menorah,” he says. “It was made out of PVC piping and spray painted.” Wilhelm enjoyed visiting the Robison home and bringing presents of soup and challah. “I was my father’s little helper. He used to tell [the residents] stories in Yiddish and I’d sit alongside.”
The addition of Albertson’s kosher section remains a family standout.
“They brought in Riesman’s Cake,” Motti Wilhelm recalls. “It was a small brownie in the freezer section. It was such a thrill to buy kosher food there.”
He also remembers his family parking a flatbed truck with a sukkah downtown, a project that continues today. “We ask people if they’ve heard the shofar or would like the opportunity.”
In one 1984 article Moshe Wilhelm called lack of Jewish education, —“Genuine Torah, as it was handed down to us three-and-a-half thousand years ago”—the most pressing issue in the Oregon Jewish community.”
The couple quickly started the Aleph Bais school, the Bar Mitzvah College Tutorial program and weekly senior citizen classes. With help from Seattle students they developed a free 10-day Yeshiva experience with sessions ranging from Jewish mysticism to the synagogue service. And, by 1985, the Wilhelms offered their second season of Gan Israel Kiddycamp—at the “spacious Shadow Hills Complex.”
By 1988, the family lived in their Hillsdale home and moved their school, shul and office to Scholls Ferry Road in Beaverton.
“Around the school were all trees and deer signs,” says Vicki Stone, who has been active with Chabad for more than 20 years. “It was rural. The school was an old house next door to a quarry. If you looked out the back, you’d see a downward slope to this lake where we would toivel our dishes. Every Friday the Wilhelms hosted a big dinner. Then, they’d set up their cots and sleep over.” They held services the next day.
The school grew, the Wilhelm family grew, and—traffic to Beaverton grew. By 1998, they’d relocated to the present site of Chabad’s Maimonides Jewish Day School on Southwest Vermont Street. (The preschool is still called Aleph Bet.)
Kathy Pearson, of Portland, remembers attending shul in the converted garage.
“If it were nice weather, they’d get a tent over the patio and have services out there,” she says. “One year it was raining, and the wind blew the tent. This big flood of water came down on the women’s section.”
“The shul was like a shtibl,” adds long-time friend Lee Rosenstock, referring to the small rooms where Hasidic Jews combined prayer, study and a social center. “One member was a great Sephardic cook. She prepared a huge pan of cholent for after services on Saturday. Everyone stayed.”
Today, Chabad’s Portland office is in the same building as the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. The Wilhelm family has grown to 11 children. Simi Mishulovin, the eldest daughter, lives with her husband and three children at the Shadow Hills Apartments. While Moshe Wilhelm once traveled throughout Oregon, Chabad now has centers in Ashland, Bend, Eugene, Hillsboro and Southwest Washington. Portland campus emissaries Rabbi Dov and Chani Bialo welcome students to their home each week. The Jewish Learning Institute directed by Motti Wilhelm offers classes throughout the year.
In April 2008, the Jewish Review reported the JFGP’s umbrella expanded to include Maimonides Jewish Day School. And, Moshe Wilhelm recently announced plans for a new campus on 2317 Southwest Vermont St., across from the Maimonides school.
“It will be the nerve center for all the activities Chabad does,” he says. “That’s going to be our Chabad Center for Portland—and for that matter, for the whole state of Oregon.”